The Islamic State issued a new video Monday claiming to show its reclusive leader delivering a message to his followers, urging them to seek revenge for the fall of the terror group's self-declared caliphate In Iraq and Syria.
The more than 18-minute-long video posted to the internet by IS's al-Furqan media division shows a man, allegedly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sitting cross-legged against a white backdrop with a machine gun and a couple of pillows by his side.
The man is seen speaking with other IS members, whose faces are blurred or covered with masks, acknowledging the recent fall of the last IS-held territory in Baghuz, Syria, and praising the Easter Sunday terror attack in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people.
He described the terror group's fight now as a "battle of attrition" and "stretching the enemy," and promised IS will seek revenge for the killing and imprisonment of its fighters.
"Jihad continues until judgment day," he warned.
Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as at U.S. intelligence agencies, said they were aware of the tape but had yet to verify the man in the video is actually the IS leader.
"We are aware of the video that surfaced today," State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee said. "Analysts will review this recording and we will defer to the intelligence community to confirm its authenticity."
If confirmed, the video would be the first to show the 48-year-old Baghdadi since the IS leader gave a sermon at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, in July 2014.
Since then, Baghdadi's efforts to communicate with a mass audience have been limited to audio recordings posted online in September 2017 and August 2018.
In a 2018 recording, Baghdadi urged followers to persevere even as IS was losing ground to U.S.-backed forces.
"For the mujahedeen, the scale of victory or defeat is not dependent on a city or town being stolen or subject to that who has aerial superiority, intercontinental missiles or smart bombs," he said at the time.
The lack of public appearances and the sporadic messages have led to speculation about his whereabouts while also sparking numerous rumors of his death. But U.S. military and intelligence officials have long believed Baghdadi is alive, hiding in remote areas of Syria or Iraq where IS remains entrenched, possibly with local support.
Since 2016, the United States has offered a reward of up to $25 million for information that helps bring Baghdadi to justice. Only one other person, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a reward that high.
Praised IS fighters
In the video issued Monday, the man claiming to be Baghdadi praised the IS fighters who defended the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz, the last to remain under IS control, before succumbing to U.S.-backed forces last month.
"The battle of Baghuz had ended and in it the barbarity and savagery of the nation of the Cross towards the Ummah of Islam was clear," Baghdadi said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence. "At the same time, the bravery, steadfastness and endurance of the Ummah of Islam was evident."
Baghdadi also praised IS fighters "in the provinces" for seeking revenge, claiming they had carried out almost 300 operations across eight countries, before addressing the Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka.
"As for your brothers in Sri Lanka, they have put joy in the hearts of the monotheists with their immersing operations that struck the homes of the Crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghuz," Baghdadi said.
"This is part of the vengeance that awaits the Crusaders and their henchmen, Allah permitting," he added. "Praise be to Allah, among the dead were Americans and Europeans."
Baghdadi also praised IS fighters in Libya and welcomed pledges of allegiance from jihadists in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Some former counterterror officials caution the release of the new video is worrisome, as it could serve to lift the spirits of IS supporters.
"It is important because he came out," said retired Col. Chris Costa, who served as the senior director for counterterrorism at the start of the Trump administration.
"He's obviously the face of ISIS and we hadn't seen him in sometime," he said, using an acronym for the terror group. "Now he's out there saying Sri Lanka, that's what we want — more of it."
But Costa and others are cautious about giving IS or Baghdadi too much credit, cautioning that even if Baghdadi was to be removed from the battlefield, a difficult fight remains.
"That's a key piece of dismantling or degrading an organization, but it is not a cure-all," former National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen said at a conference Monday in Washington. "We still would very much be confronting an ideological narrative that still finds resonance across conflict zones all across the world."