CAIRO - Islamic State released an audio recording of its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on Thursday, the first communication from the elusive jihadist leader in almost year during which the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria.
The date of the 46-minute recording, released via the Al-Furqan news organisation, which is linked to the jihadist group, was not clear. But Baghdadi makes reference to North Korean threats against Japan and United States.
The audio release, much of which is dedicated to religious scriptures, comes amid growing speculation over the fate of the Baghdadi, whose last recorded speech was issued in early November 2016, two weeks after the start of the battle for Mosul, when he urged his followers to fight the "unbelievers" and "make their blood flow as rivers".
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have since defeated Islamic State in Mosul, where Baghdadi declared a self-styled caliphate three years ago. Militants blew up Mosul's El Nuri mosque where Baghdadi made his 2014 declaration after Islamic State captured the city.
Officials have said they believed it could take years to capture or kill Baghdadi as he is thought to be hiding in thousands of square miles of sparsely-populated desert between Mosul and Raqqa, where drones are easy to spot.
Russia's defence ministry said earlier this year it may have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of senior Islamic State commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa but Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials were sceptical.
(Reporting by Mostafa Hashem and Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt) ((Nadine.Awadalla@thomsonreuters.com;))