Contradicting rumors that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi is dead, the militant group has released a 54-minute audio message it says he delivered to mark Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday celebrated this week.
The speech, released Tuesday by the group’s Furqan media arm, marks the first appearance by Baghdadi in almost 11 months.
There was no way to verify that the voice belongs to Baghdadi, but it is consistent with other recordings of him. Though the message is undated, it includes references to recent events, including the diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Turkey over Andrew Brunson, the American pastor being tried in Turkey on terrorism charges.
The speech comes after the group has lost almost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul and Raqqah, the two most important cities in its self-declared caliphate.
Separate offensives, one by a U.S.-led coalition and the other headed by Russia, have squeezed Islamic State militants into a small wedge of territory near the Iraqi-Syrian border, with both insisting the group’s fighters now number in the few thousands if not less. Still, the U.N. said this month that the figure could be as high as 30,000.
Baghdadi insisted his group “was in good shape” and that “the scale of victory or defeat with the mujahedin [holy warriors] … is not linked to a city or a village that was taken, and is not subject to those who have air superiority, intercontinental missiles or smart bombs.”
He credited Islamic State for sullying “America’s prestige” and exposing “its weakness” over the last two decades and declared that the U.S. had lost standing in the world and was going through its “worst period in contemporary history.”
Baghdadi went on to congratulate the “striking lions,” a reference to those who had conducted so-called lone wolf attacks in Canada and Europe. He urged others to follow in their path, and to use guns, knives or simply run over their victims.
He also called on Sunni Muslims in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to rise up against their rulers, and he directed special ire at Syrian opposition fighters who he said had been tricked by their leaders to fight against Islamic State or had surrendered to Syrian government forces.
Baghdadi urged rebel fighters not to surrender Idlib, the northwestern Syrian province and the rebels’ last major redoubt in the country.