IS Issues New Message From Group’s Reclusive Leader

FILE - This image from video posted in July 2014 purports to show Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon in Iraq.

The secretive leader of the Islamic State terror group is speaking out after nearly a year of silence, urging his supporters to persevere while warning of “dark days” for his enemies.

The terror group’s al-Furqan media division issued the 54-minute speech purportedly from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, titled “Give Glad Tidings to the Patient,” Wednesday.

In it, he shares wishes for a blessed Eid al-Adha, a feast celebrated this week, and urges IS supporters not to relent.

“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,” Baghdadi said on the recording.

FILE - A member of the Emergency Response Division holds an Islamic State militants flag in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, July 10, 2017.

He also tells supporters it is the United States, and not IS, that is crumbling.

“Here it is now, by the grace of Allah, living the worst period in its contemporary history,” Baghdadi said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

“The sanctions it imposes on its allies … are a sign that it is lower than it used to be, and held in intentional contempt,” he added, referring to U.S. sanctions on Turkey.

Message to followers

The IS leader also urges supporters in the West to carry out so-called lone wolf attacks “so that Crusaders will feel its flames.”

“Carry out an attack that breaks their heart, and rip them apart, either with gunfire, or a stab to their bodies, or a bombing in their countries, for this is equal to a thousand operations here,” he said. “Do not forget about running people over on the roads.”

U.S. military and intelligence officials are aware of the new audio recording but have yet to verify that the voice on the tape is, in fact, Baghdadi.

FILE - Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, July 25, 2018.

But analysts contacted by VOA believe the audio is likely both authentic and also recent, pointing to the Eid al-Adha greetings, and references to U.S. tensions with Turkey over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, and fighting between IS and Syrian forces.

“This material is intended to convey Baghdadi is alive,” said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst who specializes in Islamic State’s online influence operations.

Unlike with previous messages from Baghdadi, however, there was little in the way of advance notice to promote the speech on social media, Smith said.

“This suggests Baghdadi’s security protocols now entail virtually no interactions with Islamic State members who are tasked with promoting this material online,” Smith said.

The last time IS supporters heard from Baghdadi was September 2017 when he called on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

FILE - Image taken from recently released video shows man purported to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL's reclusive leader, making what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city, Mosul July 5, 2014.

Since then, Baghdadi’s silence has fed constant questions about whether he is still alive, still in charge and about where he might be hiding.

“We continue to assess that he’s probably alive until he’s proven to be dead,” Chris Maier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defeat ISIS Core Task Force, told VOA as recently as May, adding officials suspected he likely was hiding in Syria. ISIS is an acronym for the militant group.

When asked about the new recording, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Baghdadi’s exact whereabouts are not known, but “he continues to be someone that we are interested in removing from the battlefield.”

FILE - Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters shoot a drone they said belonged to Islamic State fighters on the bank of the Euphrates river, west of Raqqa city, Syria, April 8, 2017.

Anti-ISIS campaign

Overall, U.S. and coalition officials have said IS has lost 98 percent of the territory it once controlled and the survivors of the anti-ISIS campaign are cornered in a small pocket along the border with Iraq, near the town of Hajin.

Yet other reports suggest that while Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate is no more, the terror group maintains a capable fighting force and financial resources.

Earlier this month the U.S. Defense Department said IS may have up to 14,500 fighters in Syria alone.

And a United Nations report, based on intelligence from member states, warned, “Despite the damage to bureaucratic structures of the so-called ‘caliphate,’ the collective discipline of [IS] is intact.”

The U.N. report also said reports of Baghdadi’s demise were premature.

“Although he is reported to have been injured, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains in authority,” it concluded.

Despite questions about Baghdadi’s fate, some of his family members do appear to have been killed. The terror group’s Nashir news channel reported in July the IS leader’s son died carrying out a suicide bombing against Russian forces in the western Syrian city of Homs.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.