Islamic State claims audio message from elusive leader

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been seen for months amid reports he was seriously injured in coalition airstrike

File: Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sermon. (screen capture: YouTube)
File: Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sermon. (screen capture: YouTube)

BEIRUT — The Islamic State group on Monday released an audio message purportedly from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has not been seen or heard from in months.

The audio message posted on militant websites features a voice that sounds like al-Baghdadi’s exhorting all Muslims to take up arms and fight on behalf of the group’s self-styled caliphate.

The speaker references the Saudi-led air campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen, which began on March 26, and harshly criticizes the Saudi royal family.

It was not immediately possible to verify whether the voice was al-Baghdadi’s.

At the beginning of the month The Guardian reported that al-Baghdadi has been effectively replaced as head of the jihadist group after suspected spinal injuries sustained in an attack by US forces left him incapacitated.

A report in The Guardian last month claimed that the self-proclaimed caliph was left seriously hurt in a March 18 US airstrike in Iraq. The strike in question killed three individuals traveling in a convoy in the Iraqi city of al-Baaj, 128 km (80 miles) west of Mosul.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that it was responsible for the attack, but said it was unaware of al-Baghdadi being one of the casualties.

Al-Baghdadi’s deputy Abu Alaa al-Afari was said to be running the organization’s day-to-day operations. However, on Wednesday Iraq said that al-Afari and other top Islamic State leaders were targeted in a strike by the US-led coalition.

“Based on accurate intelligence, an airstrike was carried out by the international coalition targeting the number two in the Daesh terrorist organization Abu Alaa al-Afari,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State jihadist organization, which took over swaths of Iraq last year.

It was not clear from the statement whether Afari was killed in the strike, which the ministry said targeted a gathering in the Martyrs’ Mosque in Tal Afar’s Al-Ayadiya district.

Reacting to reports that Afari had been killed, the US Central Command overseeing the air war against the IS group, said it had “no information to corroborate these claims.”

“However, we can confirm that coalition aircraft did not strike a mosque as some of the press reporting has alleged,” it said in a statement.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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