ISTANBUL — The Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, released an audio message today purporting to be from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the first time he has been heard from in months, and as deserters from his group say he is still recovering from serious spinal injuries sustained nearly two months ago in a coalition airstrike.
In the audio message posted on Islamic militant websites and titled “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” al-Baghdadi exhorts Muslims to join his terror army’s self-proclaimed caliphate, saying, “Coexistence with Jews and Christians” is impossible according to the Quran and the “explicit statement” of Allah.
The voice, purported by the Islamic State’s media arm to be that of al-Baghdadi, tells followers: “O, Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war.” Muslims are also told there is no excuse for them failing to emigrate to the caliphate.
Analysts told The Daily Beast they believed the recording was made by al-Baghdadi. But it is hard to date when the audio message was recorded. Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a U.S. think tank, tweeted that he believes the speech was made after Iraqi forces and Shia militias recaptured the city of Tikrit from ISIS. The recording refers to battles that have occurred since then in Baiji and Anbar provinces.
Others noted that the recording refers to events after al-Baghdadi’s injuries were supposedly sustained—it is suspected that the ISIS leader was hit by an airstrike on March 18. In the tape, released by al-Furqan media, the Islamic State’s propaganda arm, the voice excoriates the Saudi-led Gulf coalition for bombing Shiite rebels in Yemen, an air offensive that began on March 26.
He also laments Sunni Muslims fleeing the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, which started to come under a fierce assault by ISIS in early April. During the second week of April, the jihadists stepped up their assault on the city, launching a series of suicide-bomb attacks and triggering a mass exodus of locals. “Return to your lands and remain in your homes and seek shelter … with your people in the Islamic State,” al-Baghdadi says in the recording.
But the jihadist leader makes no reference to any injuries sustained—either to deny or otherwise counter mounting claims that he is seriously physically incapacitated with spinal damage that has left him lame. On Sunday, The Daily Beast reported that al-Baghdadi had been moved recently from Iraq to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the terror army’s de facto capital, amid tight security two months after reportedly sustaining serious shrapnel wounds.
Opposition activists told The Daily Beast that in debriefing jihadi defectors, they had been told the ISIS leader is mentally alert and able to issue orders but that physical injuries are prompting the terror army’s governing Shura Council to make a decision on a temporary stand-in leader. The replacement would move back and forth between front lines in Syria and Iraq and to handle day-to-day leadership in the self-declared caliphate.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper first reported last month that al-Baghdadi had been injured in a March coalition airstrike, citing a Western diplomat and an adviser to the Iraqi government. But U.S. defense officials have consistently said they have no evidence Baghdadi had been wounded.
Also this week, Pentagon officials denied claims by Iraqi defense officials that ISIS’s No. 2 leader, Alaa al-Afri, had been killed in an airstrike targeting a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. Al-Afri was said by deserters to be the most likely contender for the temporary stand-in leader role for the supposedly injured Baghdadi.
The ISIS leader began the recorded speech with a series of Quranic quotes stressing the importance and obligation of fighting the enemies of Islam and readiness to die a martyr. He cites the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who, Al-Baghdadi says, waged jihad throughout his entire life. He warns the West will soon target all Muslims. He also engages with the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations, mocking the Saudis and saying they are being traded in by the Americans.
The posting of the speech had been anticipated. ISIS followers announced on forums and social media the past 48 hours that there would be a message soon from al-Baghdadi.