CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State’s media network on Monday published a threatening video message purporting to come from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in what would be his first appearance since declaring the jihadists’ now-defunct “caliphate” five years ago.
In the 18-minute video from the Al Furqan network, a bearded man with Baghdadi’s appearance says the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka were IS’s response to losses in its last territorial stronghold of Baghouz in Syria.
The group will seek revenge for jailed and killed members, he says, calling for militants operating in west Africa to multiply attacks against “Crusader France and its allies”.
The authenticity and date of the recording could not be independently verified.
The video would be the first from Baghdadi since he was filmed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014. More recent speeches have been released as audio recordings.
Introductory script at the start of the video dates it to earlier in April, and he can be seen sitting cross-legged on the floor giving an address to three aides who have their faces blurred.
The speaker appears to be in good health and looks like a slightly older version of Baghdadi than when he was pictured in 2014, addressing followers from a pulpit to declare a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria.
In the footage released on Monday, he is dressed in black robes and a beige waistcoat, with a long graying beard dyed red at the bottom. A rifle leans against the wall behind him.
“Our battle today is a battle of attrition with the enemy … Jihad continues until judgment day, and God ordered us to jihad, but not to victory,” he said.
He congratulated militants in Libya for a deadly attack earlier this month on the southern desert town of Fuqaha, where they later retreated, and militants in Burkina Faso and Mali for pledging allegiance to Islamic State.
He also asked God to protect them and Abu Waleed al-Sahrawi, the leader of IS in the Greater Sahara. “We recommend the mujahideen to drain their enemies of all their human, military, economic and logistical capabilities,” he said.
At the height of its power IS ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad.
But the fall in 2017 of Mosul and Raqqa, its strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively, stripped Baghdadi of the trappings of a caliph and turned him into a fugitive thought to be moving along the desert border between Iraq and Syria.
There had been conflicting reports over whether Baghdadi, an Iraqi, is still alive.
The CIA had no immediate comment on the video.
“We are aware of a video posted today reportedly showing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson. “We are continuing to support partner forces in their mission of an enduring defeat of ISIS.”
U.S. air strikes killed most of Baghdadi’s top lieutenants, including “war minister” Abu Omar al-Shishani, “governor of the Iraqi region” Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and “governor for Syria” Abu Ali al-Anbari.
Though it lost its last significant territory, the Syrian village of Baghouz, last month, IS has sleeper cells around the world and some fighters operate from the shadows in Syria’s desert and Iraq’s cities.
In West Africa’s troubled Sahel region, Islamist extremists have been exploiting local conflicts to extend their reach, with most attacks blamed on groups loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda. In Nigeria, a breakaway faction of the extremist group Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to IS.
In the video, the speaker paid tribute to fighters who died in the Baghouz area, saying they included nationals from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France, Australia, Chechnya and Egypt.
He said Easter Sunday bombings that left more than 250 people dead were carried out “in revenge for their brothers in Baghouz”.
The group had carried out 92 operations in eight countries in revenge for their losses, he said, without giving a timeframe for the attacks. Baghdadi’s last known audio recording was released in August 2018.
At the end of the video, one of the aides passes laminated files to Baghdadi labeled with some of the countries or regions in which IS has been active, including Somalia, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, west Africa, Yemen, and Libya.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Cawthorne