ISIS is an acronym that has become all too familiar in the past year. It stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (al-Sham meaning the historical Levant, including both Syria and Lebanon), and refers to the Islamist military organization, founded in 2013, and operating in Iraq and northern Syria. But events move fast in the Middle East, and it seems that ISIS has outlived its usefulness.
ISIS started life as an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. In the early days, it called itself simply the “Islamic State of Iraq.” When its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a targeted strike by the US Air Force in June 2006, into his shoes stepped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Zarqawi had been the most brutal of al-Qaida's leaders, responsible for a succession of mass suicide bombings and highly publicised beheadings, videoed and posted online. Baghdadi adopted the same approach in his fanatical opposition to any attempt to impose law, order and a democratic framework upon the disrupted state of Iraq.
But Baghdadi had a wider vision for the militant organization he led – and, indeed, for his own future. In 2013 he announced that he intended to merge his “Islamic State of Iraq” with the main al-Qaida force in Syria under Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was fighting the Assad regime alongside other rebel groups. He proclaimed that his organization would henceforth be called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The overweening ambition that lay behind that title sent shivers down the spines of the al-Qaida leadership, and Baghdadi’s move – interpreted as a bid for supreme power within the jihadist cause – was rejected. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's head since the death of Osama bin Laden, renounced Baghdadi and dissociated al-Qaida from ISIS and its activities.
Since then, in addition to the civil conflict between Syria’s President Assad and the Sunni forces opposed to his regime, there has been a second Sunni civil war fought across northern Syria between ISIS on the one hand and Jabhat Al-Nusra and other rebel groups on the other. This conflict is undoubtedly being won by Baghdadi who, in the space of a year, has become the most powerful jihadi leader in the world. Living up to the intention inherent in its name, ISIS simply ignored the border between Iraq and northern Syria, and swept across to capture territory extending from the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, to Diyala province in northeastern Iraq. At the end of June 2014 his forces captured Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq, and were threatening Baghdad.
It is a measure of Baghdadi's success and personal charisma that ISIS has become the jihadi organization of choice for thousands of foreign would-be fighters who have flocked to his banner. In the areas of Syria that it controls, it has set up courts, schools and other services, flying its black jihadi flag everywhere. At the same time Baghdadi has maintained his policy of extreme brutality. Crucifixions, beheadings and amputations mark the ruthless progress of ISIS across Syria and Iraq.
Then, on June 29 – the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – Baghdadi felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving a degree of power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording the group, formerly known as ISIS, announced that it was henceforth to be known as the "Islamic State", and that its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas. Support your state, which grows every day.''
An official document, released in English and several other languages, urges Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."
What is a caliphate? Effectively an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, has long been seen as the end of the last line of caliphs, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history. So the announcement of June 29, 2014 is couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity – namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honour to the Islamic umma.
The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe in Arabia. Since becoming leader of ISIS, Baghdadi has been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. In his announcement the new IS spokesman, Adnani, reiterated Baghdadi's claim and his intention henceforth to use his real name, Ibrahim, as caliph.
The reaction of other Muslim groups, bodies and leaders, both moderate and extreme, to this unprecedented exercise in arrogance and self-aggrandisement can well be imagined. Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Syria, poured scorn on the announcement.
“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it. You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”
The spokesman of the Grand Mufti of Egypt dismissed the new caliphate as an "illusion". "What they called the Islamic caliphate is merely a response to the chaos which has happened in Iraq as a direct result of the inflammation of sectarian conflict in the entire region."
This is no doubt true, but it scarcely serves to counter facts on the ground. On July 3, Baghdadi’s forces captured Syria's largest oil field from rival Islamist fighters, the Al-Nusra Front. Facing no resistance, it took control of the al-Omar oil field, giving the Islamic State access to crude reserves, and the considerable financial assets they represent.
Meanwhile Baghdadi’s “delusions” – which are comparable to those of Napoleon or Adolf Hitler – seem to know no bounds. On July 2 the new, self-anointed caliph and supreme leader of Islam, declared that Muslims should flock to the new caliphate. “Syria is not for Syrians,” he proclaimed, “and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.” Follow his advice, he said, and “you will conquer Rome and own the world."
Not the happiest of prospects either for Rome or, indeed, the world.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 July 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 July 2014:
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 July 2014: