July 1, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Caliphate

• The declaration of a Caliphate by ISIS is a seismic event in the Jihadist world

• It is a high-risk move that reveals the true extent of leader al-Baghdadi’s political ambitions

• The outcome for the new Islamic State is uncertain, but the challenge to al-Qaeda demands an immediate and dramatic response that goes beyond mere words

• Al-Qaeda affiliates must now make a choice between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda; they cannot sit on the fence

• The declaration of a Caliphate is also a challenge to Muslim governments.


On 29 June, the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) declared that it had established a Caliphate and henceforth would be known as just “the Islamic State,” and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its erstwhile leader, would from now on be known as Caliph Ibrahim.

A Caliphate is essentially an administrative unit, but the Caliph—as amir al-mu’minin, or, leader of the faithful—also has religious authority as both the actual and symbolic leader of all Muslims. The declaration by ISIS may seem far-fetched and even counter-productive in terms of maintaining and securing the secular alliances that it needs to continue its accretion and control of Iraqi territory, but it also plays to deep emotional strands within the Middle East, particularly in extremist circles.

The failure of leadership in much of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924, has meant that a sense of national identity has been slow to grow. The concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few, and a lack of confidence in the rule of law, added to a strong need to belong—have been significant factors in the rise of militant Islam. The desire for change has become intense, but there is no general agreement of what new system of government change should bring. After all, no one outside the disliked ruling cliques has had any experience of politics to build on.

Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State have tapped into this lack of political maturity by evoking the romantic simplicity of times past, and by claiming that under their leadership it is possible to restore the glory days of the Islamic world. ISIS has seen a way to corner the market in nostalgia while at the same time claiming the fulfilment of prophecies that legitimize its acts. Apart from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers as recorded in the hadith that predict an end of times battle between two Muslim armies in the area of al-Sham (Greater Syria), ISIS has hinted at the parallels between the Prophet’s famous victory over vastly superior forces at the Battle of Badr, and its own victory in Mosul. It has reminded people of al-Baghdadi’s tribal claims to be a descendant of the Prophet in order to increase his legitimacy—a claim that is widely contested. It has demanded the loyalty of all Muslims everywhere and announced that all groups, organizations, and associations are dissolved, and their leaders pledge allegiance, or baya’, to al-Baghdadi, as is his right as Caliph. They have issued this directive in many languages to stress the universality of al-Baghdadi’s role..

This last point is perhaps the most important. Not only is al-Baghdadi asserting his authority over all violent extremist Islamists, but also challenging the authority of the rulers of every part of his putative Caliphate, which includes the whole Muslim world and then some. His move marks the end of the al-Qaeda/Afghan jihad and shifts the focus to the Middle East; it demands the allegiance and obedience of all groups that have a relationship with al-Qaeda; it has displaced both al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar and given them no role. Al-Baghdadi has claimed the right to regard anyone who does not pledge allegiance to him as an enemy. There is no middle ground.

Even some of al-Baghdadi’s followers will question both the political wisdom and the legitimacy of declaring a Caliphate. Al-Baghdadi’s cohorts prompted a public debate on social media about the idea of a new Caliphate in the months following the announcement of ISIS, and the majority opinion seemed to go against it. But the quick advance into Iraq, along with the capture of border posts on the road to Jordan as well as Syria, have at least reinforced al-Baghdadi’s claim that the divisions of the region are just meaningless relics of colonialism. Plots in Lebanon and threats to Jordan and Saudi Arabia will give further momentum to the idea of a pan-Islamic, Sunni-dominated State. In defense of its legitimacy, the Islamic State has claimed that it had no option but to establish the Caliphate because the conditions existed for it to do so, and that it could not consult the wider community because of the urgency of the situation.

Time will tell whether the Caliphate of Ibrahim (al-Baghdadi) lasts, but the declaration has moved the global movement started by al-Qaeda into a new phase. All other extremist groups will now have to declare their position and the Islamic State is certain to try by whatever means to live up to its aspirations. This will be an inspiration for some and a challenge for others, but it will certainly cause an enormous amount of debate and divisions within the extremist movement. Al-Qaeda will have to make a counter-move, possibly in the form of an attack; the Taliban will retire still further into their own national struggle for power, and other extremist groups are likely to find the fault lines within them exposed. If the Islamic State has misjudged its strength and appeal, it will have struck a major blow at the heart of the extremist movement championed by al-Qaeda; if it succeeds, the fractures in the Middle East will become still more pronounced and the old order will find it harder and harder to contain a problem that is already spinning dangerously out of control.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM