Caliphate Redux

August 5, 2014

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The caliphate has been revived — again. But unlike in previous instances over the past several decades when jihadi groups made claims to states or “emirates,” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) June announcement that it had established a new caliphate poses a potentially more long-term, or even permanent, threat to the future of Iraq. At the same time, the group faces real obstacles that could thwart its ability to expand influence and control over land, people, and resources.

Caliphate basics

The institution of the caliphate has important historical, religious, and political significance in the Muslim world. The first caliphate was established in 632 A.D. after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The first four “rightly guided caliphs,” or rashidun, led from Medina, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Due to their personal conduct and the process through which they were chosen, the rightly guided caliphs are often considered the ideal. Sunni Muslims consider all four of the rightly guided caliphs to be legitimate successors to the Prophet, whereas Shi’a accept only the fourth, ‘Ali. This disagreement led to a split in Islam and the emergence of its two main branches. Modern-day caliphate revivalism exists almost exclusively within the Sunni community and is largely relegated to extremist groups.

The notion of restoring the caliphate is not new. Throughout the 20th century, caliphate revivalist efforts emerged, such as the Khilafat movement in India. In more recent years, additional extremist groups advocating for the restoration of the caliphate materialized. Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, is well known for its advocacy of the caliphate due to its very effective media activities. And, of course, al-Qaeda also supports the establishment of a caliphate. Ayman al-Zawahiri once declared that terror attacks would be nothing more than disturbing acts, regardless of their magnitude, “unless they led to a caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.” Notably, neither of these groups actually declared a physical caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir lacks the capabilities to do so and al-Qaeda finds the concept useful in unifying the global jihadi movement ideologically, but so far has shied away from taking it from the abstract.

Obstacles to overcome

The Islamic State has made remarkable advances in Iraq, and declaring a caliphate has arguably helped. Concerns over this development are justified, but at the same time, significant obstacles stand in its way.

First, Baghdadi suffers from very serious legitimacy challenges. How he was chosen and why he is the “right” person to hold the job of caliph remain unclear. Absent answers to these questions, one can only conclude that he chose himself. On a personal level, next to the rightly guided caliphs, Baghdadi pales by comparison. Although his rhetoric (and appearance) conveys an intention to serve in the 7th century model of the rashidun (as demonstrated by his already infamous Rolex watch), in practice, Baghdadi’s methods depart from those of the original caliphs. He’s also been widely denounced and rejected across the Muslim world, both by well-respected Muslim leaders and intellectuals, as well as within jihadi circles.

Second, if Baghdadi’s goals are to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate that extends across the Muslim world (or even beyond as some fear) to unify Muslims the practical obstacles are countless and almost certainly insurmountable. Each country in the Muslim world has its own unique blend of culture, tradition, and social practices that would make it nearly impossible to implement a functioning global caliphate — and on top of that, today there are strong forces of nationalism that did not exist under previous historical caliphates.

Third, ISIL is ‘on the outs’ with al-Qaeda, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, in terms of expanding control globally, an alliance with al-Qaeda would seem strategically astute. On the other hand, if it is about competition for influence in Iraq and Syria, now that al-Qaeda has distanced itself from ISIL, in declaring himself caliph, Baghdadi is forcing other groups to take sides (there can only be one caliph). It’s a bit of a gamble, but would play to his advantage in Syria and Iraq if groups join ISIL over al-Qaeda. One could argue that in Iraq, ISIL is getting things done and joining an entity that occupies a physical territory — over al-Qaeda with its at-times less tangible goals — could be attractive to groups down in the trenches.

What does this all mean for the United States?

First, the United States should be focused on what this caliphate means for the future political viability of Iraq as a unified state. The Islamic State emerged primarily as a result of local conditions as opposed to a coordinated (or realistic) strategy to develop global Muslim unity under the banner of the caliphate, at least in the short term. For ISIL, applying the model of the caliphate is primarily a tactical move to achieve its goals in Iraq and Syria.

