ISIS leader previously thought dead, alive and well in chilling new audio?

Reports of the demise of ISIS’ self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi are greatly exaggerated, it would appear.

As ISIS began losing their bases of operations in Raqqa (their de-facto capital), Russia said that it had received credible reports that they had taken Baghdadi out in an airstrike on May 28th near Raqqa. Two weeks later, an Iranian official said that Baghdadi was “definitely dead.”

If there’s anything we’ve learned from political drama, it’s that unnamed sources aren’t always the most reliable, and that’s the case here as well.

The last speech by Baghdadi was issued as Iraqi and Kurdish troops were advancing on Mosul in November of last year, and a new release from ISIS today purports to show Baghdadi still alive.

According to the BBC:

Islamic State militants have released what appears to be an audio recording of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A speaker who sounds like the IS leader seems to refer to recent North Korean threats against Japan and the US.

“North Korea is now threatening America and Japan with nuclear power. America, Europe and Russia are living in a state of terror… fearing the strikes of the mujahideen,” he says. 

He also talks of battles for IS strongholds like Mosul, which was regained by Iraqi forces in July.

Baghdadi, who has a $25m (£19m) US bounty on his head, has not been seen in public since July 2014, leading to much speculation about his fate. 

The last time he appeared was to preach at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul after IS overran the city and a “caliphate” was proclaimed.

In the most recent speech, Baghdadi doesn’t directly mention ISIS’ catastrophic losses in Mosul and Raqqa. Some could take it as an indication that ISIS is serving us an old speech as “proof” of Baghdadi’s existence, but the group, as a rule, never mentions their losses in propaganda.

The speech is 46-minutes in length, and was released by ISIS’ Al-Furqan news organization with no date of recording. The “statehood” (or Caliphate) aspect of ISIS is the main allure for their recruits, who believe that Baghdadi is literally the spiritual successor to the prophet Mohammad. Potential recruits that ISIS aims to draw in would certainly have to question the groups’ ideaology in the event of Baghdadi’s death. Why would Allah allow Mohammad’s successor to be killed, after all? And without a Caliph, how does a Caliphate operate?

“What is dead may never die” Baghdadi says at one point in the speech — and he has a point. Until there exists confirmation of his death, it’s doubtful that ISIS will provide it themselves.

[Note: This post was written by Matt Palumbo. He is a co-author of the new book A Paradoxical Alliance: Islam and the Left, and can be found on Twitter @MattPalumbo12]

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