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ISIS Leader Makes 1st Appearance In 5 Years During Video Released By Group


An ISIS website has posted a video that's purported to be of the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is the first time he has appeared in a video in nearly five years. The last time was in 2014 when he declared the formation of the so-called caliphate from the city of Mosul in Iraq. Since then, ISIS has been forced out of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. But the video talks about the group's global presence.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut. Hey, Ruth.


CHANG: So can you just tell us a little more about this video?

SHERLOCK: Yeah, so in the video, Baghdadi is sitting cross-legged on the floor, and he's got this big, thick graying beard that's been dyed red at the edges, or at least it looks like it's been dyed. And there's a Kalashnikov weapon at his side. And he's talking about ISIS's global reach. So he praises ISIS members in Libya, in Mali, in Burkina Faso. Here he is talking.


ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here, he's actually congratulating the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks, the ones on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that left more than...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: ...Two hundred fifty people dead recently. If this video is him, as you say, you know, this is his first appearance in five years. But it's under very different conditions. You know, back then, it was a celebratory video for him. He'd managed to proclaim huge parts of Iraq and Syria as the new Islamic State or caliphate.

Today, he says he's still the leader, but he has actually very little territory to rule over. So this is really a rallying cry to supporters around the world. He does acknowledge the defeat in Baghouz - that was the last ISIS-held territory in Syria - but, you know, vows to fight on.

CHANG: So how do we know this video is even real?

SHERLOCK: We can't say that for sure, but it is being treated seriously by experts. And you know, it does look a lot like him. He even - and the events he mentions are current. So for example, he refers to the recent demise of the leaders in Algeria and Sudan.

CHANG: So you mentioned that he says in this video the fight goes on. But what does that even look like at this point?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, they have very little territory, but there are still thousands of ISIS fighters around in Syria and in Iraq. And of course there's whole chapters in Afghanistan, in Asia. And although this group is reviled and rejected by most Muslims, they're calling on whoever they can to get support.

So you know, the concern now is that they could get footholds in places where there's already sectarian divisions or instability. To some extent, you're seeing that, you know, a little in parts of Iraq, where in some towns ISIS has managed to creep back in or at least ISIS has managed to get some support.

CHANG: And what has been the response from the U.S. to this new video?

SHERLOCK: Well, they're saying they're checking the veracity of the video. They think that he was injured at some point in the past, although - and certainly reports of his death, of which there've been multiple, have never been confirmed. The U.S. has put a $25 million bounty on his head. And there's also still 2,000 troops in Syria even though Trump said that ISIS was defeated and that the troops would be withdrawn. So they still have a presence there.

CHANG: Right. That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thanks, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.