In declaring of the Islamic State, ISIL has evolved beyond a “movement” or “group” now occupying physical territory, or even a notional homeland. With ample military force to conquer physical territory, the Islamic State is now implementing a physical governance structure that may be difficult to uproot. Similar to Hezbullah in southern Lebanon, in the absence of a strong central government with the means, resources and willingness to provide basic services and support to populations throughout the country’s territory, the Islamic State has the opportunity to establish itself as the de facto authority and “provider” in large parts of Iraq.

ISIL is applying this caliphate model as a pathway for creating an independent Sunni territory in Iraq. The possibility of fragmentation along sectarian and ethnic lines in Iraq continues to loom large, despite international and nationalist efforts to keep the country together. The climate is arguably different than it was while the United States was still in the country. The Kurds are making a play at statehood more aggressively than ever before, and while United States and regional partners are calling for Iraq to stay unified, how far will we go?

This is a new and potentially powerful development that may not only serve ISIL, but also play into the hands of other actors seeking the ultimate dissolution of the state of Iraq.

Second, the United States should be concerned about this caliphate model finding resonance elsewhere within the global jihadi community. While there should be little concern for any current jihadist movement successfully establishing a global caliphate under its banner, the model that ISIL proposes may have profound implications on the security environment in other countries.

At the local level and within specific communities across the region, calls for the restoration of the caliphate can have a powerful impact, stoking religious zeal, mobilizing fighters, disrupting fragile political balances, striking fear, undermining state institutions and raising the visibility and influence of otherwise obscure individuals, organizations and ideologies. As such, ISIL’s model may prove inspiring in many parts of the region, without actually advancing the creation of a unified caliphate.

ISIL’s model, however, could lead to the establishment of Islamic State-like entities elsewhere, something akin to satellite Islamic States. In Iraq, the caliphate model essentially provided a framework for a militant group in the midst of a bloody conflict to transform from a fighting force into a political entity in control of physical territory. Arguably, ISIL has become much more difficult for the Iraqi government to uproot and defeat compared to a local militia. If Baghdadi’s Islamic State is in fact a vehicle for moving toward a real strategic end state — the breakup of Iraq and the establishment of a Sunni territory under the control of the Islamic State — then, a potential next state of concern should be Libya. The conditions in Libya are similar to Iraq: ongoing unrest and conflict, multiple extremist groups vying for control and a central government with little (or no) influence over large swaths of territory. As of now, there are no indications of this, but one could imagine a group in Libya pursuing a similar path. The details of its relationships with Baghdadi would have to be worked out, but in theory, it could declare a physical territory in Libya as part of the Islamic State to establish a physical entity under its control. If this were realized, it would mark the next step in a so-far theoretical, non-contiguous “jihadi caliphate.”


Julia McQuaid is an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit research organization.  The views expressed here are her own.

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6 thoughts on “Caliphate Redux

  1. Good analysis, and good that you mentioned Libya. I think there is another element that is not being discussed in relation to ISIL. Similarly to what happened after the Russian Revolution, you see a confluence of a very theoretical and radical political ideology which had existed previously in various places with various levels of support (the global socialist movement of the time) and a real opportunity to control physical territory as an actual state. In the case of the early Soviet Union, it took quite a while before the various global socialist organizations were ready to actively criticize and stand against this experiment in creating an ideological utopia based on their ideas. The dispersed, and global nature of this ideological movement gave the Soviets tremendously greater leverage, intelligence, and many more opportunities and resources than would have been expected for a state in Russia’s position at the end of World War I. Likewise, ISIL has thousands of young and idealistic jihadists traveling there from Europe, Asia, and North America. This is a resource that could lead to greater sophistication on the part of the new Caliphate, greater intelligence gathering opportunities, foreign policy leverage, internal political leverage in other countries, and opportunities to organize terror events. It is possible for ISIL to reach a stature in much of the Muslim world similar to that of the USSR during the 1920s and 30s among much of Europe’s left. After 1979, the revolution in Iran produced a similar political effect, but this was limited by the difficulty of translating the Islamist revolution there across partisan lines from a Shiite to Sunni groups. ISIL does not have this disadvantage. The primary limitation I see at this point is the lack of highly charismatic leadership on the part of Baghdadi, who doesn’t seem to have nearly the speaking talent of Stalin or Khomeini. Nevertheless, the ISIL propaganda machine seems to be sophisticated and effective, so do not discount this possibility.

