July 7, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Caliph’s Video Message: Tactical Necessity, Strategic Overreach

• There is no such thing as a “Hidden Caliph” and so Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi aka Caliph Ibrahim very much had to make a video proclaiming himself the reluctant leader for Islam

• While a tactical necessity, Ibrahim’s video is a strategic mistake, in that the Islamic State (IS) will not long hold its recent gains and it will not function as a state while it does hold its gains

• Running a state is inescapably more than a video-taped speech: the best way to counter the image of IS as a caliphate is re-seize lands just as IS fails in governance, letting IS be its own counter-narrative.

It was inevitable that the self titled Caliph Ibrahim, previously known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS)—previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)—would release a video proclaiming his reluctant ascendance as ruler of the Islamic world. Last week’s audacious announcement that ISIS was now a restored caliphate along the lines of the early Muslim caliphates or even the Ottoman Empire demanded a coronation. It’s one thing to be a shadowy leader of a terrorist group; but something altogether different to be the leader of a caliphate, however ephemeral. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had to ‘publicly accept’ the change in title to Caliph Ibrahim. Such a momentous announcement apparently compelled a rare public viewing. Though for perspective, the self proclaimed ruler of all the world’s Sunni Muslims has little constituency outside of an obsequious inner circle and violent extremist fighters.

This decision makes sense if the timeline is restricted to the last four weeks, since ISIS/IS has had a good run against a staggeringly incompetent foe, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s purged and unmotivated army. Being in charge of abandoned territory does encourage an undeserved confidence, and so ISIS became IS and al-Baghdadi became Caliph Ibrahim. This persona of inevitable conquest is exceedingly dangerous in the earliest days of conflict, with wavering foes ceding the battlefield based on the enemy’s momentum and the national defenses’ lack of cohesion. By proclaiming what is intended but not long-lived, Ibrahim hopes to set the facts on the ground, as if saying it makes it so. This is a smart tactical move.

It could also portend strategic disaster, as it sets up ISIS/IS for the one thing it’s managed to avoid since 2005: a crippling, undeniable loss. However impressive, IS gains are temporary. With outside help—be it some form of the “Awakening” movement among Sunni tribal alliances, Iran, the US or Russia—Iraq will expel IS from its proclaimed territory. Ibrahim will not be able to hide this fact, of a temporary display empire. He is now tied to its existence.

In his videotaped sermon, Ibrahim never mentioned Iraq—the country that inspired the group’s formation—and never even referenced al-Qaeda, the brand that inspired the group’s notoriety. In rhetoric, IS is acting as if it now transcends history and terrorist groups with similar aspirations. This makes tactical sense—to seize the initiative from opponents.

But by scorning those he called the “kings and rulers” of Islamic countries, Ibrahim is taunting the Gulf countries that might tolerate his antics as they relate to Iraq and Syria, insomuch that it wounds their archrival, Shi’a Iran. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states are now on notice that IS is beyond their influence and are next in line for attack. IS ambitions might be ludicrously ambitious but, given the volatile nature of the status quo across the region, even a ludicrous threat needs to be countered intelligently.

It is here, in countering the threat, that Ibrahim’s proclamation can work against him. In its insurgent state, ISIS needed only to prove that Iraq couldn't hold its territory, not that ISIS could hold it. By proclaiming a caliphate and by accepting the title, Ibrahim’s group opens itself up for failure. While it might hold parts of Mosul and western Anbar Province for the intermediate future, IS can’t hold the territory that its proclamation insists is its right. The problem with a pyramid-scheme caliphate is that once the appearance of victories fades, the whole artifice crumbles.

Much has been made of the reaction from regional powers and scholars regarding Ibrahim’s acceptance of the title of Caliph. This reaction misses the point. Ibrahim and his group are not worried about the reaction of the established order. They are focused on the vulnerable percentage tired with the status quo and looking for a wining side, however abhorrent. Ibrahim’s speech was aimed at that target. However, the realities of holding and governing a caliphate are beyond the several thousand fighters of IS. They will not be able to hide both the loss of territory and the poor administration of what they do hold. IS possesses vast financial resources in Iraq and Syria but lacks the ability to properly administrate them. By proclaiming a caliphate, IS has put itself on notice, and with coordinated regional military and political efforts against it, the terrorist group will come up short.


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