CAIRO – The leader of the Islamic State group urged followers to burn their enemies everywhere and target "media centers of the infidels," according to an audio recording that the extremists said was by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The reclusive leader of IS, who has only appeared in public once, also vowed to continue fighting and lavished praise on his jihadis for their valor in the battlefield — despite the militants' loss of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in July.
The recording was released Thursday by the IS-run al-Furqan outlet, which has in the past released messages from al-Baghdadi and other top figures of the extremist group. The voice in the over 46-minute-long audio sounded much like previous recordings of al-Baghdadi. His last previous purported message was released in November, also in an audio recording.
"You soldiers of the caliphate, heroes of Islam and carriers of banners: light a fire against your enemies," said al-Baghdadi, a shadowy cleric who has been surrounded by controversy since the Sunni terror group emerged from al-Qaida in Iraq, its forerunner.
Russian officials said in June there was a "high probability" that al-Baghdadi had died in a Russian airstrike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group's de facto capital. U.S. officials later said they believed he was still alive.
Al-Baghdadi's whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to be in IS' dwindling territory in eastern Syria. The IS-held cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour are under siege and likely too dangerous for him to hide in. Some IS leadership is believed to have gone to the nearby town of Mayadeen, and the group still holds a stretch of the Euphrates River from Deir el-Zour to the Iraqi border, as well as remote desert areas along the border.
"You soldiers of Islam, supporters of the caliphate everywhere, step up your attacks and include the media centers of the infidels and the headquarters of their ideological war among your targets," he said in the recording, apparently alluding to Western news outlets and research centers.
"Don't you dare allow the Crusaders and the apostates to enjoy a good and comfortable life at home while your brothers are enduring killings, shelling and destruction," added al-Baghdadi, who reminded his followers of the rewards of martyrdom, including "72 wives" from among the maidens of paradise.
He also lauded his fighters for what he called their valiant fight against U.S.-backed Iraqi forces that wrested control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from IS after nearly nine months of fighting.
"In Mosul, they defiantly stood firm on a land ruled by God's laws against the infidels and nations of the cross ... only leaving it over their skulls and dead bodies after nearly a year of fighting," he said. "The sons of Islam will willingly continue to sacrifice their blood and bodies for the sake of their creator," he defiantly declared.
In the recording, he also consoled IS fighters over the number of major military setbacks suffered in recent months in both Iraq and Syria, but also made a passionate plea for them to rise up and never surrender.
"You Sunnis of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and everywhere ... get out of your beds and shake off oppression ... return to your faith and restore your glory and eminence," he said. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Shiite rebels are fighting forces loyal to the internationally recognized government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
Addressing Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, he warned them against the "cunning" of the minority Alawites, an offshoot Shiite sect from which President Bashar Assad hails, as well as the designs of Turkey and Assad's allies Russia and Iran.
"What have you gained from the conferences of humiliation and the crumbs of supporters except appeasing the Alawites and surrendering your homes?" said al-Baghdadi, adding that Syria's government forces, their allies and other forces fighting IS, would "not last an hour" without the air cover provided by the Russia or the U.S.-led coalition.
Al-Baghdadi also spoke of what he called the United States' waning global power, saying Russia was taking advantage of that to cast itself as the super power replacing America. Russia, he added, was in full control of the "Syrian file."
Citing examples of America's perceived weakness, he referred to Russia's annexation of Crimea and "North Korea's nuclear threat against America and Japan." Al-Baghdad's reference to North Korea's tussle with Washington and Tokyo over Pyongyang's nuclear and long-range missile programs suggests that his message was recently recorded, perhaps in the past month or two.
At the peak of its power in 2014 — when the Iraqi army crumbled amid the militants' blitz — IS controlled about a third of both Syria and Iraq but has steadily lost ground in the face of a U.S.-led coalition that has backed Iraqi forces as well as Kurdish-led Syrian fighters battling the extremists across the border in Syria.
Forces loyal to Syria's Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, have also driven IS out of significant territory.
The top priority for Muslims, al-Baghdadi says in the recording, is to "satisfy God."
"Victory against the enemies and the enemy of God comes next," he said.
The loss of Mosul was a deep symbolic blow to IS — it was after the group overran the city in June 2014 that the militants declared a caliphate stretching from northern Syria deep into the north and west of Iraq. And it was from Mosul's famed al-Nuri Mosque that al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance at a Friday sermon, declaring the caliphate and calling on Muslims the world over to follow him.
At the time, he vowed that IS would conquer "Rome," and the entire world.
Mosul was also the bureaucratic and financial hub of IS. Raiding Mosul's central bank, and taxing and extorting the city's wealthy inhabitants, made IS the world's richest terrorist organization. Mosul's vast industrial zones were converted into factories for weapons and explosives.