On Wednesday, ISIS released a brand new audio recording from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — the first we’ve heard from the reclusive leader in almost a year.
The timing of the message is no accident. Coming just as US-backed Iraqi counterterrorism forces have finally breached the eastern outskirts of the city of Mosul, the Sunni terrorist group’s last remaining stronghold in Iraq, the message is both a sign of how beleaguered the group is feeling right now, as well as a clear message that they will not go quietly.
In the 30-minute audio recording, titled “This is what God and His Messenger promised us,” Baghdadi calls on ISIS fighters to remain steadfast, reassuring them that stronger enemies don’t equal better enemies and telling them not to flee the battlefield.
Speaking in Arabic, he proclaims: “To all the people of Nineveh, especially the fighters, beware of any weakness in facing your enemy.” (Nineveh is the province in northern Iraq where Mosul is located.) “Do not retreat … Holding your ground with honor is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame,” he says.
In what is almost certainly an attempt to convince the tens of thousands of Sunni civilians still living in Mosul under ISIS rule not to turn against it and embrace the incoming enemy forces, Baghdadi warns Iraq’s Sunnis not to trust the Iraqi government, telling them, “Your politicians have betrayed you in the worst treason in history.”
Baghdadi also raises the specter of sectarian violence against Sunnis in Mosul by Shia militias, which in the not-so-distant past committed grievous crimes against Iraq’s Sunnis yet are now part of the broad, often fractious coalition of forces arrayed against ISIS in Mosul. Referring to the banners often seen being flown by these Shia fighters, some of whom are backed by Iran, Baghdadi asks, “Don’t you learn from past mistakes? Look at their banners, their slogans.”
Baghdadi rails against Turkey, labeling it an “apostate” and calling on fighters to attack Turkish forces in Iraq and Syria. He also calls for attacks against Saudi Arabia. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are part of the broad US-led coalition against ISIS, though each have their own individual motives for being involved in the fight that don’t always align perfectly with Washington’s goals.
Baghdadi also addresses by name several ISIS “provinces” — that is, places where ISIS-affiliated groups have established operations — around the world, and refers to them as the “pillars of the Caliphate.” He also instructs supporters who were unable to make it to Iraq and Syria to now head to Libya instead, where ISIS has been able to gain a tentative foothold.
This message serves several purposes: First, it serves to dispel rumors about Baghdadi’s death. The last message from Baghdadi came out at the end of December 2015. Since then, there have been numerous reports, though none of them particularly credible, of Baghdadi being killed in one strike or another. Although the message was audio only, with no video or images of Baghdadi to accompany it, Baghdadi mentions the deaths of two top ISIS leaders, one of whom was only killed fairly recently, on September 7.
It also sends a message to the far-flung ISIS “provinces” in places like Libya, Afghanistan, and Somalia, some of which only threw their lot in with ISIS because the group seemed to be on the rise, that even though the heart of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria may be under siege, they should stay faithful and not bail on him now that the group is losing.
Finally, it’s intended to remind the world — to include both ISIS’s enemies and its supporters — that, yes, we might be losing here in Iraq and Syria, but we still have all these provinces around the world where we can go to fight you. In other words, we’re not going anywhere.
And although it may be propaganda, it’s not necessarily wrong, either. Yes, the group is being severely battered in Iraq, and will probably soon be under attack in its capital of Raqqa, Syria, too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to close the book on ISIS just yet. There’s still a whole lot of mayhem the group can cause, and we would do well to keep that in mind.
“This … total war and the great jihad that the Islamic State is fighting today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory,” Baghdadi asserts.