Islamic State Spokesman Addresses Coronavirus, Expansion in Africa, and Qatar

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 28 May 2020

After trailing the release yesterday, an audio statement from the Islamic State (IS) spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, was published by Al-Furqan Foundation today. It is entitled, “And the Disbelievers Will Know Who Gets the Good End”, i.e. heaven. The title is taken from a sura of the Qur’an [Ra’d (13):42].

This is Abu Hamza’s third speech: his first in October announced his appointment as spokesman after his predecessor and the caliph had been killed, and his last speech on 27 January was more substantive about IS’s religious-political program, particularly inciting against its enemies, which included the usual suspects—anti-IS Sunnis above all, Iran, Iraqi Shi’is, America—and a rather unusual entry, namely Israel, a subject that IS generally doesn’t “centre”.

This speech comes at a moment when IS Centre, in Iraq and Syria, is resurging in general—as are its branches around the world—but at the end of a ten-day period when IS’s enemies have registered some successes against the jihadists. Baghdad revealed that it had Abd al-Nasr, a very senior official who claims his real name is Taha al-Ghassani, in custody on 20 May. Just before that the U.S.-led Coalition took out two senior IS officials in eastern Syria, Ahmad al-Zawi (Abu Ali al-Baghdadi) and Ahmad al-Jughayfi (Abu Ammar), quite possibly based on intelligence from an earlier raid that captured Anwar Farhan. And probably based on information gathered in these operations, the Coalition was able to kill a member of IS’s Delegated Committee, Moataz Numan al-Jaburi (Haji Tayseer), earlier this week.

Abu Hamza’s speech today gloated about the damage the coronavirus has done to the West, presenting it as God’s revenge for the Coalition dislodging IS from the cities it had occupied in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. There is the usual focus on anti-IS Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, who are warned that the U.S. is pulling back, thus those who bet on the U.S. for protection need to reassess or they will be killed. The two most significant parts of the speech are its focus on IS’s expansion in Africa, a visible fact for some time now, and the competition with Al-Qaeda in that area, and the closing few minutes where Abu Hamza agitates against Qatar, a state that IS has never bothered with before in its messaging.

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Note: IS has released a full transcript of the speech and in due course I will reproduce it below. Until then, this is a rough summary of Abu Hamza’s third speech (drawn from here, here, here, here, here, and here):

The nearly forty-minute speech begins with seven minutes of standard religious-ideological content before getting to the coronavirus pandemic: “We rejoice today at what has befell you of great torture from God”, Abu Hamza says, albeit that “a greater punishment will befall you with our hands” . Abu Hamza compares the trouble with obtaining food (because of the panic-buying), the collapse of the economy, and people besieged in their own homes with what the anti-IS forces did to rout the terrorists in Mosul, Sirte (Libya), Baghuz, and elsewhere.

Abu Hamza mocks the West’s efforts to deal with COVID-19 and attacks the regional governments that have used the virus as cover to imprison even more dissidents while closing mosques.

As ever, IS’s spokesman has a special fury for the Sunnis who oppose the group. The “apostate Taliban militia” is said to have trickily delayed announcing its deal with the Americans in Afghanistan for several years to stop the youth in Afghanistan joining IS’s Khorasan “province” (IS-K). Abu Hamza, at least, believes the Taliban will honour its commitment to help the U.S. suppress IS-K.

The Sunnis of Iraq are lectured on their predicament: the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhemi, is no kind of deliverance, says Abu Hamza. Al-Kadhemi’s government is “an American government” and in any case he was previously the intelligence chief in Baghdad, thus implicated in the mistreatment of the Sunni community. Abu Hamza reminds listeners of the Sahwa (Awakening) experience when the Americans left the anti-IS Sunni militiamen to be destroyed by IS and the Iraqi government. “We warn them again about becoming wood for the fire of the Shi’is and Crusaders,” says Abu Hamza, promising that the recent surge in attacks “are only a taste of what’s coming”. Addressing the “government of infidels in Iraq”, Abu Hamza says: “We have made a pledge that no day passes by without bloodshed”.

The mostly-Sunni Syrian rebellion that has been engaged in a full-scale war with IS since 2014 is addressed in similar terms. And defeat is promised for Iran and its tributaries throughout the region; the Huthis (Ansarallah) in Yemen are namechecked.

A significant section of the speech is devoted to congratulating IS’s loyalists in Africa for expanding their operations and preparing the way for an escalation of hostilities with Al-Qaeda, represented in the Sahel by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM). Despite some slightly strange reporting in February (more in framing than substance), the intra-jihadi contest in West Africa has been heating up since at least the beginning of the year and looks likely to be a major theatre of jihadist growth and competition in the next period.

Strategically, Abu Hamza says IS views the situation as one of “major transformations” in the region that will provide “greater opportunities” than over the last decade. Abu Hamza says the caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi (Muhammad al-Mawla), is pleased with the multi-national “Battle of Attrition” his soldiers carried out between 14 and 25 May, and incites them to escalate further, with a particular focus on freeing IS prisoners, who are encouraged to have patience. Abu Hamza notes that the “Crusaders” are increasingly turned inward with their own problems and those who bet on the West for protection are threatened.

The most interesting part by far is the concluding three minutes where Abu Hamza attacks Qatar, a state that IS has never given any attention to previously. IS generally includes a section of ideological assault on Saudi Arabia, building on the narrative wherein IS is the true successor to the Wahhabi state founded in 1744 to argue that IS is the defender of “Sunnidom” at the present time, while the current Kingdom is a corrupt Western puppet and collaborator in attacks on “Muslims” (jihadists). (Al-Qaeda is also very Saudi-centric in its messaging.) It is therefore notable that while Abu Hamza mentioned states that are much lesser ideological priorities like Turkey, he said nothing about Saudi Arabia.

Abu Hamza’s list of grievances against the Qatari government is long: it financed the Sahwa in Iraq that defeated IS a decade ago; it has good relations with the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad; it supported various “apostate” rebel groups that fought IS in Syria; it was involved in the U.S.-Taliban deal that IS feels threatens it in Afghanistan; it supports the “apostate” Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region (the depth of IS’s hatred for the Brethren cannot be overstated); and Qatar hosts the U.S.’s Al-Udeid Airbase that was key in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.

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