  2. Thank-you for the detailed analysis. Very interesting to read.

    Does not the Islamic State have the criteria of a highly organized and clever guerilla group (e.g., Castro and friends) combined with the myth of the “glory” days of Mohammed and his Jihadi warriors?

    The tenets of Radical Islam seem so comparable to Nazi or Communism, only linked to “Allah” divine authorization and promise of paradise, so a much better “sell” than just worker liberation or the race/fatherland.

    My personal thoughts are the dangers of the Islamic State are much underestimated by the world currently and are akin to a highly contagious “Radical Islam” tumor that could grow and spread faster than one would normally expect.

    Lining up the success so far to an analysis under Sun Tsu or even Mao’s guerilla war, seems to suggest they are doing everyting right – just enough popular support coupled with repression of the conquered areas, slick recruiting and “branding” (not really around in Sun Tsu’s days sort of), clever and strategic thinking. There success has been born in no small part to opportunistic exploitation of favorable conditions (Maliki’s anti Sunni repression, war in Syria, etc.) but so to was Hitler, Castro, and Lenins.

    This contagion has a high risk of spreading both within the Muslim world and unfortunately in Europe and elsewhere with large Muslim communities with increasing percentages of Radicalized adherents with each day.

  3. The real question becomes, once established, then what do they do? Our own recent history in Iraq shows that you can take a territory but the key to holding it is your governance of that territory. Once the conditions erroded in the North under Maliki it became ripe for this kind of a takeover. If the Islamic State is unable to do any better than a role reversal of the oppressed players, then IS will fail also. That failure will be messy and bloody and the hand wringing by the international community will go into overdrive.
    The players in the IS are no more long term political governors than Maliki is. They are busying themselves with the destruction of the very tools of long term governance (power, water, the goodwill of the people they govern etc) and will have a very hard time getting the revenue to build those tools back up. They will lack the standing army that will be required to hold those areas over the course of decades to establish a legitimate state. Look how large of an army was required by Saddam to keep those groups from tearing each other apart. It may take some time for their legitimacy to be challenged, but I believe on the world stage, as well as within their own territory the Caliph “flavor of the day” will wear thin.
    The next key is “then what?” Who will be the influencer to step into the next void? We know who stepped into this one but how does the Arab world tear apart the carcass of the Caliph?

  4. Very interesting read on a current challenge.
    I like looking at the Soviets and making parallels to the leftist movement early in the 20th century. It seems we have been seeing this in its current form with the rise of the jihadist website. The method may be different from the Soviet days, but the effect is the same; sharing information and ideas. The main problem I have in making a correlation between the Soviets and ISIL is before the Tsars fell, Russia was already Russia well before the 1900s. ISIL is attempting to carve itself its own state from arguably non-existent state controlled areas with little identity to speak of, or reference.
    Looking at Libya is interesting but I am unsure the caliphate model Baghdadi imposed in Iraq-Syria would take root. Yes, there are large swaths of lawless land in Libya, but Qaddafi never destroyed the tribal governance system while he was in power, he merely presided over it with a mix strong arm tactics and bribery. These groups are more likely to continue fighting amongst themselves and may even cause a break-up of the modern day country rather than succumbing to an emergent caliphate.
    What does this mean for the United States? ISIL’s caliphate will ultimately fall because the caliphate itself poses an existential threat to its neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq (and Iraq’s patron Iran), the Kurds, etc. Although these actors have been unable to stem the ISIL tide thus far, the time will soon come where the threat to one of these becomes too great and it must be put down. In reality, it will likely be the Iranians who have invested much into Iraq and will move to protect Shia interests in southern Iraq (read: Imam Ali in Najaf and oilfields).
    I think however we should look to another area of the world where there has been a de-facto “caliphate” for over 200 years: Nigeria. Even after its independence and subsequent democratization, Islamists continue to control large portions of the country under Sharia even while the coastal areas fall under secular law. Boko Haram has gained notoriety and funding and may grab onto a strand of legitimacy from the defunct Sokoto caliphate. Here, there is history, acceptance, and a fundamentalist identity that will be far harder to uproot than what we currently see Baghdadi and ISIL implementing. Although not clear parallels, think of the Yemeni countryside or the FATA in Pakistan and the challenges those governments face.

