ISIS leader claims group still strong

A file image from a video last year supposedly showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In his latest message, he called for more Muslims to fight for ISIS.
A file image from a video last year supposedly showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In his latest message, he called for more Muslims to fight for ISIS.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Al-Baghdadi says air strikes have not weakened militants, even as Iraqi forces are set to recapture key city of Ramadi

WASHINGTON • Recent losses and air strikes have not weakened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group's reclusive leader purportedly said in an audio message, even as the militants lose ground to Iraqi forces in a key city.

The audio message, which appeared on Saturday on social media accounts and websites used by ISIS, was the first said to have come from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since May. He also implored more Muslims to fight on behalf of his increasingly besieged group.

Al-Baghdadi said his group had sustained setbacks before in Iraq and Syria, only to return stronger. Iraqi troops, backed by United States air strikes, are closing in on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which the terrorist group captured in May.

ISIS die-hards made a desperate last stand on Saturday in a Ramadi former government complex, the main remaining target of Iraqi forces reconquering the city. Iraqi government forces were slowed by snipers, booby traps, roadside bombs and suicide attackers.

The US has promised to send additional special forces to Iraq and Syria to combat the group and, along with allies, has stepped up air strikes.

The fall of Ramadi would deal a setback to the Al-Qaeda breakaway group at a time when it is also facing intensified coalition air strikes in Syria, after claiming an attack in Paris last month that killed more than 120 people.

Al-Baghdadi framed the attacks against ISIS as a worldwide attack by "disbelievers" against Muslims.

In the speech, he referred to several recent developments, including the entrance of Russia's military into the Syrian war and the claim by Saudi Arabia to be forming a military coalition of Muslim countries, but did not mention recent mass killings in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that were connected to ISIS.

US officials have said aerial bombing alone cannot defeat ISIS and ground forces are needed.

But Al-Baghdadi said the US and its allies would not dare to send ground forces to fight ISIS after being bogged down in lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ISIS has declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq it has seized, prompting the US to carry out air strikes against the group in both countries and put together an international coalition to join the fight.

The US is undertaking a significant effort to find and kill Al-Baghdadi, who is in hiding, an Obama administration official said earlier this month. Al-Baghdadi was dismissive of the newly announced Islamic alliance against terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia.

"If this coalition was Islamic, it would have staged a war against the Alawites and the Russians in Syria, it would have announced war against the Shi'ites and the Kurds in Iraq," he said, calling on Saudi citizens to join ISIS.

BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS leader claims group still strong'. Print Edition | Subscribe