With Iraqi troops battling inside the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the shadowy militants’ leader has released a new message urging his followers to keep up the fight as there could be no retreat in a “total war” against the forces arrayed against them.
Expressing confidence that his ISIS fighters would prevail against Shi’ite Islam, Western “crusaders” and the Sunni “apostate” countries of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on the jihadists to “wreak havoc”.
“This raging battle and total war, and the great jihad that the state of Islam is fighting today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory,” Baghdadi said.
His cry came in a sermon-like recording, more than half an hour long, distributed by the militant group’s al-Furqan media arm late on Wednesday. It was not clear when the recording was produced. The exact location of Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, is not clear. Reports have said he may be in Mosul itself, or in ISIS-held land to the west of the city, close to the border with Syria.
Iraqi regular troops and special forces, Popular Mobilization Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by U.S.-led air strikes launched a campaign two weeks ago to retake Mosul.
After two weeks of advances through surrounding ISIS-held territory, Iraqi special forces stormed into Mosul’s eastern outskirts on Tuesday. They continued to consolidate their foothold in the eastern district of Kokjali despite a pair of attempted car bomb attacks on their positions Thursday.
Winning back the country’s second biggest city would mark the defeat of the Iraq wing of a crossborder caliphate which Baghdadi declared from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. ISIS also holds large parts of neighboring Syria.
In his first audio message released in nearly a year, Baghdadi called on the population of Mosul’s Nineveh province “not to weaken in the jihad” against the “enemies of God”.
He also called on the group’s suicide fighters to “turn the nights of the unbelievers into days, to wreak havoc in their land and make their blood flow as rivers”.
Addressing those who might consider fleeing, he said: “Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame.”
Shortly after Baghdadi’s speech was released at around 2 a.m., an explosives-laden vehicle sped out of an ISIS-controlled area in Mosul and attacked Iraqi special forces positioned in the city’s easternmost Kokjali neighborhood on Thursday. The special forces fired a rocket that blew up the car, killing the attacker.
A second suicide attacker also emerged from the same area, the more central Samah district, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil said, but that vehicle managed to get away. ISIS group fighters were also using explosives-laden drone aircraft, he said, adding that the militants had deployed two since the previous night but that both had been destroyed.
Outside the city’s eastern limits, hundreds of civilians streamed away from the conflict, packed into cars, pickups and trucks, waving white flags and hooting horns. Cows and sheep also filled the road from Kokjali, on the eastern edge of Mosul.
Fleeing residents said there had been heavy mortar fire launched by retreating ISIS fighters.
The authenticity of the 31-minute-long recording could not be immediately verified, but the voice and style closely resembled those of previous speeches Baghdadi has delivered.
The recording appeared to be recent as it focused on the Mosul offensive, although he did not mention the city by name.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by ISIS two years ago in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been advancing on Mosul for two weeks from the north, from the eastern Nineveh plains and up the Tigris river from the south.
Brett McGurk, U.S. President Barack Obama’s counter-ISIS envoy, said the Mosul campaign was ahead of schedule. “Iraqi forces enter eastern neighborhoods of Mosul this morning. New advances on all axes,” McGurk tweeted.
Senior Kurdish politician Hoshiyar Zebari said in a tweet that ISIS blew up parts of a bridge linking the eastern and western sides of the city to try to prevent its fighters abandoning the eastern districts. Residents said there had been an explosion at the bridge but said the cause was not clear.