An Analysis of ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi's Rhetoric of Violence and Hatred

For five consecutive years, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has produced a variety of audio recordings and visual speeches – since he announced establishing his organization on June 29, 2014. But his incitement-carrying speeches have transformed over the past five years. It began by relying on words that preached the bliss of the Caliphate, based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, to convince his followers of his plans and to attract more fighters hungry for the so-called “dream of restoring the Islamic caliphate”. Then it turned into relying on political vocabulary that transcended intellectual conviction, and that was falsely based on religious teachings, adhering to the “language of arms” in order to deplete states and their capabilities and stabilize the remainder of its dispersed organization, at a time when it lost all of its territory.

In this story, we analyze all Al-Baghdadi’s speeches, broadcast by the organization’s main media organization al-Furqan, from mid-2014 until his last audio recording on September 16, 2019 to see how the language of Al-Baghdadi’s speeches has changed and why, what the language reflects on the status of the organization and what it indicates for its future. The analysis was done through looking at all the words of the nine speeches, whether voice or video recordings. We calculated the percentage of words from Quranic verses, highlighting the rate of the most frequent words and their meanings. The speeches were placed on a map that contextualizes them according to the organization’s influence and defeats over the five years.

There was a big difference between Al-Baghdadi’s first speech and his last; they depicted the establishment of ISIS and its fall. While the first speech was based on 18 Quranic verses from 11 suras, which accounted for 22.8% of the total number of words of the speech, in the last appearance of the ISIS leader, Quranic verses were at 0%. The mention of the word Allah went down from 45 times to 30 times. It was evident from Al-Baghdadi’s latest speech on September 16, and after the fall of ISIS, that he is starting from scratch. Religious language accounted for 80% of the speech.

An analysis of Al-Boghdadi speeches. Click on the date to see which words he used in each speech.

On June 30, 2014, one day after the announcement of ISIS, al-Baghdadi came out with his first audio recording after his inauguration as a “prince” by his followers. The recording was 19 minutes and 47 seconds long. Religious vocabulary was overwhelmingly dominant in his speech. He gave his followers advice, and instructed them to join “jihad” and adhere to the virtues of Islam in the month of Ramadan in order to go to heaven. He blessed the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ and invited followers to emigrate to it to restore Islam to the time of conquests and confront those whom he described as “the nations of infidelity and tyranny”, as if it were all a divine order from Allah. “Allah” was the most frequent word in his speech, appearing 11 times, while a variation of ways to say “Muslims”, such as “Muslim Umma”, appeared 23 times.

Al-Baghdadi’s first appearance at the minbar of the Nuri mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul did not differ from his first voice recording. It was only five days after the first speech. Their words and connotations were similar, and he was keen to appear as the Caliph and the Imam, whereby he asked everyone to obey him and to carry out his orders as if they were from God and a duty to champion his religion.

A month and a half after the Nuri Mosque speech, the United States announced an international coalition to strike ISIS, which launched its first strikes in Iraq on August, 8 2014, followed by strikes on its stronghold, and expanded to reach Syria on September 22. By October 1 of the same year, the coalition had carried out 323 air strikes on Syria and Iraq – in just 52 days.

Despite these successive blows, Al-Baghdadi remained disappeared until mid-May 2015, when he gave a 34 minute and 48 second speech entitled “ Go Forth, Whether Young or Old”. In this speech, he abandoned the Imam image, and put on the agitator hat. He claimed that “Islam is a religion of fighting, not peace”. He attacked Jews 13 times, mentioned who he described as “rejectionists” 12 times, and the “Crusaders” 10 times. He also referred for the first time to “slaughtering”.  As well, he called for defying Arab rulers and fighting against them for their participation in the international coalition aimed at eradicating his organization.

In this speech, Baghdadi praised the operations of his followers in Europe, America, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and West Africa. 12 people were killed in the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo incident on January 7, 2015, nine tourists and Libyan citizens were killed in the bombing of the Corinthia Hotel in central Tripoli, 21 Egyptian Copts were slaughtered in Darnah, 142 were killed in the bombing of two mosques in the Yemeni city of Sanaa, and the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris left 130 dead and hundreds injured. 

