Rumours have been going around for weeks about the status of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Several journalists in the Middle East have reported that Baghdadi is incapacitated from a spinal injury he sustained in an air strike. The face of the terror group that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria was reportedly hurt so badly that he can barely move.
And now, in another sign that Baghdadi is out of commission at the moment, his no.2 Abu Alaa Afri gave a speech during Friday prayers at the same Mosul mosque Baghdadi appeared at when he declared himself caliph of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), according to strategic security firm The Soufan Group.
The Guardian and Newsweek have previously reported that Afri, a former physics teacher from Mosul, took over as temporary leader of ISIS in Baghdadi’s absence, though the Pentagon is still denying that Baghdadi is injured.
Afri said during his Mosul speech that “the coming days are difficult,” but did not specifically address the rumours about Baghdadi’s health, according to The Soufan Group.
The research service also noted that some changes might be coming to ISIS if Afri takes over for good.
Soufan noted that Afri’s speech coincided with an outbreak of tweets from ISIS accounts warning of attacks in London and on commercial flights. These threats are likely designed to “[force] reactions even in the absence of a preceding action,” according to Soufan. Afri’s strategy might also involve encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks in the West by those who support ISIS but might not be directly connected to its core leaders in the Middle East.
An Iraqi government adviser told Newsweek that Afri is a “rising star” within ISIS, and that he had become even more important than Baghdadi.
Afri is reportedly a follower of Abu Musaab al-Suri, a prominent jihadi scholar. The source also described him as “a good public speaker” who has “strong charisma,” good leadership capabilities, and “much jihadi wisdom.”
Having a caliph with a background of religious education is important to ISIS, which has shaped its self-proclaimed caliphate around a strict interpretation of sharia law. The group recruits people to live in its territory by marketing it as an Islamic utopia.
Der Spiegel recently reported recently that early leaders of ISIS, many of whom are former Iraqi intelligence officers from the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, decided to make Baghdadi a caliph because he, as an “educated cleric,” would “give the group a religious face.”
Sources close to ISIS told The Guardian earlier this month that Baghdadi’s injuries are so serious that he might never be able to lead ISIS again. He was reportedly wounded in an airstrike by the US-led coalition in March.
One ISIS source told The Guardian that the group is “planning to fight back against Europe” because “they want to take revenge for Baghdadi.” Jamie Detmer of The Daily Beast reported that the caliph is being treated by doctors who support ISIS in the Syrian ISIS capital of Raqqa.
Two officials, one Western and one Iraqi, previously confirmed to The Guardian that the airstrike in question targeted multiple cars in the town of Baaj in northwestern Iraq on March 18, but the Pentagon said the airstrike was not aimed at a high-value target and that it had “no reason to believe it was Baghdadi.”
The Guardian reported that officials didn’t know that Baghdadi was in one of the cars targeted in the airstrike.
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