CAIRO — The leader of the Islamic State group (I.S.) urged followers to burn their enemies everywhere and target “media centers of the infidels,” according to an audio recording released Thursday that the extremists said was by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The reclusive leader of I.S., who has only appeared in public once, also vowed to continue fighting and lavished praise on jihadis despite their loss of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in July.
The recording was released by the I.S..-run al-Furqan outlet, which has in the past released messages from al-Baghdadi and other top figures of the extremist group. The voice in the over 46-minute-long audio sounded much like previous recordings of al-Baghdadi. His last previous purported message was released in November, also in an audio recording.
“You soldiers of the caliphate, heroes of Islam and carriers of banners: light a fire against your enemies,” said al-Baghdadi, a shadowy cleric who has been surrounded by controversy since the terror group emerged from al-Qaida in Iraq, its forerunner.
Russian officials said in June there was a “high probability” that al-Baghdadi had died in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital. U.S. officials later said they believed he was still alive.
Al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to be in I.S.’ dwindling territory in eastern Syria. The IS-held cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour are under siege and likely too dangerous for him to hide in. Some I.S. leadership is believed to have gone to the nearby town of Mayadeen, and the group still holds a stretch of the Euphrates River from Deir el-Zour to the Iraqi border, as well as remote desert areas along the border.
“You soldiers of Islam, supporters of the caliphate everywhere, step up your attacks and include the media centers of the infidels and the headquarters of their ideological war among your targets,” he said in the recording.
“Don’t you dare allow the Crusaders and the apostates to enjoy a good and comfortable life at home while your brothers are enduring killings, shelling and destruction,” al-Baghdadi added.
He also lauded his fighters for what he called their valiant fight against U.S.-backed Iraqi forces that wrested control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from I.S. after nearly nine months of fighting.
In the recording, he also consoled I.S. fighters over the number of major military setbacks suffered in recent months in both Iraq and Syria.
At the peak of its power in 2014 — when the Iraqi army crumbled amid the militants’ blitz — I.S. controlled about a third of both Syria and Iraq but has steadily lost ground in the face of a U.S.-led coalition that has backed Iraqi forces as well as Kurdish-led Syrian fighters battling the extremists across the border in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by allies Russia and Iran, have also driven I.S. out of significant territory.
The top priority for Muslims, al-Baghdadi says in the recording, is to “satisfy” God.
“Victory against their enemies and the enemy of God comes next,” he said.
The loss of Mosul was a deep symbolic blow to I.S. — it was after the group overran the city in June 2014 that the militants declared a caliphate stretching from northern Syria deep into the north and west of Iraq. And it was from Mosul’s famed al-Nuri Mosque that al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance at a Friday sermon, declaring the caliphate and calling on Muslims the world over to follow him.
At the time, he vowed that I.S. would conquer “Rome,” and the entire world.
Mosul was also the bureaucratic and financial hub of I.S. Raiding Mosul’s central bank, and taxing and extorting the city’s wealthy inhabitants, made I.S. the world’s richest terrorist organization. Mosul’s vast industrial zones were converted into factories for weapons and explosives.