In response to the international coalition’s successive strikes, ISIS released a series of videos of its members threatening to slaughter the coalition’s foreign nationals who were in their custody. They carried out their first threat 11 days after the airstrike on ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq, slaughtering American journalist James Foley, who had been kidnapped in northern Syria since November 2012.

The slaughtering of foreign prisoners did not deter the international coalition’s attacks against ISIS, but increased the countroes’ desire to avenge their nationals.These heavy strikes cost ISIS a lot, limiting its expansions on the ground, and forcing Al-Baghdadi to go out with a new speech in December 2015. His language differed from that of his previous speeches, as he raised the tone of incitement and confrontation. He announced the adoption of the “Palestinian cause” for the first time in his speeches, mentioning it five times, while the word “state” was repeated 12 times.

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Each of Al-Baghdadi’s speeches is a reflection of the geographic situation of his organization, and with the passage of time and the beginning of the decline of ISIS and incurred losses in the ground at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. The number one wanted terrorist in the world resorted to changing the language of his speeches to suit this new stage, as these events imposed on him a new discourse for his followers, where he focused on political issues that previously had not been in his literature since the founding of his organization.  The “liberation of Jerusalem” is an example, a cause he had not shown so much interest in before 2016. He realized the importance of talking about Jerusalem at this time, to attract new fighters and compensate for ISIS’s human casualties, according to Dr. Ali Bakr, an expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

On November 22, 2016, and after a year of absence, Al-Baghdadi came out with his fourth audio recording, during which he divided the world into “infidel nations” and the “Islamic State”. In this speech, he acknowledged the loss of much of his land, and called on his followers to sacrifice themselves in order to preserve the rest of the land. The obsession with the “fall of the Caliphate” was evident in his speech, calling for its preservation more than 40 times.

Circumstances were aflame prior to this audio recording. The most prominent leaders of ISIS were killed, Al-Baghdadi lost the city of Fallujah, was expelled from all oil wells, and lost control of the city of Dabiq in Aleppo, Syria. His organization suffered a major defeat in the border city of Jarablus, and Iraq launched a battle to liberate Mosul and eliminate the “Caliphate”.

Walk through the history of the Islamic State. This interactive map displays their rise, battles, and defeats.

In 2017, Al-Baghdadi’s address was completely different. He avoided his usual openers, be it incitement, or a call to fight and hold on to the land. He started by talking about creation and the beginning of man and the creation of Adam, and the sending of prophets and messengers to their people. Then he talked about what the Prophet Muhammad had to go through at the hands of his people from the intransigence, rejection, and opposition of his message until it ended in victory. He also talked about Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his confrontation of the US invasion of Iraq, and then about Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Then he announced the establishment of the organization and what he described as the “caliphate”, and how the world gathered to overthrow it.

It was a first-class ‘diplomatic’ speech which sought to influence Al-Baghdadi’s sympathizers and those who wanted to defect from his organization. The speech coincided with his defeat in Iraq’s Mosul and his expulsion from the Syrian Raqq  at the hands of the international coalition led by the United States, which he referred to 32 times as “America”, “ the Americans”, and “the infidels”.

Al-Baghdadi disappeared for several months after the previous speech, and many thought that he was killed, especially after the Russian Ministry of Defense targeted him around the same time his organization was on the verge of defeat, and as such the liberation of all the territories under his control, including Iraq in its entirety. However, on August 2, 2018, he surprised everyone with a new voice recording, entitled “Give Good Tidings to the Patient”.

The speech was the ISIS leader’s longest, going on for 54 minutes and 43 seconds, and containing 5162 words. Its essence was “do not allow them to overthrow the caliphate, and do not be affected by the fall of cities; we were ordered to fight, not win”. He repeated the word jihad in its different forms 26 times. It was a call for defiance, and holding on to the state in Iraq, which he mentioned 14 times, and the state in the Levent, mentioned 15 times. He also repeated the word “Caliphate” 11 times. 

