The State Department said today it has “no reason to doubt” that the shadowy leader of a powerful Iraqi terror group revealed himself before a crowded mosque over the weekend, providing the first clear picture of the violent extremist who now believes himself to be the prince of all Muslims.
For years the public only saw Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (IS) formerly known as ISIS or ISIL, in a couple grainy pictures, like the one posted on the U.S. Rewards for Justice program wanted poster offering $10 million for information leading to his capture. But Friday a man looking very much like al-Baghdadi stepped into the spotlight, giving a fiery sermon at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in which he called for all Muslims to follow him.
“I was cursed with this great endeavor,” a 21-minute video of the event shows the man saying in Arabic. “Obey me in my obedience to God, disobey me if I disobey God.”
After the video’s release, U.S. intelligence agencies said they were analyzing the footage and could not immediately confirm that the man seen was al-Baghdadi, the 43-year-old who led his group to take over regions of Syria and vast swaths of Iraq. A spokesperson for the Iraqi Interior Ministry reportedly told Reuters the video was a fake -- al-Baghdadi had been reported in Iraqi media as gravely wounded not long before.
But today a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Jen Psaki, said the department had “no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video.”
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who tracked al-Baghdadi’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, told ABC News al-Baghdadi had forced himself to step from the shadows, even if it meant “definitely taking a risk, security-wise.”
“This would be in line with where he’s trying to take the organization,” Bakos said. “He has to present himself as a leader. This was the next step… He has to come out and declare what he, as the caliph, expects from other Muslims.”
Another U.S. government official, who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity, agreed, calling the speech a "fairly logical, albeit unprecedented step."
In the recording, which was heavily promoted on IS social media accounts, al-Baghdadi does not directly threaten the U.S. as he has in the past. Still, Psaki said, “There are threats that are relevant to the United States and we’re concerned that these threats, and what’s happening in the region, could pose a threat to the United States.”
One apparent threat from the region appears to be that of explosives potentially hidden in electronic devices and smuggled onto U.S.- or Europe-bound airlines. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said Sunday some oversees passengers flying to the U.S. will have to prove that their electronic devices can turn on – a move historically designed to ensure the device wasn’t a dummy filled with illicit materials rather than electronics.
ABC News reported over the weekend that U.S. officials had become increasingly concerned that extremists in war-ravaged Syria, particularly the al Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front, had teamed up with elements of the Yemen-based al Qaeda group AQAP to potentially attack the homeland with “creative” new designs for bombs, as one source put it. Al-Nusra and al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan had a very public falling out with al-Baghdadi and his terror group earlier this year, prompting al-Baghdadi to split and later declare himself the leader of all Muslims.
Top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have been sounding the alarm about Americans heading to Syria and potentially returning home to cause mayhem for months. ABC News reported in January that the FBI was already monitoring dozens of people who had fought in Syria and returned to the U.S.
FBI Director James Comey told ABC News in May that his organization aimed to make sure the “coming Syria diaspora” does not turn into a “future 9/11.”