ISIL’s Bold Caliphate Roll-Out: Objectives and Risks
Only three weeks after it surprised the world with its lightning advance across north and central Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) delivered an even more audacious surprise when, on Sunday, June 29, it announced the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph. The declaration was part of a more elaborate roll-out, reminiscent of the way a business presents a new product. As part of this roll-out, ISIL — now calling itself the Islamic State — also released a Ramadan message from Baghdadi directed at “the mujahideen” and the whole ummah (Muslim community), a short biography of the new “Caliph,” and a video abolishing the Sykes-Picot borders. The Islamic State has also, through Twitter, released ongoing announcements about jihadis who allegedly pledged allegiance, either as groups or individuals, to Baghdadi (or to his new identity “Caliph Ibrahim”). The caliphate roll-out by ISIL is bold and well-thought out. At the same time, it is risky, reeks of arrogance, and could backfire.
The announcement of the caliphate serves a number of purposes. First, it elevates the status of ISIL and Baghdadi. It strengthens the image of ISIL actually delivering on the aspirations of Islamists while other jihadi groups are only talking about the establishment of a caliphate. Ironically, many jihadi leaders, including al Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri, have long criticized other Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, for waiting for the “right conditions” before they start taking action toward the establishment of God’s rule. Now ISIL is steaming ahead in the face of rival jihadi groups’ allegations that its Islamic State project is premature. By emphasizing the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria, ISIL distinguishes itself from other jihadi groups in yet another way. Whereas the rejection of the borders separating Muslim countries and people is a common theme in the rhetoric of jihadis, ISIL moves to actual action, thus strengthening the perception of the authenticity of the caliphate and ISIL’s true commitment.
Second, ISIL’s declaration seeks to stifle debate among jihadis about the religious legitimacy of its actions. In its prior incarnations, ISIL already maintained that it was a state, and as such, superior to other jihadi organizations and scholars, imbued with authority that they lack. ISIL relied on such authority to justify its rejection of arbitration with other jihadi groups in Syria. Thus, the announcement of a caliphate — an even higher level of authority — grants ISIL, in its perspective, unchallenged authority, and serves as a tool to cast off criticism and allegations that its actions are inconsistent with Shari’ah law.
Third, other jihadi groups (for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia) managed to gain control over large swaths of territory, yet failed to progress toward the objective of a truly Islamic state unfettered by the rules of the Westphalian state system (primarily international law). Failing to mobilize the Muslim ummah, their gains proved reversible. It is doubtful that ISIL fears the same fate. ISIL is too confident to think it will similarly fail, but its steps reflect an attempt to learn from those experiences.
Fourth, and most importantly, the announcement is part of a plan to mobilize the Muslim masses. By announcing a caliphate, ISIL hopes to attract more volunteers, foot soldiers and professionals who are required to meet the demands of continued fighting alongside state building and governance. Indeed, in Baghdadi’s Ramadan message, he calls on Muslims around the world to join the Islamic State. This is not a request. Using his title as the “Emir of the Believers,” Baghdadi declares immigration to the caliphate an individual duty, one that all able Muslims must obey. The roll-out of the caliphate was probably timed to take advantage of the holy month of Ramadan, which infuses ISIL’s measures with additional religious symbolism and is expected to enhance its appeal to jihadis and the broader Muslim community.
The mobilization factor in the announcement of the caliphate provides a stark contrast with al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 strategy. Despite bin Laden’s conviction that the fight against the West and the Arab regimes could not succeed without the active support of Muslims worldwide, he lacked a practical mobilization plan. Even members of his own close circle admitted bin Laden believed that the United States would not be able to withstand a few painful strikes against it and that, if drawn into the Middle East, attrition would bring the collapse of the United States. But bin Laden’s hope that the Muslim masses would awaken to move against the United States was merely a pipedream. Only a small number responded to his calls to join the jihad. Perhaps this was because the atrocities of 9/11 were not perceived by Muslims as positively as bin Laden believed they would be. Further, it was not clear how sympathizers could join the fight given al-Qaeda’s clandestine nature and the difficulties of reaching jihad arenas. By comparison, ISIL has a clear destination for volunteers and an easy way to join the Islamic State once arriving into the territory under its control. ISIL has offered safe havens and attracted foreign fighters before, but by declaring a caliphate it is strengthening its mobilization drive. Instead of building on the charismatic, yet informal, appeal of one leader of a besieged jihadi group (such as al-Qaeda’s bin Laden), ISIL utilizes the claimed authority of the “Caliph” to summon – rather than merely encourage — Muslims to join. Thus, ISIL offers an important element that was absent from al- Qaeda’s mobilization attempts.
Despite the logic of ISIL’s moves, they are not risk free. The group is confident, though, that even if the response of the Muslim ummah is not as enthusiastic as it hopes, its territorial conquests offer it a strong foundation to consolidate the Islamic State. Even if the declaration of a caliphate does not bring immediate results, it still constitutes a useful gambit in ISIL’s effort to increase its power and authority. ISIL’s confidence does not seem without some merit given the size of the territory it has taken, its prime location in the heart of the Middle East, the abundance of resources, the reluctance of the United States to get entangled again in a ground war, and the timing of ISIL’s campaign as hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites reach new heights.
ISIL’s bold moves reflect its general attitude that military success can precede, and in fact lead to, religious legitimacy and the expansion of religious authority. For ISIL, arguing about religious legitimacy is far easier from a position of power. But ISIL might see its daring approach backfire. Although it is trying to shape a narrative in which the caliphate announcement was well received, by releasing numerous tweets about groups and fighters throughout the world who have pledged allegiance to the “Caliph Ibrahim” since the announcement, these pledges are a stream rather than an avalanche. Moreover, ISIL has yet to show it has been able to change the position of prominent jihadi scholars who had rejected the group’s authority claims before. A caliphate and a caliph may excite the imagination of some enthusiastic youth, but may give others a cause to consider whether ISIL is overreaching, or even worse, going so far that its actions constitute religious innovations that are strictly prohibited in their own austere interpretation of Islam. The new Islamic State is also going to face criticism from Islamic scholars who do not subscribe to the Salafi jihadist stream and who command much stronger religious legitimacy among the broad Muslim community.
Baghdadi seems to believe that with the caliphate project he can make strides and reach segments of the Muslim population that he could not attract before. But appeal to the renewal of an ideal (and idealized) Islamic past will not be enough to convince the majority of Muslims that ISIL has an economic plan and not just religious fanfare. Ultimately, ISIL’s radical views are out of sync with most of the Muslim ummah. Baghdadi still needs to demonstrate that his caliphate can succeed in governing and offer economic opportunities in the complex environment of the 21st century.
Barak Mendelsohn is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Haverford College, where he teaches courses on Jihadi movements and on the Middle East. He is author of Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and International Cooperation in the War on Terrorism.