IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced Sunday the establishment of the Muslim caliphate and declared its leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of ISIL.
The declaration made official what many observers expected, a claim that ISIL is itself a nation state that stretches wherever Muslims live, not just an insurgent group battling governments in Iraq and Syria.
The proclamation came one day after the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. That led to the redrawing of borders in the Middle East, including the one between Syria and Iraq that the Islamic State now says no longer exists.
One analyst called it the most significant development for Islamist extremists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
“The impact of this announcement will be global, as al-Qaida affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it,” said Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar. “The Islamic State’s announcement made it clear that it would perceive any group that failed to pledge allegiance an enemy of Islam.”
Nearly 12 million people now live under some level of ISIL control in Syria and Iraq, but the group’s activities in Syria have been denounced by al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The term caliphate refers to a style of governance put into place by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed after his death in the seventh century. It has not been seen in any form since the Ottomans collapsed in the early 20th century.
In an audio statement released on the Internet Sunday, ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said ISIL’s leadership council, known as the shura, made the decision to establish the caliphate and name “the jihadist cleric” Baghdadi “the caliph of the Muslims.”
Aymen al-Tamimi, an analyst of jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria for the Middle East Forum, said the declaration was unsurprising.
“This caliphate was de facto for months before the official announcement,” he said, noting that many aspects of Islamic law, or sharia, had already been imposed in areas under ISIL control. He referred specifically to the collection of jizya, a tax on Christians, and to ISIL references to its flag as the “banner of Khalifah,” or caliphate in Arabic.
In the announcement, Adnani explained all national, tribal or ethnic boundaries that currently span the Muslim world had been ruled invalid by the Islamic State’s shura and all Muslims were subject to the new caliphate’s authority or face judgment.
“Indeed, it is the state,” he said. “Indeed, it is the khilafah. It is time for you to end this abhorrent partisanship, dispersion and division, for this condition is not from the religion of Allah at all. And if you forsake the State or wage war against it, you will not harm it. You will only harm yourselves.”
The decision to announce this non-consensual approach by the Islamic State to rule all of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims poses numerous issues, not the least of which will be the reaction of many of the Islamic State’s allies among Sunni tribes and secular former Baathist officials currently helping it fight in Iraq. Those groups will now need to either declare themselves followers of the caliphate, surrendering much of their authority to Baghdadi, or hold onto their current roles as tribal or political leaders and be declared enemies of the caliphate.
“Some of the tribal sheikhs in Iraq seemed to be betting on the idea Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi won’t impose sharia,” Tamimi said. “It’s quite apparent that with the official caliphate vision they will be going all out, so the tribal sheiks wanting to work with ISIL have shown themselves to be hopelessly naive.”
Also closely watched will be the reaction of al-Qaida affiliates such as Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. officials consider AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaida branch because it has launched repeated attacks on U.S. targets and its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is a former secretary to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s current No. 2.
Wuhayshi and AQAP made no reference to ISIL’s declaration of a caliphate on Sunday, but a cleric with close ties to AQAP, Mamoun Hatem, took to Twitter to hail ISIL’s announcement as “a blessed event.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services