The shrinking Islamic State released an audio message purported to be from leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Thursday appealing to Sunnis to not turn to other terrorist groups and come fight for ISIS despite their territorial setbacks.
While scant on specific attack instructions, Baghdadi did suggest media as targets, saying jihadists should “intensify one attack after another against the infidels’ information centers and their headquarters of ideological war.”
The tape isn’t dated, but the self-proclaimed caliph refers to the “nearly year-long fight for Mosul,” an offensive launched last October in which the Iraqi government declared victory this August. Another current event: Baghdadi refers to North Korean “nuclear threats to America” during an argument that the U.S. isn’t the world’s top superpower anymore.
The 46-minute recording, which was released in written form shortly afterward in a new issue of ISIS’ weekly al-Naba newsletter, spends a lengthy amount of time on the Quran and historical caliphs. He told jihadists that “disbelievers” feared their attacks at home, so despite ISIS’ hardships they could still achieve victory with patience and steadfastness.
More than 75 percent of ISIS’ declared capital, Raqqa, has been cleared by the Syrian Democratic Forces at a rate of 50 city blocks taken from the terror group in the past week alone. ISIS is trying to hold on to their remaining pockets by trapping civilians to use as human shields, but a U.S. defense official said the SDF has been able to rescue about 300 of those civilians over the past week.
Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters via video from Baghdad on Thursday that experts were “quickly” reviewing the audio not only to authenticate it but to see if it yielded any clues to his whereabouts. “Without verifiable evidence of his death, we have continued to assume that he is alive,” Dillon said. “And I know that we have professionals that are out there in our organization that are specifically looking for Baghdadi and, you know, people like him.”
As Russia and Iran have claimed at times over the past few months that they killed Baghdadi, U.S. officials have been noncommittal about the fate of the ISIS leader.
Asked about the priority currently placed on capturing Baghdadi, Lt. Gen. Steven Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters a month ago that he’d “be happy to capture Baghdadi.”
“I don’t know who wouldn’t. I think I’d be just as equally satisfied just killing him. And if he’s alive out there somewhere, we’re looking for him every day. I don’t think he’s dead. We’re looking for him every day. When we find him, I think we’ll probably just try to kill him first, probably not worth all the trouble to try to capture him. That’s my own personal thought on it,” he said.
“Do I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive. There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive. Where is he? I don’t have a clue. He could be anywhere in the world for all I know.”
The general added that he thinks the ISIS leader is “somewhere in Iraq and Syria.. probably somewhere in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” where the Pentagon expects “the last stand of ISIS will be.”
“That’s where they believe their last sanctuary is. So I think he’s probably somewhere down there,” Townsend said. “That’s just an educated guess made after, you know, doing this for a year and scratching off a whole — he’s not in Mosul, he’s not in Tal Afar, I don’t think he’s in Raqqa anymore. So just kind of reducing the list of possible places where he could be, I kind of conclude he’s in the MERV somewhere.”
In an audio message last November, Baghdadi told the “soldiers of the caliphate” to “be patient, stand firm against the U.S. Air Force and allies — they will be defeated.” He admonished the jihadists to “hold the ground” and “don’t fight among yourselves.” U.S. officials have reported increased infighting, particularly among local ISIS members and foreign fighters, as the Iraq and Syria campaigns drag on.
If those wanting to join ISIS can’t make it to Iraq or Syria, he said, they should head to other ISIS provinces around the globe.
Baghdadi addressed jihadists in the provinces, including Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Indonesia, Philippines, Sinai, Bangladesh, West Africa and North Africa, as the “base of the caliphate,” and warned that “kuffar [disbelievers] will try to split you.” He told them to have patience and not be discouraged by the loss of leaders as they can be replaced.