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Homeland Security

Islamic State's Reclusive Leader Issues New Call for Action

By Jeff Seldin September 16, 2019

Supporters of Islamic State are rejoicing at what appears to be a new message from the terror group's reclusive leader, in which he promises the war against the United States and its allies is far from over.

The voice, purportedly that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tells supporters during the more than 30-minute-long audio recording that the U.S. "is now drowning in the quagmire" of Iraq and Afghanistan, adding Washington is powerless to help its allies in the region and around the world.

"No longer can it do anything but give empty talk and false promises to its partners," the voice said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group.

"The wheel of attrition is running smoothly by the grace of Allah and on a daily basis and on different fronts," the voice added.

U.S. officials said analysts are reviewing the speech, which was issued by IS's al-Furqan media division Monday, hours after teasing an upcoming release.

If confirmed, it would be the first message from the 48-year-old Baghdadi since April, when the self-declared caliph appeared in an 18-minute-long video urging followers to seek revenge for the collapse of the group's caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

In the speech, the voice on the recording makes references to ongoing IS operations without giving specifics, and said the U.S. had been "dragged by its feet" into Mali and Nigeria.

The speech also appears to quote a Sept. 5 appearance by Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We clearly don't have deterrence against attacks on our partners in the region," Dunford told the Council on Foreign Relations in reference to a question about Iranian attacks against U.S. interests in the region.

But the speaker called the statement proof that the U.S. is weak, saying Dunford's words, "pull back the curtain on the bitter truth to his allies," adding, the statement "shocked them."

The speaker also urged IS supporters to free those who were imprisoned or detained following the fall of its last stronghold in Baghuz, Syria, this past March.

"For your brothers and sisters, make (an) effort in saving them and destroying the gates that imprison them," the voice said.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are currently holding more than 2,000 IS foreign fighters in makeshift prisons in Syria, as well as Syrian members of the terror group.

Thousands more are being held in Iraqi prisons, and more than 11,000 IS wives and children are being held in detention camps, like Al-Hol, in Syria.

Baghdadi's general reluctance to make public appearances and his sporadic messages have repeatedly given rise to rumors that he had died or been killed. But U.S. officials have long maintained that Baghdadi is alive and has been hiding in remote parts of Syria or Iraq.

"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains at large. He remains as the titular head of the organization," former National Counterterrorism Center Director Joseph Maguire told West Point's Combating Terrorism Center before he assumed the role of acting director of national intelligence in August.

"Baghdadi and the core ISIS are somewhere still in Syria and Iraq. They are still able to move finances back and forth," Maguire added, using another acronym for the terror group.

Other U.S. officials, while not confirming the voice on the recording is Baghdadi, say they are not surprised the IS leader would try to message his followers.

"ISIS is struggling right now in the form of recruitment," said Brig. Gen. Len Anderson, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Ares, which is charged with combating IS in cyberspace.

"They're really trying to make sure that they keep the organization that they have," he told VOA. "It's not physical right now. The more videos that come out gives us, quite honestly, another opportunity to assess, to see what ISIS leadership is thinking and maybe gather some intelligence from that."

For now, though, the speech may be having its intended effect.

"Supporters on the encrypted platform seem 'happy' and enthused, so the message does resonate with them," said Chelsea Daymon, a terrorism and security researcher at American University. "There are lots of Baghdadi images being posted now."

Other IS supporters, claiming to be in locations ranging from the Al-Hol displaced persons camps in Syria to Brazil, began posting handwritten messages on social media in an attempt to reinforce themes in the speech.

"It seems his reappearance earlier this year was a real morale booster for supporters, and clearly he, or those around him, thinks it's good for ISIS and worth the risks to emerge every now and then," Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, a company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists, told VOA.

Since 2016, the United States has offered a reward of up to $25 million for information that helps bring Baghdadi to justice. Only one other person, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a reward that high.

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