On April 29, 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, made his second-ever appearance on film. Seated in a bare room alongside three others, he was filmed taking stock of his 'caliphate's' last few years and setting it on a new strategic course (if a well-worn one in its history) back to an insurgency. German intelligence and security agencies concluded that it was indeed al-Baghdadi, and thanks to a few carefully placed references to political developments in Algeria, Sudan, and Israel, his appearance was date-stamped to sometime in mid-April. (1) In the days that followed the release of this video, journalists and security services pored over it, seeking to glean clues as to al-Baghdadi's health and location. (2) Disappointingly, his handlers did not leave anything to chance, the security of the 'caliph being too important to risk with sloppy film-making. This did not detract from the video's importance, however. Indeed, it offered a treasure trove of strategic insights, especially when considered from broader historical and strategic perspectives.
In this article, the authors explore those insights through a comparative lens, arguing that the image of al-Baghdadi is a metaphor for the 'caliphate' itself. The authors compare the embattled guerrilla 'caliph of 2019 with the triumphalist 'imam caliph of 2014 in his first video appearance from Mosul's Nuri Mosque. Al-Baghdadi's performances in these videos shed light on how the Islamic State intends to transform perceptions around the role of its 'caliph to complement his movement's strategic trajectory.
To this end, the discussion proceeds as follows. First, drawing on a tranche of internal Islamic State media documents, the authors explain why it is not just what these videos deliver that matters, but how they deliver it as well. Having done this, they consider the 2014 release in which al-Baghdadi first appeared, analyzing both the nature of his speech and how it was framed. Then they turn to his more recent 2019 appearance, subjecting it to the same analysis. They conclude by comparing these two versions of al-Baghdadi the 'caliph,' observing how projections of his authority changed with time to reflect the shifting operational essence of the Islamic State and his supposed status as amir al-mu'minin.
Framing, Propaganda, and the Islamic State
In 2018, a new collection of documents was added to the Department of Defense's Harmony Archive. (3) Captured in 2016 and 2017 during "operations targeting senior Islamic State Khurasan personnel in Afghanistan," they were comprehensively analysed in Daniel Milton's 2018 CTC report, Pulling Back the Curtain: An Inside Look at the Islamic State's Media Organization. (4)
One document that did not bear much scrutiny in that report but that stands out as particularly relevant for the discussion at hand was entitled "A short summary for the media mujahid on the topic of photography." (5) Stipulating how Islamic State media operatives should work through the pre-, mid- and post-production process, it explains that videography is at the "core of jihadi media work," and for that reason, it should be done well. During any filming, it states, three components--framing, the rule of thirds, and the exposure triangle--should be considered as things upon which the success and meaning of the video "depends." The latter two refer to technical compositional matters like perspective, lighting, and focus. While they are important, it is the first component--framing--that matters most here.
The principal aim of framing, the document explains, is to aid the transmission of the "intended message." (6) Any project that does not take it into account risks failure "from all perspectives," and for that reason, media operatives should "absolutely never" attempt to make propaganda without it in mind. Instead, they need to take "everything" into account, starting with the intended "message and idea" and "ending with the angles of the shots."
The document goes on to describe what effective framing looks like, using the example of a hypothetical video geared toward "promot[ing] the faith of the soldiers of the Islamic State." First, it suggests that these soldiers, whoever and wherever they are, should be filmed while sitting in a study circle around a sheikh. This setting is presumably being suggested because it would imply they are obedient and devoted Muslims. The soldiers should also be "wearing the same uniform except for the sheikh who is wearing different clothes." This would cement their position as students and the sheikh's as their teacher. Moreover, they should be sat on the ground with the sheikh above them "on a chair [with] a table in front of him and on the table books and a half-filled water bottle." The sheikh's elevated position would signify his importance, the books on his desk his intellect, and the half-empty bottle the fact that he has been lecturing for some time already. As well as this, the document suggests a few recommended "angles of filming"--among other things, eye-level shots of "the brothers sitting in circles" and footage captured from behind one of them to "show the sheikh" sitting above--and notes that the various contents of the scene (in this case, books, clothes, bottles, chairs, and desks) should all be "related to the intended message" of the final product.
If this is anything to go by--and it should be, considering it was produced by the Central Media Directorate and disseminated internally as instructional advice for distant production offices (7)--the Islamic State thinks through the framing of its propaganda very carefully, leaving nothing to chance and investing everything with meaning. Applying this knowledge to the present context, it is not enough to simply consider what al-Baghdadi says and does in these videos. How he says it and the theater of the presentation matter just as much.
Video I: The Spiritual Savant
On July 5,2014, Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State's official media dissemination network circulated links to a video entitled "Exclusive coverage of the Friday khutbah and prayer in the Grand Masjid of Mosul." (8) Produced by the Furqan Media Foundation, the Islamic State's oldest and most important propaganda office, it was some 20 minutes long and released the day after al-Baghdadi made his first physical appearance as 'caliph.' Pared back, containing none of the usual graphics or audio overlays associated with the Islamic State's media output, the video showed al-Baghdadi, its newly declared 'caliph,' giving his first sermon to the 'people' of Mosul. Aside from a short sequence showing the outside of the mosque, there was little else to it.
Speaking generally about the idea of the Islamic State and only referring to its enemies in abstract terms, al-Baghdadi called on his supporters to "perform jihad fi sabilillah (incite the believers and be patient upon this hardship)," noting that the rewards for doing so were multiplied during the month of Ramadan, which was then ongoing. There were only a few times at which he went beyond generalities like these.
Al-Baghdadi also provided an account of the significance of Ramadan, establishing some of the rudiments of the Islamic State's take on it specifically and Islam generally. Dressed in black, channelling the image of the Abbasid...