BEIRUT — The Islamic State on Thursday released what appeared to be a rare recording of its cloistered leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, vowing to continue the group’s fight across Syria and Iraq as its self-proclaimed caliphate there crumbles.
Peppered with references to current geopolitical flash points, including North Korea and Iraqi Kurdistan, the unverified 46-minute speech seemed partly intended to silence reports that Baghdadi has been killed on the battlefield.
It has been almost a year since his last message to followers, recorded as Islamic State militants girded themselves for a U.S.-backed assault on Mosul, their largest stronghold. The city is now fully controlled by the Iraqi government, and Mosul’s mosque — from which Baghdadi made his only public appearance as the militant group’s leader — lies in ruins, a shattered reminder of the dominance the Islamic State once held over a swath of land that spanned almost a third of Syria and Iraq.
Three years on, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is defending a shrinking stretch of territory.
In Iraq, the group is down to two strongholds after losing a grueling nine-month battle for control of Mosul. In Syria, the Islamic State has all but lost its grip on its onetime de facto capital of Raqqa and is facing parallel U.S.- and Syrian-backed offensives in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir al-Zour.
In Thursday’s recording, the voice purporting to be Baghdadi’s cast those defeats in a more charitable light.
“This predicament is a generous gift from God,” he said.
He also consoled foot soldiers and supporters over their recent defeats, saying the top priority for Muslims is to “satisfy” God.
“Victory against their enemies and the enemy of God comes next,” the speaker said, lauding what he depicted as a valiant defense of Mosul.
The date and whereabouts of the message’s recording are unclear. Baghdadi is notoriously secretive and rarely sighted. News reports have suggested that he suffered a serious injury in the spring of 2015.
On Thursday, some online commentators said that the latest recording appeared to assume that the city of Raqqa had been entirely recaptured by a Syrian force, suggesting the audio had been recorded without a clear release date.
Russian officials said in June that there was a “high probability” that the Islamic State leader had died in an airstrike on Raqqa. But U.S. officials have said as recently as August that Baghdadi was alive.
According to Western diplomats, the Islamic State’s most senior leadership are mostly believed to be hiding around the city of Mayadin in eastern Syria, now a key military target for the U.S.-led coalition.
As the group loses territory on the home front, it has coordinated and inspired attacks across the Middle East and Europe. On Sept. 15, it claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on the London Underground, wounding 29 people and stoking domestic fears about the continued appeal of its Islamist message among some young Britons.
In Thursday’s audio recording, the speaker told followers to intensify attacks on the “headquarters” and “media centers” of perceived enemies.
“America, Europe and Russia are living in a state of terror,” he said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks Islamic State propaganda.
“Never allow the crusaders and apostates [to] enjoy a life of peace and security in their homes at the same time your brothers taste the bitterness of strikes and destruction,” the speaker said.
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Tamer El-Ghobashy in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.