  5. Ms. McQuaid brings the significance of the caliphate issue to the forefront, where it needs to be. The four “rightly guided” caliphs were also considered such because they personally knew Muhammad, and thus were considered to have direct exposure to his teachings. These first four caliphs were also accepted by the Shia, as the Shia did not come into existence until after the deaths of these first four caliphs. It was at that point that the schism developed.

    Most western analyses are skewed with the western mindset that any Islamic group that deals in violence is somehow “extremist” or “radical”, but once one learns and understands Islamic doctrine, violence is inherint in the system, originating with Muhammad himself. There is nothing “extremist” or “radical” about Islamic violence against heretics or infidels. Just look at the historic baseline. It’s always been there, and justified by doctrine and leadership. To be more accurate, we should use terms like “practicing” and “non-practicing”. Those groups that follow doctrine are practicing. In Islam, Jihad is doctrinal. In fact, Muslims who do NOT wage Jihad are non-practicing, as Islamic doctrine REQUIRES it.

    It seems obvious that Baghdadi chose himself to be caliph. A logical question would be, is there a “legitimate” process to select a caliph? Again, looking at history, caliphs were usually self-appointed when the previous caliph was assassinated. Since no previous caliph existed to assassinate, someone has to re-start the process somewhere, so why not Baghdadi? He has, in essence, set himself up to be the next one in line to be assassinated…

    Baghdadi’s Rolex has been misconstrued by western analysts. The Rolex was DELIBERATELY displayed by Baghdadi to emphasize the Jihad doctrine of claiming war booty. It is a recruiting pitch: “Come join the caliphate, fight Jihad as mandated by Islamic doctrine, and get your fair share.” This is in no way a departure from the original caliphs, who did exactly the same thing, and who learned it from Muhammad.

    While the challenges of re-establishing the caliphate abound, Islamic “prophecy” nevertheless calls for and demands it. One must start somewhere, though, and apparently Baghdadi has jumped in with both feet. Any denunciations by so-called Muslim leaders and intellectuals go against Islamic doctrine, and thus nullify their legitimacy. There may also be a tinge of jealousy from those leaders. Also, local cultures, traditions, and practices existed throughout the history of all of the previous caliphates, and those did not serve as an obstacle to their rule. Nationalism has never been a strong force among Arab tribes–it has failed to unite any Arab nation in the last century. We see it blatantly in the way so-called “Iraqi” forces flee in the face of approaching IS forces. There is no national loyalty in Iraq and most other Arab nations. Their main allegiances have ALWAYS been first and foremost to their tribes.

    AQ and IS can (and probably will) continue to co-exist. They are not really in competition with each other. They are both stiving towards the same goals, but using slightly different strategies.

    The United States has almost no influence in Iraq, which is now largely an Iranian satellite–what remains of it. Maliki’s influence is quickly waning, and he is the US’s only real remaining influence in Iraq. Once he is ousted, which will probably be soon, US influence will be almost nil. Without a strongman like Saddam, Iraq will never be a “unified” state.

    The rules for establishing the foundation of Islamic government have existed since Muhammad. It has largely been codified in Sharia Law, which comes from “allah” and is non-negotiable. Re-implementing them is not difficult. Whether they increase the strength and viability of the IS caliphate remains to be seen, however.

    To answer GMiller’s question, “once established, then waht do they do?”, the first goal is to re-claim all previously controlled Muslim territories. The biggest thorn in this is Israel. Once the caliphate reaches a point where they believe they have the resources, their goal will be to liberate Quds (Jerusalem). I believe this will lead to the dissolution of this caliphate, if it ever gets that far.