BEIRUT — The Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi resurfaced on Tuesday to deliver a message marking the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday in which he urged his followers to keep up the fight and to wage lone-wolf attacks in the West.
References in the audiotaped speech to recent developments in the Syrian war and to the spat between Turkey and the United States over a detained American pastor suggest that he was alive at least until very recently, despite a new spate of rumors earlier this month that he had died of injuries suffered in airstrikes.
There was no immediate confirmation that the voice delivering the 54-minute address was Baghdadi’s, but the holiday speech is in keeping with the periodic outreaches by the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the vast territories once controlled by the Islamic State. His last message was on Sept. 28 last year, and this one was similar in its tone, language and exhortations.
Baghdadi did not directly address the fact that the Islamic State has now lost around 95 percent of the lands it seized in 2014, but he acknowledged that there have been setbacks. “Seditions and hardships [are] increasing to their darkest night being cast over the people of Islam,” he said, according to a translation by the monitoring group SITE.
“The scale of victory or defeat . . . is not tied to a city or village,” he said. America might have boasted of its “so-called victory in expelling the [Islamic] State from the cities and countryside in Iraq and Syria, but the land of God is wide and the tides of war change,” he added.
The message comes as the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies prepare for what they hope will be a final offensive against one of the last and most significant pockets of Islamic State-controlled territory near the Iraqi border in Syria, where it is thought Baghdadi is most likely to be hiding.
A second Islamic State-
controlled area exists nearby in the remote desert of eastern Syria that is surrounded by Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian and Iranian allies.
Yet, although it now seems likely that the so-called caliphate will soon be entirely vanquished, there are also signs that the Islamic State is succeeding in reinventing itself as a guerrilla insurgency. An escalation of small-scale attacks in Iraq in recent weeks has raised concerns that the group may survive beyond its eventual territorial defeat. Two recent reports by the United Nations and the U.S. government suggest there may still be 30,000 Islamic State fighters or supporters in Iraq and Syria.
Much of Baghdadi’s speech was focused on descriptions of the decline of American influence around the world, for which he claimed credit on behalf of the Islamic State, and its war of attrition against the United States.
America “is living the worst period of its contemporary history,” he said, attributing this to two decades of U.S. war against Muslims. He cited the resistance of countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey to the Trump administration’s policy of imposing sanctions against its foes as evidence that America is a waning power, “held in contempt” even by its allies.
Any setbacks suffered by the Islamic State are to be blamed on the Sunni Muslims, the sect the Islamic State claims to represent, who have collaborated with the West, Baghdadi said, citing recent defeats for moderate, Western-backed rebels in Syria as evidence.
He also urged Islamic State supporters in the West to carry out more of the kind of lone-wolf attacks that have periodically set nerves on edge in the United States, Europe and Canada.
“Carry out an attack that breaks their heart, and rip them apart,” he said. “Either with gunfire, or a stab to their bodies, or a bombing in their countries.”
“Do not forget about running people over on the roads,” he added.