The political vocabulary in the 2018 speech seemed quite clear. He wanted to exploit regional and international political issues in his incitement, attempting to use the needs of peoples and communities to impose itself as an alternative to the existing political regimes in different countries. He called on his followers at the ISIS branches around the world to intensify their strikes in the countries they are located in, and asking their citizens to support them. He discussed internal demonstrations in Jordan, the crisis of the American pastor in Turkey, the US sanctions against Iran, the air strikes on Eastern Ghouta, and the “openness” happening in Saudi Arabia. 

With a thick, brown beard and features of old age, Al-Baghdadi reappeared on April 29, 2019,sitting with three of his organization’s leaders and beside him an (AkS-74U) automatic machine gun known as the ‘Bin Laden rifle”. His speech consisted of 920, devoid of any Quranic verse or hadith. The word “caliphate” was no longer among the most frequent words in his speech. He did not refer to the “land” or  the”state” at all, but acknowledged the fall of Bagos, the last area ISIS controlled in Syria. At the same time the words “Islam”, the “Crusaders”, the “Mujahideen” and the “battle” were among the most frequent in his speech. 

Four and a half months after this second public appearance, the leader of ISIS put out on September 16 his last audio recording, which was the first after the fall of his alleged Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The speech lasted 30 minutes and 15 seconds, and its vocabulary was primarily dogmatic. His goal was to have influence using the language of “intellectual conviction” that is based on religion, the same language he relied on in the early periods of the declaration of ISIS five years before.

Looking at the 2909-word speech, Baghdadi relied on Quranic verses for 425 representing 14.6% of the total speech. Religious vocabulary combining Quran, Hadith and sayings of the Prophet’s companions accounted for 80% of the speech with a total of 2321words. “Caliphate” was the second most frequent word, repeated 14 times.

This new phase that ISIS is currently going through has imposed new needs. The organization’s leader has shifted from the call to expand the land, preserve the state, and establish bureaus, to a new ideology based on “attrition” and major terrorist operations in several places in the world outside his collapsed Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. He also called for recruiting more fighters and mobilizing them based on new strategies “not based on spatial control,” said Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri, a researcher of Islamic groups. This  required a return to the adaptation of religion in order to influence young people and sympathizers, and convince them of ISIS’s goals again after the defeat, Al-Beheiri explained. 

Al-Beheiri pointed out that Al-Baghdadi’s last speech was linked to the structure of a “ideological organization with branches” and not a “political state with pillars”. This was consistent with the ‘non-empowerment’ phase that preceded the announcement of the organization in mid-2014. The researcher pointed out that Al-Baghdadi’s was keen to “flirt” with other Islamic groups so that they would pledge allegiance to him, as well as instructing ISIS members to attract more fighters using what he called “correcting their religious concepts”, and reminding them of the “dream of restoring the Islamic Caliphate”. 

On June 15th, after the second public appearance of Al-Baghdadi, terrorist groups in 14 branches in different countries began broadcasting 4 to 5 minute videos under the title “the [best] outcome is for the righteous” in which they renewed allegiance to the leader of ISIS. They pledged loyalty and obedience in implementing what he called for in his speech, with the aim of depleting states and their political, economic, and military capabilities. His call in the last speech on September 16, 2019 confirmed this incitement, accompanied by the call for quickly attracting more fighters and teaching them the ideas of the organization.

Therefore, we are in front of “new thought” that wants to expand outside Syria and Iraq, and strengthen its current branches and attract elements in new countries, in response to the appeal of the leader of ISIS and his inciting speeches. Al-Baghdadi’s plan is based on ideological, not organizational, proliferation and adaptation to states through guerrilla tactics, as confirmed by Jassim Mohammed, head of the European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies. He adds that ISIS has now abandoned the “empowerment phase” and the so-called “the Caliphate state” and turned into an extremist ideology on the ground.

Translated by: Aya Nader


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