BEIRUT — The Islamic State group on Thursday released what appeared to be a rare recording of its cloistered leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, vowing to continue the group’s fight across Syria and Iraq as its self-proclaimed caliphate there crumbles.

Peppered with references to current geopolitical flash points, including North Korea and Iraqi Kurdistan, the unverified 46-minute speech seemed partly intended to silence reports that Baghdadi has been killed on the battlefield.

It has been almost a year since his last message to followers, recorded as Islamic State militants girded themselves for a U.S.-backed assault on Mosul, their largest stronghold. Now fully under control of the Iraqi government, the city’s mosque – from which Baghdadi made his only public appearance as the militant group’s leader – lies in ruins, a shattered reminder of the dominance the Islamic State once held over a swath of land that once spanned almost a third of Syria and Iraq.

Three years on, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is defending a shrinking stretch of territory.

In Iraq, the group is down to two last strongholds after losing a grueling, nine-month battle for control of the city of Mosul.

In Syria, the Islamic State has all but lost its grip on its onetime de facto capital of Raqqa and is now facing down parallel U.S.- and Syrian-backed offensives in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

In Thursday’s recording, the voice purporting to be Baghdadi’s cast those defeats in a more charitable light.

“This predicament is a generous gift from God,” he said.

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