NEW YORK • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has issued what appears to be the first recording in nearly a year of its reclusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a move that seems intended to silence rumours of his death and to galvanise his pummelled fighters.
The 46-minute audio recording would be the first time since last November that supporters of the militant group have heard the voice of their self-proclaimed caliph. Since then, the group has lost significant territory, including Mosul in Iraq, which had been the largest city under its control, and much of the group's capital, Raqqa in Syria.
In the recording, Baghdadi, instead of pondering those losses, emphasised the threat the West still faces from ISIS, making indirect references to recent attacks on the Underground in London, in the heart of Barcelona and in Russia. "Now, the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahideen," he said.
Peppered with references to current geopolitical flashpoints, including North Korea and Iraqi Kurdistan, the unverified 46-minute speech seemed partly intended to silence reports that Baghdadi had been killed on the battlefield.
In June, the Russian military said it might have killed him in a strike in May near Raqqa. In July, a British-based monitoring organisation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said senior ISIS commanders had confirmed that he had been killed in Deir el-Zour province. Neither report could be independently confirmed, and US officials cast doubt on their credibility.
More important than the content of the audio is the fact that it served as a "proof-of-life message", said Mr Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Programme on Extremism.
ISIS has been steadily losing territory since 2015. This year, it lost the city of Mosul, the nearby town of Tal Afar and part of Raqqa. Despite these setbacks, the group continues to be a fierce and nimble foe.
It staged a counter-assault this week on Ramadi, an Iraqi town liberated by the Iraqis in 2015. In neighbouring Syria on Thursday, ISIS fighters assaulted a position south of the city of Deir el-Zour, putting a dent in recent gains by the government.
Even as the group has lost territory in one part of its caliphate, it has pushed into new parts of the world. In recent weeks, new ISIS checkpoints have emerged in Libya, and the group continues to hold parts of the Philippine city of Marawi, despite a four-month-long siege by the country's military. ISIS has also continued to remotely guide and inspire its sympathisers to carry out both small-scale and devastating attacks in Europe, with cells of people who had never been to Syria behind some of the worst violence, including in Britain and Spain.
Sounding defiant, Baghdadi ended his speech by vowing to continue fighting, including urging attacks on "disbeliever media centres".
Although the recording's authenticity could not be immediately confirmed, ISIS has not misrepresented a recording of its leader in the past, and the Pentagon said it had "no reason to believe the tape is not authentic".
NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST