The Islamic State issued today what appears to be the first recording in nearly a year of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a move that seems designed to silence rumors of his death and to galvanize his pummeled troops.
The 46-minute audio recording would be the first time since November that supporters of the jihadi group have heard the voice of their self-proclaimed caliph. Since then, the group has lost significant territory, including Mosul, Iraq, which had been the largest city under its control, and much of the group’s capital, Raqqa, Syria.
Referring to the U.S.-backed forces in Mosul, al-Baghdadi said, “They did not leave a destructive and deadly weapon unused.” He also accused them of using banned weapons, saying, “They burned the people and the trees and everything on the ground.”
But instead of pondering those losses, al-Baghdadi, 46, focused on the threat that the West still faces from the Islamic State, making indirect references to recent attacks on the Underground in London, in the heart of Barcelona and in Russia.
“Now the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedeen,” he said.
The recording, which was distributed to Islamic State supporters in chat rooms on the messaging app Telegram, begins with the voice of a narrator who introduces al-Baghdadi and adds, “May Allah protect him.”
That phrase is used to refer to people who are still living and is intended to signal that al-Baghdadi is not dead, contrary to reports over the summer. The recording also cites current events, including the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, suggesting that it was recorded in recent weeks.
In June, the Russian military said it might have killed al-Baghdadi in a strike on Islamic State leaders in May near Raqqa, Syria. In July, a British-based monitoring organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that senior Islamic State commanders had confirmed that al-Baghdadi had been killed in Deir el-Zour province.
Neither of those reports could be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials immediately cast doubt on their credibility.
The Islamic State has been steadily losing territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya since 2015. Mosul, a city of 1 million, fell in July, and Raqqa has been under siege for several months by U.S.-backed forces, who claim to have taken most of the city.
Despite these setbacks, the group continues to be fierce and nimble. The battle for Mosul, which President Barack Obama’s administration had hoped to conclude before he left office in January, grew into a nine-month-long bloody slog, resulting in entire neighborhoods being obliterated in an effort to kill the remaining fighters.
Even as the group has lost territory in one part of its caliphate, it has retaken areas that were declared liberated.
In recent weeks, new Islamic State checkpoints have emerged in Libya, and the group continues to hold parts of the city of Marawi, in the Philippines, despite a four-month-long siege by the country’s military.
The Islamic State staged a counterassault this week on Ramadi, Iraq, a town liberated by the Iraqis in 2015; and in neighboring Syria today, the group’s fighters assaulted a position south of the city of Deir el-Zour, putting a dent in recent gains by the government there.
The group has also continued to remotely guide and inspire its sympathizers to carry out both small-scale and devastating attacks in Europe, with cells of people who had never traveled to Syria now behind some of the worst violence, including in Britain and Spain.
Sounding a defiant tone, al-Baghdadi ridiculed the coalition forces who are battling the group with U.S. help, saying that they “wouldn’t stand one hour of fighting without Crusader air support.”
Al-Baghdadi ended his speech by vowing to continue fighting and promising future conquests.
“We are awaiting and striking the infidels everywhere and awaiting the sign from God for the right moment to get our great conquest,” he said. “We will endure the pain and the wounds and the killings and stay in the land of Muslims.”
Although the authenticity of the recording could not be immediately confirmed, the voice on the tape sounds the same as that of other recordings of al-Baghdadi. The Islamic State has not misrepresented a recording of its leader in the past.