The U.S. military on Thursday called the latest message from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a desperate bid to boost morale among militants who increasingly realize they're fighting for a losing cause.
"It's an effort to rally the troops who are under pressure, who have been pushed back and pushed out of the areas they used to control" and now are under siege in Mosul, said Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Dorrian said the tape, attributed to Baghdadi and released by the ISIS-affiliated al-Furqan media outlet, suggested dissension in the ranks of the militants who are "under pressure all the time and subject to being struck anywhere they mass."
"Do not retreat," Baghdadi said in the message, his first since December 2015.
"Holding your ground with honor is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame," he said. "To all the people of Nineveh, especially the fighters, beware of any weakness in facing your enemy." Nineveh is the province in northwestern Iraq that has Mosul as its capital.
However, Baghdadi added, "The great jihad that the Islamic State is fighting today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory."
Dorrian said the task force could not immediately verify the authenticity of the tape, "but it is quite clearly an effort on the part of Daesh [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] to communicate to their fighters, and this is probably excellent evidence that their command and control, and ability to communicate directly to their fighters and control them, has been severely reduced."
Dorrian said the task force has picked up indications that some ISIS fighters inside Mosul "are abandoning their posts and trying to get away. Baghdadi is saying don't fight among themselves. This is the type of thing that a leader who's losing command and control and ability to keep everybody on the same page says. We don't believe that is going to work."
The whereabouts of Baghdadi, who declared the creation of a "caliphate" from a mosque in Mosul in June 2014, are unknown, Dorrian said. "If we knew where he was, he would be killed at once."
Some reports from the region have speculated that Baghdadi is hiding in Mosul, while others have said he is most likely in Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in northeastern Syria.
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told NBC News that U.S.-backed local forces in northern Syria would be ready to move against Raqqa "within weeks" in concert with the Mosul offensive.
Dorrian was decidedly less certain of a timeline, stressing that he was not disagreeing with Carter but noting that some of the local forces expected to participate in a Raqqa offensive had yet to be trained. The makeup of the force that would move against Mosul also had yet to be determined from among the various Kurdish, Arab and Christian factions, he said.
Currently, Raqqa is "not fully isolated by any means and not encircled, but that's what's coming in the near future," Dorrian said. Even when the city is encircled, it is still uncertain which of the local forces "would actually move into the city."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.