The news (well, some of it, anyway) is hopping with the report that the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham has declared it is now simply the Islamic State, and that its Emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, is now Khalifah Ibrahim, the new Caliph, the successor of Mohammed. An excerpt from the ISIS announcement, courtesy of the Long War Journal:
“Therefore, the shūrā (consultation) council of the Islamic State studied this matter after the Islamic State – by Allah’s grace – gained the essentials necessary for khilāfah, which the Muslims are sinful for if they do not try to establish. In light of the fact that the Islamic State has no shar’ī (legal) constraint or excuse that can justify delaying or neglecting the establishment of the khilāfah such that it would not be sinful, the Islamic State – represented by ahlul-halli-wal-‘aqd (its people of authority), consisting of its senior figures, leaders, and the shūrā council – resolved to announce the establishment of the Islamic khilāfah, the appointment of a khalīfah for the Muslims, and the pledge of allegiance to the shaykh (sheikh), the mujāhid, the scholar who practices what he preaches, the worshipper, the leader, the warrior, the reviver, descendent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah, Ibrāhīm Ibn ‘Awwād Ibn Ibrāhīm Ibn ‘Alī Ibn Muhammad al-Badrī al-Hāshimī al-Husaynī al-Qurashī by lineage, as-Sāmurrā’ī by birth and upbringing, al-Baghdādī by residence and scholarship. And he has accepted the bay’ah (pledge of allegiance). Thus, he is the imam and khalīfah for the Muslims everywhere. Accordingly, the “Iraq and Shām” in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration.”
“We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilāfah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalīfah Ibrāhīm and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilāfah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas. Imam Ahmad (may Allah have mercy upon him) said, as reported by ‘Abdūs Ibn Mālik al-‘Attār, “It is not permissible for anyone who believes in Allah to sleep without considering as his leader whoever conquers them by the sword until he becomes khalīfah and is called Amīrul-Mu’minīn (the leader of the believers), whether this leader is righteous or sinful.”
A number of pundits have spoken as if this is an earthshaking occurrence, that everything has now changed. Charles Lister has said that the announcement of a Caliphate, “is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11.” However, let’s examine the surrounding details.
This is hardly the first grandiose claim Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has made. The bloody dispute between ISIS and Al Nusra came about when he unilaterally declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Nusra were one and the same, under his leadership. Not only did Al Nusra fight him, but he got slapped down, and eventually disowned by, Ayman al Zawahiri. In the months since, fighting between Al Nusra and ISIS has not abated, and their feud appears as deadly as ever. There have been no signs of reconciliation with the Islamic Front, either, which is just as stoutly Islamist as ISIS.
It was widely believed that Osama Bin Laden expected to eventually be declared Caliph, after the US collapsed. It didn’t happen, of course, but the intent was there. Al Baghdadi (also known as Abu Du’a) also isn’t the first Islamist leader megalomaniacal enough to lay claim to being the successor of Mohammed. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, had himself declared Amir al-Mu’minin, the “Commander of the Faithful,” based on donning the supposed cloak of Mohammed from the Kerqa Sharif in Kandahar. Of course, Mullah Omar wasn’t as directly in the public eye as Abu Du’a is right now.
ISIS has enjoyed stunning success in northern Iraq in the last few weeks. But a great deal of that success was apparently due to surprise, treachery on the part of Iraqi army leadership (reportedly the commanding general in Mosul is now in charge there, under the ISIS flag), and tribal and sectarian divides within the ISF (Sunni soldiers who didn’t want to fight other Sunnis for a majority-Shi’a government who has steadily marginalized the Sunni minority, and Shi’a soldiers who weren’t going to risk their lives for Sunni cities). Their momentum has stalled, with ISF counteroffensives in Tikrit, Samarra, and Tal Afar.
ISIS doesn’t have the kind of numbers that even the weakened ISF has, especially as the Shi’a majority in the country mobilizes. Both Sistani and Sadr have issued calls to arms against them (marking probably the first time the two clerics have ever been on the same page). The ISIS column rolling into Mosul at the beginning of June was estimated at 1500 fighters. As savage as they are, there’s only so much that many fighters can do against concerted resistance. Add in their continued bloody rivalry with the rest of the rebels in Syria, as well as the Syrian government and Hezbollah, and it stacks up.
A spokesman for ISIS, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, announced, “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. Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.” In light of how thinly-stretched ISIS appears to be, this announcement begins to take on a note of desperation, along with the megalomania. By attempting to lay claim to the mantle of Mohammed, is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi attempting to win by moral demand what he can’t win by force?
As for those pointing to the announcement of a Caliphate as the birth of a new Evil Empire…they are focusing on the window dressing and ignoring the ground truth of the situation (more on this later). Much like the multiple Caesars in the late Roman Empire, al Baghdadi can make all the claims he wants; unless he can back it up, he’s just another yapping upstart. It remains to be seen whether or not he can keep the gains he’s made already, against deadly enemies on both sides of the sectarian divide, much less build an empire.