BAGHDAD — A man purporting to be the leader of the Sunni extremist group that has declared an Islamic state in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria has made what would be his first public appearance, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq’s second-largest city, according to a video posted online Saturday.
The 21-minute video that is said to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State group, was reportedly filmed Friday at the Great Mosque in the northern city of Mosul. It was not possible to independently verify whether the person shown was al-Baghdadi.
There are only a few known photographs of al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant believed to be in his early 40s with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. Since taking the reins of the group in 2010, he has transformed it from a local branch of al-Qaida into an independent transnational military force, positioning himself as perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the global jihadi community.
Al-Baghdadi’s purported appearance in Mosul, a city of some 2 million that the militants seized last month, came five days after his group declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the territories it seized in Iraq and Syria. The group proclaimed al-Baghdadi the leader of its state and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him. In the video, he is referred to as the Caliph Ibrahim.
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In the video, the man said to be al-Baghdadi says: “It is a burden to accept this responsibility to be in charge of you. I am not better than you or more virtuous than you. If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”
Speaking in classical Arabic with little emotion, he outlines a vision that emphasizes holy war, the implementation of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the philosophy that the establishment of an Islamic caliphate is a duty incumbent on all Muslims.
He is dressed in black robes and a black turban, a sign that he claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad. He has dark eyes, thick eyebrows and a full black beard with streaks of gray on the sides.
The appearance of al-Baghdadi at such a public gathering underscored the transition that the Islamic State, once a shadowy terrorist group most recently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is making to assert itself as a sovereign entity. Before the release of the video, the only known images of al-Baghdadi were the grainy photos released by the Iraqi government or displayed on the U.S. wanted poster offering the $10 million reward.
The video, however, was shot in high definition, making it seemingly easy for U.S. authorities to verify that he is the man they called Abu Dua on his wanted poster and whose “biometric” data presumably was collected during the five years or so he was a prisoner at the U.S. military’s Camp Bucca detention center in Iraq.
U.S. officials offered no comment Saturday.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official said that after an initial analysis, the man in the video is believed to be al-Baghdadi. The official said the arrival of a large convoy in Mosul around midday Friday coincided with the blocking of cellular networks in the area. He says the cellular signal returned after the convoy departed.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on militant factions in Syria and Iraq, said al-Baghdadi has come under some criticism since unilaterally declaring the establishment of a caliphate, in part for not appearing before the people.
“He had declared himself caliph, he couldn’t hide away. He had to make an appearance at some time,” al-Tamimi said. Traditionally, a Muslim ruler is expected to live among the people, and to preach the sermon before communal Friday prayers.
“The fact that he has done this without any consequences in Mosul’s biggest mosque is a sign of (the Islamic State group’s) power within the city,” said al-Tamimi. He said it would likely boost the morale of al-Baghdadi’s fighters, and deal a blow to the group’s rivals.
Another aspect of the rule al-Baghdadi envisions was made clear in a series of images that emerged online late Saturday showing the destruction of at least 10 ancient shrines and Shiite mosques in territory his group controls.
The 21 photographs posted on a website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group document the destruction in Mosul and the town of Tal Afar. Some of the photos show bulldozers plowing through walls, while others show explosives demolishing the buildings in a cloud of smoke and rubble.
Residents from Mosul and Tal Afar confirmed the destruction of the sites.
Sunni extremists consider Shiite Muslims heretics, and the veneration of saints apostasy.
Material from McClatchy Foreign Bureau is included in this report.