Caliphate Redux


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.