Self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made an appearance in Mosul, Iraq, which his forces helped capture last month, and ordered Muslims to obey him, according to a video posted online.
That marks a significant change for the shadowy jihadist, whose newly renamed Islamic State (IS) group led a lightning offensive that overran sections of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
The onslaught has alarmed world leaders, displaced hundreds of thousands and piled pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he seeks a third term in office following April elections.
The video posted on Saturday showed a portly man clad in a long black robe and turban with a long graying beard addressing worshipers at weekly prayers at the al-Nur mosque in central Mosul.
“I am the wali [leader] who presides over you, though I am not the best of you. So if you see that I am right, assist me,” said the man, purportedly al-Baghdadi. “If you see that I am wrong, advise me and put me on the right track, and obey me as long as I obey God.”
Text superimposed on the video identified the man as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the name al-Baghdadi took when the group on Sunday last week declared a “caliphate,” a pan-Islamic state last seen in Ottoman times, in which the leader is both political and religious leader.
The video is the first ever official appearance by al-Baghdadi, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Islamist movements, though the jihadist leader may have appeared in a 2008 video under a different name.
Al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971, and joined the insurgency against the US military following the 2003 invasion that ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
He spent time in a US military prison and eventually took over leadership of a group, then affiliated with al-Qaeda and known as the Islamic State of Iraq, in 2010.
At the time, the group was believed to be on the ropes, but al-Baghdadi led it back to prominence.
Last year, the organization expanded into Syria, becoming a major player in the war to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Baghdadi subsequently cut all ties to al-Qaeda, and his influence now rivals that of that group’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Meanwhile, influential Sunni Muslim scholar Yusef al-Qaradawi said that the establishment of a caliphate by “a group known for its atrocities and radical views does not serve the Islamic project.”
The title of caliph can only be “given by the entire Muslim nation,” the cleric said.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, renamed itself simply the Islamic State last week.
Iraq has reached out for international assistance and Washington has sent military advisers, but Baghdad’s request for US air strikes against the militants has been rebuffed.