Baghdad: Wearing a black turban and robes, the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that stretches across eastern Syria and much of northern and western Iraq made a startling public appearance, his first in many years, at a well-known mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
There had been only a couple of photographs of him on the internet until the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant released a 21-minute video of a sermon he gave on Friday.
ISIL's leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took the all but unprecedented step of appearing in a city once under US control with an audacity that even Osama bin Laden had not attempted.
A video released online shows the man said to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi talking in the Mosul mosque. Photo: AP
Previously he had been all but invisible, seemingly reluctant to risk a public appearance as his group grew in strength and he became the second-most sought after terrorist (after Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda) by the US government, which offered a $US10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
But on Friday in the pulpit of Mosul's Great Mosque, Baghdadi appeared confident, calm and measured as he gave the sermon, urging the faithful to fast during Ramadan and undertake jihad.
"If you want security, respect God," he said. "If you want a livelihood, respect God. And if you want an honourable life, fight jihad in the name of God."
''If you want an honorable life, fight jihad in the name of God,'' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preached. Photo: AP
He also asserted in no uncertain terms his new position as caliph, or spiritual leader, of the Muslim faithful, calling himself "Khalifa Ibrahim" or caliph Abraham, a reference to the prophet Abraham, who appears in the Koran. Baghdadi's militant group declared its territory in Iraq and Syria a caliphate, or Islamic state, on June 29.
"Do jihad in the cause of Allah, incite the believers and be patient in the face of this hardship," he told the congregation. "If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it."
ISIL militants took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 10, after the army fled. ISIL fighters patrol the streets, and while some people have gone back to work, the city is far from normal.
An undated photo of Baghdadi, released by the US State Department. Photo: AP
The congregants at the mosque who were gathered before him in the video had been ordered to come to the Friday prayer, said a man who was there, but asked not to be named.
When the worshippers arrived at the mosque, they were searched thoroughly by ISIL fighters who were patrolling with guns, and the congregants were told where and how to sit, the man said. No one was allowed to leave until 10 minutes after the end of Baghdadi's sermon, the man said.
Another eyewitness said: "A man from the group started to speak to us in a loud tone in eloquent Arabic saying that Amir al-Mu'mineen [Commander of the Faithful] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is here to give Friday's speech, and he asked everybody not to use mobiles to take photos or film, for security reasons."
Another worshipper added: "The speech lasted for around 20 minutes, then the man wearing black who was introduced to us as al-Baghdadi took the lead in the Friday prayer and then, after finishing, he left with dozens of his followers in a long motorcade."
This was no rushed cameo appearance by Baghdadi, but a carefully crafted speech in which he struck an almost humble and pious tone that was difficult to square with the group's tactics on the ground, which include kidnapping for ransom, summary executions and beheadings, as he asked for the congregation's support.
"I was placed as your caretaker, and I am not better than you," he said. "So if you found me to be right, then help me, and if you found me to be wrong, then advise me and make me right," he said in a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.
Saad Maan of the Iraqi Interior Ministry told Reuters the Iraqi government believed the video was fake. General Maan said government forces had recently wounded Baghdadi in an air strike and that he had been transferred by Islamic State militants to Syria for medical treatment, but declined to give further details.
However, SITE as well as jihadi experts indicated that the video appeared to be authentic. And two people interviewed who were in the mosque when Baghdadi spoke said they had no question it was him. But they had never seen him before, so their certainty was based primarily on how the ISIL fighters treated him.
Baghdadi's address endeavoured to introduce him as the new spiritual leader of Sunni Muslims and to prod people to embrace jihad.
ISIL's announcement of the new caliphate was not taken entirely seriously by other jihadi groups, but in his appearance in Mosul, Baghdadi appeared to be sending a message that this was the new reality.
New York Times, Reuters, AFP