For the first time since 2014, the world's most wanted man, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, surfaced last week when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group released a video of him vowing to seek revenge for the loss of territory.

The last time the world saw him, al-Baghdadi was triumphant, crowing about the territory ISIL had captured in Syria and Iraq. His forces have since been routed and thousands of fighters are either locked up, on the run, or dead.

ISIL's media output has always been central to the movement; however, as times have changed for ISIL, its output and media messaging have changed too.

"The contrast with his last appearance in 2014 is really remarkable," explains Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Oxford University. "Then, he's mounting a pulpit to deliver a sermon. He's strong. He's performing to a real congregation, as well as the virtual. So it's very rhetorically strong."

"In great contrast, he's seated. Doesn't move so much. He's clearly aged, it's not clear if he's wounded. But he isn't as vigorous ... He is going into the virtual space only this has turned into an insurgency, not a territorial movement."

The al-Baghdadi video first appeared on one of ISIL's media platforms, Al Furqan, and travelled from there. Spreading across global news sites, many of which had reported between 2015 and 2017 that al-Baghdadi had been killed.

Al-Baghdadi's message to the converted was much more complicated, a harder sell - that ISIL was in transition not retreat - from its lost caliphate, turning back into a rebel group, a borderless one, with branches prepared to launch attacks like the ones in Sri Lanka, in multiple countries.

"He's conveying the point that, number one, he is still alive ... and two, there are always going to be people who will be truly faithful and will fight for the cause of the Islamic State, despite the loss of territory," says Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher on ISIL and founder of Islamicstatearchives.com.

Having had its forces defeated in city after city, province after province, ISIL still manages to get its post-territorial message out. But Al Furqan is one of the few platforms remaining in its information arsenal.

At its height in 2014, ISIL had dozens of media offices stretching beyond Syria and Iraq, into Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya. And ISIL's media machine was prolific, producing up to 40 or 50 pieces of propaganda a day, in many languages.

What most international media audiences remember are the graphic and gory terror videos. But far more messaging was aimed internally, through videos that were central to ISIL's recruiting strategy.

"Before 2014, ISIL's media output was produced by a single outlet," explains Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a researcher on Islamic groups. "When ISIL expanded, we saw the emergence of several new media outlets in multiple languages."

One clear indication of the way ISIL sees its media operations came from al-Baghdadi himself. It's on the tape. He rhymed off a list of names, media specialists who have been among the countless ISIL members killed in battle. This fits in with "the Islamic State's own messaging about the importance of media", points out al-Tamimi.

Al-Baghdadi's change of course, his plan to build a global borderless caliphate, comes with a caveat: ISIL did not choose this path.

Its fighters have been conquered and expelled from the lands they held. Its leader has gone from a public figure to a fugitive. Al-Baghdadi can spin the story of ISIL's post-territorial re-brand however he likes. And he will. Because he knows that these days, the message is one of the very few things ISIL still can control.

Contributors

Lydia Wilson - research fellow, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Oxford University
Mia Bloom - professor of communications, Georgia University
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi - researcher on ISIL and founder, Islamicstatearchives.com
Hassan Abu Haniyeh - researcher on Islamic groups

Source: Al Jazeera