ISIS has released a new audio recording of its spiritual leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marking the first time he has been heard from in months.
The 46-minute audio recording comes after Russia claimed to have killed Baghdadi in an airstrike on Raqqa back in June.
While the audio does not provide proof that he is still alive, it does reference US threats made against North Korea.
This raises the possibility it was recorded in the last few months, but analysts say the speech lacks specific details that would allow them to date it more accurately.
ISIS has released an audio recording of its spiritual leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, marking the first time he has been heard from in months and raising the prospect he is still alive
The news comes after U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said he believed Baghdadi is still alive.
His claim was based on a ‘lack of evidence’ of al-Baghdadi’s death as well as intelligence suggesting he may still be alive, he said.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon over video-link from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said: ‘Do I believe he’s alive? Yes.’
He said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen – ‘rumour or otherwise’ – that al-Baghdadi was dead.
He then added: ‘There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s alive.’ Townsend did not elaborate on the intelligence.
Russian officials said in June there was a ‘high probability’ that al-Baghdadi died when one of their airstrikes hit a gathering of ISIS commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
However, come July, Kremlin admitted that they were struggling to confirm that al-Baghdadi had died, and both Western and Iraqi officials have remained skeptical.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting ISIS, said there’s ‘lack of evidence’ of al-Baghdadi’s death as well as intelligence he’s alive
Last month, Kurdish counter-terrorism official Lahur Talabany said he was 99 per cent sure that al-Baghdadi had simply gone into hiding.
He said: ‘Don’t forget his roots go back to al-Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.’
The only ‘confirmation’ has been from the British-based monitoring group The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who said in July: ‘(We have) confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor.’
It was reported that ISIS had admitted al-Baghdadis death, seemingly confirming it when a senior member of the group – Abu Haitham al-Obaidi, tdeputy mayor in Hawija in northern Iraq, declared himself the new leader in July.
U.S. and coalition forces are actively searching for al-Baghdadi, Townsend said, adding that ‘if they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him.’
A good guess about where al-Baghdadi is hiding, Townsend said, would be the so-called Middle Euphrates River Valley, stretching approximately from the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria to the town of Rawa in western Iraq.
He said this area is shaping up to be the group’s ‘last stand’ following its ouster from nearly all of northern Iraq.
Losing: ISIS forces have been ousted from nearly all of northern Iraq, including its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, and half of it’s de-facto capital Raqqa, in Syria
The most recent IS setback was in Tal Afar, west of the also recently-liberated city of Mosul, which had been the militants’ main stronghold in Iraq.
The Iraqi government announced Thursday that Tal Afar had been returned to government control. Townsend called it a ‘stunningly swift’ victory for the Iraqi army, moving ‘like a steamroller’ into the city in a matter of days.
The IS militants, who swept into Iraq in 2014 against minimal resistance from the Iraqi army, still control a large area of eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, as well as parts of Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate. Townsend said U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces have recaptured about half of Raqqa in ongoing fighting.
Assessing his 12 months in command of the U.S.-led coalition, Townsend said more tough fighting remains but signs are positive. It will be up to the Iraqi government, he said, to safeguard the gains troops have achieved since 2015, when Iraqi security forces began a U.S.-assisted counteroffensive in the western Anbar province.
‘I think part of the rise of ISIS was disenfranchised peoples, most of them Sunnis, who looked at Baghdad and they didn’t see their government representing them or their interests or their future,’ he said.
‘And I think that’s probably the most important thing that the government of Iraq has to do. It has to reach out, reconcile, bring all Iraqis together and be the government of all Iraqis.’
Townsend said he hopes the U.S. government works out an arrangement for a long-term military presence in Iraq to minimize the chances of another IS-like episode. He said such talks are under way.
‘We all saw what happened in 2011 when we parted ways completely,’ he said, referencing the pullout of U.S. troops under former President Barack Obama and Iraq’s subsequent struggles.
‘My personal view is I wouldn’t want to repeat that,’ Townsend said. ‘So I think that our governments will work out something that will work for the future.’
Townsend is ending his year in command in Baghdad and will hand off next week to another three-star Army general, Paul Funk II.
He credited the Trump administration with putting greater trust in him and other commanders to execute the counter-IS campaign.
‘The current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command,’ Townsend said. ‘And I don’t know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn’t appreciate that.’
‘A key result of that is that we don’t get second-guessed a lot,’ he added. ‘Our judgment here on the battlefield in the forward areas is trusted. And we don’t get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take.’