Recent losses and airstrikes haven’t weakened Islamic State, the group’s reclusive leader purportedly said in an audio message, even as the militants lose ground to Iraqi forces in a key city.
The audio message, which appeared Saturday on social media accounts and websites used by Islamic State, was the first said to come from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since May. Al-Baghdadi said his group had sustained setbacks before in Iraq and Syria, only to return stronger.
Iraqi troops backed by U.S. airstrikes are closing in on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which the jihadist group captured in May. The U.S. has promised to send additional special forces to Iraq and Syria to combat the group, and along with allies has stepped up airstrikes.
The fall of Ramadi would deal a setback to the al-Qaeda breakaway group at a time when it is also facing intensified coalition airstrikes in Syria after claiming an attack in Paris in November than killed more than 120 people.
U.S. officials have said aerial bombing alone can’t defeat Islamic State and ground forces are needed. But Baghdadi said the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t dare to send ground forces to fight Islamic State after being bogged down in lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Islamic State has declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq it has seized, prompting the U.S. to carry out airstrikes against the group in both countries and put together an international coalition to join the fight. The U.S. is undertaking a significant effort to find and kill al-Baghdadi, who is in hiding, an Obama administration official said earlier this month.
Al-Baghdadi was also dismissive of a newly announced Islamic alliance against terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia.
“If this coalition was Islamic, it would have staged a war against the Alawites and the Russians in Syria, it would have announced war against the Shiites and the Kurds in Iraq,” al-Baghdadi said, calling on Saudi citizens to join Islamic State.