A newly released audio recording, distributed Thursday, appears to be of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, marking the first time the self-proclaimed caliph has been heard from in 11 months. Baghdadi, who is a primary target for the U.S., has not been seen in public since July 2014, when he appeared publicly to preach at a mosque in Mosul after ISIS shocked the world by taking control of the northern Iraqi city. The public absence fueled rumors that the 46-year-old had been killed.
The 46-minute audio recording appears to counter that narrative, but it’s unclear how recent the undated recording actually is. There are oblique references to current events in the audio, including vague references to fighting in Mosul, which Iraqi and allied forces expelled ISIS from last year, as well as mentions of terror in Europe. “Now the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedeen,” Baghdadi said. The New York Times’ ISIS expert, Rukmini Callimachi, speculated these references might align with recent attacks on the subway in London, the van attack in Barcelona, and a knife attack in Russia last month. The recording also makes mention of the nuclear threat in North Korea, which is the strongest evidence dating the audio to the latest nuclear tit-for-tat between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
For a proof-of-life recording meant to rally ISIS fighters that have sustained substantial losses, vague references to terror attacks in Europe, and even North Korean nuclear references, seem suspiciously vague. The tape, if verified, would counter claims by the Russian military and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike in late spring/early summer of this year. American officials were quick to note that, despite the rumors, without verification of his death, they had been operating as if the ISIS leader is still alive. U.S. intelligence also approached the latest recording with caution. "We are aware of the audio tape purported to be of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and are taking steps to examine it,” a Director of National Intelligence spokesman told CNN. “While we have no reason to doubt its authenticity, we do not have verification at this point."