In what one expert called the “most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” the Al-Qaeda-breakaway group that has taken over portions of Iraq and Syria has declared its vast holdings a restored Islamic caliphate and required Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which also announced Sunday it would shorten its name to the Islamic State as it eyes regional expansion, has carved out a large territory stretching from northern Syria to the western gates of Baghdad and begun to lay the foundation for a functioning state. But the announcement of a caliphate is a risky play that could alienate mainstream Sunni militias and disaffected Sunni citizens who have boosted its insurgency in Iraq.
In a statement posted on Salafist websites Sunday, an ISIL spokesman named the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of a new entity that is meant to replicate the seventh century Rashidun Caliphate ruled by the Prophet Muhammad’s successors — a longtime dream of the global Salafist movement.
“He is the imam and khalifah [caliph] for the Muslims everywhere,” Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in the statement, which was translated into several languages in a nod to the group’s international recruiting aims. “It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to [him] and support him … The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.”
Experts on the ISIL, which took root in rebel-held Syria amid the chaos of the country's civil war before staging a lightning offensive across northern and western Iraq over the past few weeks, say the announcement of a caliphate is intended to propel the group beyond its chief Salafist rival, Al-Qaeda.
The two have competed for funding and recruits ever since the ISIL split from Al-Qaeda over leadership disputes between Baghdadi and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. At the center of the falling out was the Islamic State's refusal to share power with other Syrian rebel factions, which spurred infighting that allowed the Assad government to reclaim the upper hand in the civil war. Al-Qaeda’s homegrown franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has mostly cooperated with other rebels.
But the ISIL has gained in prestige and netted an estimated $2 billion in funding from its Iraq incursion and is now gambling that the historic and symbolic erasure of the European-imposed Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which established the dividing line between French-mandate Syria and British-mandate Iraq, could tip the balance in the newcomer’s favor.
“This announcement poses a huge threat to Al-Qaeda and its longtime position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Associated Press. “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of [the ISIL], largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.”
It isn’t clear what the declaration, which came on the first full day of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan, will change for the transnational insurgency. The group has already taken the unprecedented step of grabbing land and laying the foundation for a functioning state, something Al-Qaeda never accomplished.
But the United States, which has sent 300 military advisers to help the underpowered Iraqi security forces roll back the insurgency, indicated its alarm at Sunday’s announcement. ISIL’s strategy to develop a caliphate across the region has been clear for some time now. That is why this is a critical moment for the international community to stand together against ISIL and the advances it has made,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
For over a year, the Islamic State has been governing tiny “emirates” in northern Syria that rebels had liberated from the Assad regime. There it has imposed its radical interpretation of Islamic law, which has alienated a majority of those who once fought alongside ISIL brigades — even many Islamists. But with rebel factions stretched thin and the Assad government happy to see its narrative about the “terrorist” rebellion validated, residents are powerless to drive the extremists out.
In the Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, the first major population center to fall under its control, a parade was organized to celebrate the claimed historic restoration of the Rashidun caliphate. But videos uploaded to YouTube showed a meager turnout, and anti-ISIL activists told Al Jazeera they hadn’t heard a public celebration was being staged.
That track record leads most to believe the Islamic State has no chance of achieving the universal Muslim allegiance enjoyed by the original Rashidun caliphate. But its supporters point to certain parallels. The rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century is something the ISIL clearly intends to emulate, and its fighters have no doubt been buoyed by their recent gains in Iraq. Supporters of Baghdadi point to his organization’s fierce literal interpretation of Islam, which they say accurately reflect the rule of the early caliphs.
Still, the Islamic State has taken a leap of faith, so to speak. In Iraq the insurgency has relied on the partnership of other Sunni militias that are hostile to the government of hard-line Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and on the tacit consent of the country’s disaffected Sunnis. Those groups have been willing to tolerate — or perhaps overlook — the ISIL’s radical vision for a post-Maliki Iraq, but the declaration of a caliphate that seeks to eradicate the modern state of Iraq as it now exists might be a bridge too far.
“Now the insurgents in Iraq have no excuse for working with ISIS if they were hoping to share power with ISIS,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst who specializes in Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State. “The prospect of infighting in Iraq is increased for sure.”
“Whatever judgments are made in terms of its legitimacy, [the] announcement that it has restored the caliphate is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” Lister said. “The impact of this announcement will be global, as Al-Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it.”
Shafik Mandhai contributed reporting, with wire services