WASHINGTON – The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, not only has declared the creation of a caliphate but is rapidly taking measures to attract recruits for its crusade to grab more territory.
However, there are questions whether the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, can sustain a caliphate that is larger than Britain in just the year and a half it has existed, first as the Islamic State of Iraq, then ISIS and now IS.
In addition, there is the question of what has IS done that al-Qaida has not been able to do since it was formed in 1998.
ISIS split from al-Qaida last year after al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, publicly disassociated his group from ISIS, due to its brutality and its attempt to bring under its wing another al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
While there was serious fighting for a time between al-Nusra and ISIS, many fighters from al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist groups are switching to ISIS.
The remarkable success of the Islamic State in its blitzkrieg from northeast Syria into western and central Iraq in a matter of a few months has captured the imagination of Sunnis in more than 50 other countries, prompting security concerns, especially in the West.
Western countries also are concerned because battle-hardened nationals from the West will return to their countries and prompt unrest and launch attacks. The additional problem is that Western intelligence doesn’t know who those fighters are.
The caliphate, which operates under Islamic law across nation-state boundaries, is led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph, or “commander of the believers.” In the case of the Islamic State, that would be al-Baghdadi.
The caliphate position goes back to the time of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. In all, there have been some four such caliphates – Rashidun, from 632-661; Umayad, from 661-750; Abbasid, from 750-1258 and the Ottoman, from 1517-1924. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate system with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and founded the Republic of Turkey.
With Baghdadi’s announcement of the creation of a caliphate, the Islamic State has, in effect, declared war on al-Qaida. An offshoot of al-Qaida, the Islamic State caliphate has been able to consolidate power over a vast swath of territory disregarding national boundaries, accomplishing something al-Qaida never was able to achieve.
Baghdadi’s caliphate vision is to attract Muslims to a centralized span of territory, but al-Qaida didn’t operate that way. Al-Qaida is more decentralized and has local entities in areas under Sunni militant control, as has been seen with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. However, these holding don’t span the large swath of territory under the Islamic State caliphate.
The creation of a caliphate has won admiration, even from Islamic State rivals among Sunni jihadist groups, prompting many of their fighters to switch membership.
Baghdadi’s appeal has been largely with young, disgruntled young unemployed Sunni men who are looking for a purpose for existing. Creation of the caliphate — or at least the announcement that a caliphate exists – has been very attractive to them.
Baghdadi made an appeal to abolish the colonial-era borders that have exacerbated the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
“Listen to your caliph and obey him, said Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani. “Support your state, which grows every day.”
“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,” he said.
In the case of Iraq, it means joining the Sunni portions of the country, which the majority of Shiites in the south would oppose. The Shiites are expecting Islamic State attacks, especially on the country’s capital of Baghdad, which Shia militias are rushing to defend.
Establishment of the caliphate will increase “the recruitment of jihads” into the Islamic State, Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, Iraq’s deputy national security adviser told the British newspaper the Independent. “They will get more recruits from abroad.”
To appeal to young people, especially from the West, the Islamic State has put out a new weekly magazine called the Islamic State Report.
The professionally designed weekly report in English is published by the Islamic State’s AlHayat Media Center.
Having just published its fifth issue in as many weeks, Islamic State is using the magazine along with a highly spirited social media campaign to attract recruits by also selling merchandise that includes t-shirts, baseball caps and stuffed toys of masked jihadist dolls, complete with a uniform, toting an assault weapon and carrying an Islamic State flag.
In its fourth issue, the Web magazine talks about redrawing the map of the Middle East and on its cover shows fighters crossing between Syria and Iraq without any sign of a demarcation between the two countries. The magazine is published every Saturday.
The article is instructive in that it seeks to justify creation of the Islamic caliphate to re-establish the Middle East region before it was carved up by the British and French following World War I.
The article comes out as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked World War I. It was the national boundaries of the various Middle East countries that were created following the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty that Baghdadi seeks to abolish with creation of his caliphate.
As one can observe, events of a century ago continue to have an impact on today’s geo-political scene.
Historical impact from one event also brings to mind how the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Iraqi Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Salahuddin, kept the Holy City of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike in Muslim hands until June 1967 when Israel launched the Six-Day War and brought Jerusalem under Israeli control.
In outlining how it is reshaping the Middle East map, WND previously reported that IS, in its fourth report, said its goal is to correct an injustice that goes back to the secret arrangement between the British and French under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty.
The declared caliphate’s appeal is being seen in a country it hasn’t taken over yet — Jordan — where Sunnis are waving the Islamic State black flag.
Inside Iraq, a stalemate exists, with embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refusing to develop a government that encompasses Sunni and Kurds as well as Shiites, who are eager now to find a replacement.
The hope is that Sunnis will find involvement in a more inclusive government more attractive than joining the caliphate.
However, the lack of any compromise now has set up some 6 million Iraqi Sunnis as prime candidates to join the caliphate.
While the Islamic State may have internal disputes as it progresses, it will be difficult for the young unemployed Sunnis to disassociate from the caliphate, which they see as their new rallying cry and destiny.