The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced Sunday the establishment of the Muslim caliphate and declared that its leader was Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the current head of ISIS.
The declaration made official what many observers had expected, a claim that ISIS is itself a nation state that stretches wherever Muslims live and not just an insurgent group battling governments in Iraq and Syria.
The proclamation was freighted with historic significance, coming one day after the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. It was that result 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 the announcement the most significant development for Islamist extremists since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.
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“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, who follows jihadi developments for 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 ISIS 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 official 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 7th Century and not seen in any form since the Ottomans collapsed in the early 20th Century.
In an audio statement released on the Internet Sunday, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani said ISIS’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 analysts 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 ISIS control. He referred specifically to the collection of jizya, a tax on Christians, and to ISIS references to its flag as the “banner of Khalifah” or caliphate in Arabic.
“Even some ISIS graphics as far back as February speak of ‘Dawlat ul-Khalifah,’ ” or State of the caliphate, he added.
In the announcement, Adnani explained that all national, tribal or ethnic boundaries that currently span the Muslim world had been ruled invalid by the Islamic State’s shura and that 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 have 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 sheiks in Iraq seemed to be betting on the idea Abu Bakr al Baghdadi won't impose sharia,” said Tamimi. “It's quite apparent that with the official caliphate vision they will be going all out, so the tribal sheiks wanting to work with ISIS have shown themselves to be hopelessly naive.”
Also closely watched will be the reaction of such al Qaida affiliates as Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. officials consider AQAP 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 ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate on Sunday. But a cleric with close ties to AQAP, Mamoun Hatem, took to Twitter to hail ISIS’s announcement as “a blessed event.”
McClatchy special correspondent Adam Baron contributed to this story from Cairo.