With rumors swirling for weeks that its leader had been incapacitated or killed, ISIS’s media arm released a recording yesterday, claiming to be a message from him. The 34-minute audio clip, which American officials say they have no reason to believe is not authentic, is the first recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released in six months.
The reclusive Baghdadi seems to only surface to assure people that he’s still alive and in control. The last message, from November, was released after another set of rumors that he had been killed. He has not been seen on video since the famous sermon in Mosul last July when he declared himself “caliph.”
The message, translated in full here by Belgian blogger and terrorist tracker Pieter Van Ostaeyen, addresses Muslims around the world, commanding them to either travel to join ISIS or carry out attacks where they are. “There is no excuse for any Muslim who is capable of performing hijrah to the Islamic State, or capable of carrying a weapon where he is, for Allah…has made fighting obligatory upon him,” he says.
It’s not clear exactly when the message is from. In the recording, Baghdadi refers to the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, which began on March 25. This casts some serious doubt on reports in the Guardian that he had suffered a severe spinal injury in a March 18 airstrike that left him incapacitated. But it still may not be very recent: As others have pointed out, Baghdadi mockingly refers to the campaign’s former official name “Decisive Storm,” which officially ended on April 21. (Although, since bombing continued after the operation formally ended, it’s also possible Baghdadi simply isn’t that precise about his terminology.)
The release of the tape comes as ISIS, which has suffered a series of battlefield setbacks in Iraq and is rumored to be short on resources and personnel, went on the offensive again, seizing the main government building in the city of Ramadi on Friday. Perhaps the Islamic State, and its mysterious leader, are in more robust shape than we thought.