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Islamic State militants reaffirm allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Islamic State group militants renew pledge of loyalty for the first time since collapse of 'caliphate' in Iraq and Syria
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been heard of since 2016 (AFP)

Islamic State group (IS) militants have reaffirmed their loyalty to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what is thought to be their first public pledge of allegiance to him since his “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria collapsed last year.

While the group continues to carry out attacks in both Syria and Iraq and more recently in Libya, Baghdadi’s situation has been unknown since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria respectively.

To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

- Islamic State statement

"To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him," militants said in a statement posted on their social media groups.

Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several governments including Iraq's on Islamic State affairs, said this was the first known pledge of loyalty to Baghdadi since Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul in July and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias took Raqqa in November, in both cases backed by a US-led coalition.

There have been conflicting reports over whether Baghdadi, an Iraqi, is still alive.

According to US sources, Baghdadi was seriously wounded in March 2015 during a coalition air strike in Baaj, Iraq. Reports suggested he had been paralysed.

In October 2015, the Iraqi air force claimed to have bombed his convoy in Anbar. The attack and Baghdadi's presence was never confirmed.

In June 2016, Iraqi state television claimed Baghdadi had been wounded in a US air attack in northern Iraq, while other claims said he died in an attack in Raqqa - the US coalition poured cold water on both claims.

In October 2016, Baghdadi was reported to have been poisoned, but not killed.

An audio message in late 2016, his last, urged his men to fight on to the last man as they lost their grip on Mosul.

"Do not retreat... Holding your ground with honour 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."

Hashimi told Reuters that he was believed to be hiding in the vast desert area that straddles the Syria-Iraq border.

US airstrikes killed most of his top lieutenants, including Islamic State's "war minister" Abu Omar al-Shishani, "governor of the Iraqi region" Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and "governor for Syria" Abu Ali al-Anbari.

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