The reappearance of the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has the same shock effect as that of Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. It has all the greater impact because of claims that, with the elimination of the last territory held by Isis in March this year, that group was close to being out of business as a serious threat.
The slaughter of some 250 civilians in Sri Lanka had already showed that Isis retains its ability to take control of the international news agenda with suicide bombing attacks directed at civilians. “As for our brothers in Sri Lanka, I was overjoyed when I heard about the suicide attack, which overthrew the cradles of the Crusaders, and avenged them for our brethren in Baghouz,” al-Baghdadi said.
Just before the bombings in and around Colombo, the leader of the Isis cell had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
How much is really changed by the first video in five years of the Isis leader? His re-emergence certainly has a symbolic significance, because he had been reported dead or gravely wounded so many times. It adds to the sense that, even after Isis has suffered a series of defeats, it still exists as a working organisation, even if its military strength is much depleted.
But the last time that al-Baghdadi appeared in 2014 it was in the Grand Mosque in Mosul, the city which Isis had astonished the world by capturing with limited forces fighting a large and well-equipped Iraqi army. Isis presented its victory – and many more that followed – as a sign of divine favour.
But it was Isis fighters who blew up what remained of the Grand Mosque when they were losing the nine-month long siege of Mosul in 2017. The reappearance of al-Baghdadi comes at a moment of defeat rather than victory.
Isis has made immense efforts to keep al-Baghdadi alive when so many of its other leaders are dead. He may have been secretly living inside Mosul until about halfway through the siege. Iraqi army commanders believed at the time that a sudden sortie by Isis, deploying large numbers of suicide bombers, which temporarily breached the siege lines, was a successful bid to get al-Baghdadi to safety before it was too late.
Isis fighters were uncertain last year if he was alive or dead according to local people in eastern Syria. They reported that the fighters had been told by their emirs (commanders) that the long-term fate of their movement did not depend entirely on his survival. Many wondered if he was already dead.
His reappearance raises another question: how far and in what ways had Isis prepared for the end of its territorial caliphate that in 2014-15 stretched from the outskirts of Baghdad almost to the Mediterranean? For all their fanaticism, Isis military commanders are skilled and experienced men who knew that they were bound to lose a positional war with their many enemies.
They prepared hideouts, supplies, weapons and a cadre of experienced fighters and organisers to ensure that their movement would live on after the loss of the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, where they made a last stand.
There are plenty of places in which to hide in the vast deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria where there are increasing numbers of bombings and assassinations in territories where Isis once ruled, including in Raqqa and Mosul, its de facto capitals in Syria and Iraq.
But it is important to keep a sense of proportion about the current strength of Isis. Al-Baghdadi is important as a symbolic leader, but the history of the past five years shows that he was never a very capable strategist. He attacked the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who would have liked to stay more or less neutral in 2014. His only response to any challenge was extreme violence, thus ensuring that Isis faced a vast array of enemies too numerous to defeat. This has not changed.