The Islamic State
issued on Thursday what appears to be the first recording in nearly a year of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a move that seems intended to silence rumors of his death and to galvanize his pummeled troops.
The 46-minute audio recording would be the first time since last November that supporters of the jihadist 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.
In the recording, Mr. Baghdadi
praised his foot soldiers for waging a tenacious battle in Mosul.
“They fulfilled their promise and their responsibility, and they did not give up except over their skulls and body parts,” he said. “Thus they were excused, after nearly a year of fighting and confrontation.”
He also accused the American-backed troops they faced of using scorched-earth tactics. “They burned the people, trees, and everything on the ground,” he said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“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 widely disseminated to Islamic State
supporters in their chat rooms on the messaging app Telegram, begins with the voice of a narrator who introduces Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Baghdadi
in a strike on Islamic State
leaders in May near Raqqa. In July, a British-based monitoring organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said senior Islamic State
commanders had confirmed that Mr. Baghdadi
had been killed in Deir al-Zour Province.
Neither report could be independently confirmed, and United States officials immediately cast doubt on their credibility.
Despite the doubts cast on those reports, rumors of Baghdadi’s death continued to swirl. More important than the content of the audio is the fact that it served as a “proof-of-life message,” said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
This year, it lost the city of Mosul, where it controlled a population of approximately 1 million people; the nearby town of Tal Afar, Iraq; and part of Raqqa.
Despite these setbacks, the group continues to be a fierce and nimble foe. The battle for Mosul, which President Barack Obama’s administration had hoped to conclude before he left office in January, grew into a bloody nine-month slog, with entire neighborhoods obliterated in an effort to kill the remaining fighters. It came at a steep price to Iraq’s military, which lost more than 700 troops in the battle.
Even as the group has lost territory in one part of its caliphate, it has retaken areas that were declared liberated and pushed into new parts of the world.
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. In neighboring Syria
on Thursday, the group’s fighters assaulted a position south of the city of Deir al-Zour, putting a dent in recent gains by the government.
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
behind some of the worst violence, including in Britain and Spain.
Sounding a defiant tone, Mr. Baghdadi
ridiculed the coalition forces who are battling the group with American help, saying they “wouldn’t stand one hour of fighting without Crusader air support.”
ended his speech by vowing to continue fighting, including calling for attacks on “disbeliever media centers.”
Although the recording’s authenticity could not be immediately confirmed, the voice on the tape sounds the same as that of other recordings of Mr. Baghdadi.
The Islamic State
has not misrepresented a recording of its leader in the past, and the Pentagon said it had “no reason to believe tape is not authentic.”
©2017 The New York Times News Service