ISIS Declares the Caliphate: An Analysis

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has declared a Caliphate in the territory it claims to control.  The leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has taken the title “Caliph Ibrahim” and, henceforth, ISIS will be known simply as the “Islamic State.” This is a momentous occasion for the jihadi-salafist movement, since the creation of a Caliphate is one of the stated goals of extremist groups around the Muslim-majority world.

To understand the significance of this event, at least five issues should be taken into consideration. 

First, the concept of a “Caliphate” for this particular group is about more than recreating an actual state from earlier times. The putative ISIS state is a novel concept: an expansive entity that will not recognize international borders and will be defined primarily by the extreme version of shari’a it imposes on its “subjects.” There is no natural end to the territory that the Islamic State will claim, since their Caliphate seeks more than just the incorporation of all Muslims under its banner. This means that the ISIS Caliphate will almost certainly not be limited to fighting in the region, but will see itself as a global jihadist organization in competition with al-Qaeda, making it a national security threat to the United States.

The second important point is that any future for the Islamic State is predicated on its fighters’ ability to continue the swift conquests of the last month. If the Iraqi government is able to liberate areas of the country now under the Islamic State’s control, or even if the fighting in Iraq turns into a stalemate, the legitimacy of the entire enterprise will be called into question. The easy advances in Iraq are therefore a double-edged sword for the new State: they have certainly allowed “Caliph Ibrahim” and his followers to make a case for the creation of a Caliphate, but they also have set expectations for future actions from the Islamic State extremely high.  A failure to meet these expectations could lead to disillusionment and an abandonment of the State by other jihadis.

Third, this particular issue is made even more complex for the Islamic State by the fact that it is going to run into resistance—perhaps serious resistance—when it attempts to implement its vision of the Caliphate. In every place that al-Qaeda or ISIS have imposed their ideology and version of shari’a—whether Iraq, Syria, Mali, or Somalia—it has been rejected by ordinary Muslims. After experiencing firsthand the extremism, murder, and intimidation that accompanied the creation of the previous iteration of the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Iraqis turned against them decisively and rejected their vision for the future of their country.  This rejection, with the help of the American surge, allowed the marginalization and defeat of the extremists in 2006-2009. Given this recent history, the Islamic State will not have an easy time reasserting their authority over these same people today.

Fourth, it is not just ordinary Iraqis who will resist; other militant groups might decide to fight the new Caliphate as well.  The declaration by the Islamic State orders all jihadists to swear allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim”—the same demand that was made by ISI when it declared an Islamic state in 2006.  Many militant groups rejected the demand then, which led to bloody infighting in 2006 and 2007, and facilitated the swift advance of the surge.  The declaration of the Caliphate might also lead to resistance from Iraqi militants because, according to Wikibaghdady, a source that seems to have access to the highest councils of the Islamic State, the current offensive in Iraq was the result of an agreement between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, once Saddam Hussein’s right hand.  If this is true, and there are other reasons to believe that it might be, it is difficult to imagine the secular and influential al-Duri following the Islamic State’s extreme version of shari’a and agreeing to accept “Caliph Ibrahim” as his new master.  The demand by the Islamic State might therefore split the forces that have fought so effectively in Iraq and lead to their dissolution through infighting.

Finally, there is the effect that all these events will have on the continuing dispute between the former ISIS and al-Qaeda. If the Islamic State is able to convince a majority of the jihadi-salafist movement that their new conquests herald the arrival of the one true Caliphate, its fighters are able to continue moving forward in Iraq, and the leaders of the group are able to restrain their authoritarian impulses, there is a chance that “Caliph Ibrahim” will be able to make a play for leadership of the global jihad. 

Meanwhile for al-Qaeda, the declaration of the Caliphate has created a serious dilemma: if the leadership openly opposes the new State, it could be perceived as attacking the objective that all jihadists have been seeking to achieve and as denigrating the swift victories achieved in Iraq.  If, on the other hand, the group chooses to say and do nothing, other jihadi-salafists might take this as a sign of weakness or even acquiescence to the new State, leading more fighters choosing to support the State rather than al-Qaeda.

It might be, however, that al-Qaeda believes the entire enterprise is doomed to failure.  The first impulse of some al-Qaeda linked commenters was to compare ISIS with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which fought against the Algerian military throughout much of the 1990s. During that war as well, GIA leaders set themselves up as “Caliphs,” attempting to unify the ranks of fighters through coercion, and finally ended by declaring nearly everyone in Algeria to be an unbeliever who could be killed. The result was the implosion of a successful insurgency, but also the creation of a small remnant group—the Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting (GSPC)—that joined up with al-Qaeda and eventually became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM). It might be that al-Qaeda is playing the long game then, with hopes that out of the ashes of the Iraqi jihad, a new al-Qaeda affiliate will arise to take its place with the original group in the global fight.    

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