FILE - In this Monday, March 30, 2020 file photo, Iraqi health ministry workers carry a coffin of a person who died from…
FILE - Iraqi health ministry workers carry a coffin of a person who died from coronavirus infection at a new cemetery for people who died from COVID-19, outside the town of Najaf, Iraq, March 30, 2020.

WASHINGTON - The Islamic State is promising the terror group’s enemies will be struck down by the coronavirus pandemic much like the Bible says Egypt’s pharaoh was devastated by the 10 plagues. 

The warning, from IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, came during a 39-minute speech titled "And the Disbelievers Will Know Who Gets the Good End,” issued on social media Thursday by IS’s media division. 

“We rejoice today with the great torment of God that befell you,” al-Qurashi said in the message, obtained for VOA by the SITE Intelligence Group. 

“A greater punishment will befall you with our hands,” he added, according to VOA’s translation of the message. “What you are seeing today is nothing but indications of major transformations that the Muslim countries will witness in the coming period." 

The message is the third by al-Qurashi since he took over as the IS spokesman last October following the death of his predecessor, and the first since January when he mocked the Iraqi government and boasted of the terror group’s staying power. 

 

U.S. counterterrorism officials have yet to verify the authenticity of the audio, though it came from IS’s central media division, the al-Furqan Foundation. Analysts say the voice seems to match the one on al-Qurashi’s previous releases. 

It would also appear to have been recorded somewhat recently, as it mentions not only the coronavirus pandemic but also the terror group’s latest offensive in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and growing tensions between IS and al-Qaida terror affiliates in Africa. 

Analysts say the latest recording may hope to build on IS’s recent momentum in Iraq and Syria, where the number of attacks has almost doubled since March. 

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U.S. counterterrorism officials attribute that surge to a variety of factors, including the group’s ability to rebuild its operational capacity, as well as the onset of better weather. Also, perhaps, to a newfound confidence, given IS’s willingness to take on the Syrian regime, as well as U.S.-backed forces. 

“[It] signals ISIS’s increased willingness to assume the risk of an overt confrontation against a more capable adversary,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, using another acronym for the terror group. 

The speech by the IS spokesman may also shed some light on how the group’s leadership is viewing the fight. 

“He’s pushing the narrative that patience will enable us to outlast the West,” American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin said. 

Rubin added that the references to Afghanistan and Washington’s willingness to cut a deal with the Taliban, under which the U.S. has agreed to withdraw its troops, could be equally telling. 

“The United States needs to be wary of 'what happens in Afghanistan doesn't stay in Afghanistan' — that the decisions which are made by the White House to withdraw our forces are being read by the Islamic State and perhaps by al-Qaida in a different way than our Washington spin would want them to be,” he said. “There's going to be a very dangerous repercussion if the conclusion [by IS] is that the United States is weak, and they can fight, and they can extract more from us.” 

For now, U.S. allies on the ground appear to be trying to send a message of their own, claiming several operations targeting high-level IS officials. 

Iraqi officials Thursday said they successfully targeted an aide to the top IS official in Fallujah just days after their intelligence led to an airstrike that killed Hajji Taysir, the top IS official in Iraq who was also responsible for planning and coordinating external terror operations. 

U.S. officials have yet to confirm either death but praised the Iraqi efforts. 

“Any time senior level terrorists are in fact eliminated, it’s a good thing,” Pentagon spokesman Major Robert Lodewick told VOA. “This would mark yet another step toward the enduring defeat of ISIS to which the United States remains fully committed.” 

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have likewise ramped up operations against IS, working with the coalition to target sleeper cells east of Deir el-Zour. 

Another raid earlier this month near Deir el-Zour also killed two IS officials responsible for logistics and for passing along commands from senior leadership. 

 

Also Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a $3 million reward for information leading to the capture of Muhammad Khadir Musa Ramadan, a senior IS leader and propagandist. 

Such intensified efforts to target top officials might be one reason the terror group’s followers have yet to hear from IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who took over after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last October. 

But at least one top international counterterrorism official has warned that keeping the new leader under wraps, while likely to keep him safer, carries a degree of risk. 

“In the short term, they can choreograph lots of enthusiasm from their supporters around the world. But in the end, people are going to get a little bit impatient,” the official told VOA. “The brand damage that they’ve suffered could be compounded unless this guy takes a risk and they start to communicate.”

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