ISIS leader rallies followers as group faces setbacks

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria finds itself under growing pressure on several fronts, facing battlefield setbacks in both countries. In a new audio message Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, has warned of difficult times ahead, saying “the whole world” is united against the Islamic State.

Al-Baghdadi’s 24-minute message — his first since May — appears to have been recorded in the past two weeks. The ISIS leader talks of a “general war” in which the “caliphate” is up against the West, Russia and their Arab allies — specifically Saudi Arabia. The recording was released Saturday by ISIS’ Al-Furqan Media.

“Do not be amazed by the meeting of the nations of disbelief and groups against the Islamic State,” says al Baghdadi. “If we are killed and the wounds are numerous and the problems amassed against us and the hardships are great, then it is no surprise either.”

Mounting challenges

Those problems for ISIS are multiplying. The Iraqi military said Monday that it had retaken the city of Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar province which the terror group seized in May. Iraqi military officials report that ISIS has abandoned government buildings it occupied in the heart of the city.

In northern Iraq, ISIS is also struggling to keep open supply lines into Mosul, after the capture by Kurdish Peshmerga in November of the strategic route linking the city with the group’s Syrian territory.

ISIS leader mocks coalition against it

In Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have inched closer to Raqqa, ISIS’ administrative headquarters, and took the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River, just 13 miles north of the city. This latest advance by the Kurdish-led SDF threatens to further erode ISIS’ access to the Turkish border through the town of Manbij.

The SDF are still some way from Manbij, which ISIS is expected to defend fiercely. But the area has a substantial Kurdish population, and activists claim that ISIS has begun executing Kurds in Manbij to deter an uprising.

Further east, ISIS’ oil fields and refining capacity around Deir ez-Zor have been severely damaged by months of airstrikes, reducing its revenues and fuel supplies.

Adaptable and resilient

In his latest message, Baghdadi candidly recalls previous setbacks for the Islamic State’s predecessors in Iraq, notably 10 years ago when the movement’s founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed and Sunni tribes turned against it. “The seditions and the hardships became greater, such that the Islamic State fell back from many of the areas it had taken and controlled,” he says.

Even so, he tells supporters: “Be reassured, for your state is still good. Whenever the conspiring of the nations increases against it, the more certain (is) the support of Allah.”