The Sunni terrorist network that now controls a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq declared itself a caliphate over the weekend, a move that they claim carries significant impact on global jihad. The Washington Post calls this a “powerful challenge” to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who inherited the top spot in al-Qaeda after US forces killed Osama bin Laden three years ago, as the new self-proclaimed caliph demands absolute fealty from all other jihadi forces … or else:
In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.
The move signifies “a new era of international jihad,” said the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who also declared an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as the group had called itself.
Henceforth, ISIS will simply be known as the Islamic State, in recognition of the breakdown of international borders achieved as a result of the group’s conquests, he said. ISIS’s chief, an Iraqi known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will be the caliph, or leader, of the new caliphate, and all Muslims worldwide will be required to pay allegiance to him.
The proclamation is a powerful challenge to al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also claims supremacy over the global jihadist movement. Zawahiri repudiated Baghdadi early this year after the Iraqi leader rejected repeated al-Qaeda directives to adopt a more inclusive approach toward other jihadist groups, and it is unlikely that he will agree to bow to the authority of the proclaimed new caliph.
According to Bill Gertz at the Free Beacon, at least one AQ affiliate has switched to Baghdadi’s command:
A Syrian rebel group closely aligned with al Qaeda’s official central leadership has switched sides and is now supporting an ultra-violent offshoot, following the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s blitzkrieg attack on Iraq, according to U.S. officials and reports from the region.
A local unit of the Al Nusra Front—the official rebel group of al Qaeda in Syria—agreed to back the ISIL on Wednesday.
The merger of one portion of al Nusra with ISIL is being viewed by government intelligence analysts and others as a troubling indicator that the inner battle between the two groups may be shifting in ISIL’s favor.
CBS News also seems hopeful for some AQ-ISIS infighting:
Experts predicted the caliphate declaration could herald infighting among the Sunni militants who have joined forces with the Islamic State in its fight against the Shiite-led government.
“Now the insurgents in Iraq have no excuse for working with ISIS also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) if they were hoping to share power with ISIS,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst who specializes in Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. “The prospect of infighting in Iraq is increased for sure.”
The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of al Qaeda.
Founded by Osama bin Laden, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. has long carried the mantle of the international jihadi cause. But the Islamic State has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what al Qaeda never has – carve out a large swath of territory in the heart of the Arab world and control it.
“This announcement poses a huge threat to al Qaeda and its long-time position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, in emailed comments. “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.”
That sounds more like wishful thinking than reality. The various competing networks have clashed at times and allied at others. Zawahiri isn’t going to come out of hiding anyway, so the only way he’d be able to claim the title of Caliph would be if everyone else fighting his battles dropped dead or all of his enemies did, neither of which is likely to happen in his lifetime. Bakr is on the only ground that jihadis can claim to hold, so he’s the only one who make a case for any kind of caliphate. The other networks are mostly focused on their own local fights or attacking the West, neither of which competes with ISIS except perhaps in parts of Syria not under their control anyway.
That doesn’t mean that we should start addressing ISIS as a de facto state yet. Simply declaring a caliphate doesn’t make it a reality. Thus far, ISIS controls a lot of territory but hardly well enough to claim statehood. It’s unclear where the caliphate would be headquartered, for instance, and with the kind of pressure being supplied by Syria and Iraq, it’s doubtful that they’ll declare a capital city any time soon — or at least stick their heads up in one.
On the other hand, the pressure from Iraq may not be as great as some hope. The offensive to retake Tikrit has apparently stalled:
The so-called caliphate’s resources are significant — for a terrorist network. For a marauding army with delusions of statehood, not so much:
“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani said.
Al-Baghdadi rose through the ranks of the organization before becoming emir some time in 2010-2011. The group relies on a handful of senior decision makers, but al-Baghdadi has the final word, according to the intelligence official. Most of its funding comes via robbery, extortion and smuggling, with a small percentage coming from donations. ISIS has also reportedly looted banks in some of the cities its seized.
Although CBS doesn’t mention it, the new “caliph” actually started his ascent after being released in 2009 from the US detention center at Camp Bucca in Iraq, part of the planned withdrawal of US forces that was completed in 2011.
At any rate, the declaration of the caliphate has less to do with statehood or global leadership than it does with local competitors. Zawahiri may get annoyed, but he’s not really the main target of this declaration. It’s meant to warn competing militias in the areas ISIS already controls that either they’re with Baghdadi, or they’re against him. ISIS wants no competition in arms inside of their existing footprint or adjacent to it, and will target any other networks that don’t fall in line. That’s where the infighting will occur.