BAGHDAD: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sunni militants fighting across Syria and Iraq – have proclaimed the establishment of a “caliphate” in a move that experts say could signal the birth of a new era of transnational jihadism.
Now calling itself the Islamic State, the group has called on all other related Sunni factions, including al-Qaeda, to pledge their allegiance to the new state, which it says stretches from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on Al-Qaeda.
In a statement distributed online on Sunday – the newly-minted Islamic State declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “the caliph” and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Baghdadi is thought to be the leader and strategic thinker behind ISIL.
Its announcement that it has restored the Caliphate “is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre who studies jihadist groups.
The impact of this announcement will be global as al-Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it.”
The group’s statement – translated from Arabic into English, French, Russian and German – made it clear it would perceive any group that failed to pledge allegiance an enemy of Islam,” Mr Lister said.
Already, this new Islamic State has received statements of support and opposition from jihadist factions in Syria, he confirmed.
Released on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the statement establishing a caliphate, a system of rule that ended nearly 100 years ago with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, reads: “Here the flag of the Islamic State … rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo [Syria] and Diyala [Iraq].
“The infidels are disgraced. The Sunnis are masters and are esteemed. The people of heresy are humiliated. The Sharia penalties are implemented, all of them.
“The front lines are defended, crosses and graves demolished. Governors and judges have been appointed, a tax has been enforced and courts will resolve disputes and complaints.”
ISIL, also known as ISIS, already controls large swathes of northern Iraq after a sustained assault which began with the overthrow of Iraqi control of the country’s second largest city of Mosul, near the Syrian border, on June 9.
Over the last two years it has established a strong presence in parts of Syria, controlling key oil fields in eastern Syria in the area bordering Iraq, levying taxes and other penalties and implementing strict Sharia law on besieged communities.
“Geographically, ISIS is already fully operational in Iraq and Syria; it has a covert presence in southern Turkey, appears to be establishing a small presence in Lebanon; and has supporters in Jordan, Gaza, the Sinai, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere,” Mr Lister said. “This could well be the birth of a totally new era of transnational jihadism.”
The announcement was also interpreted as a threat to al-Qaeda and its long-held position of leadership of the international jihadist cause.
“Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on al-Qaeda.”
Baghdadi took over the group in 2010. Back then ISI, as it was known, was aligned to al-Qaeda and in a weakened state following a surge of US forces deployed to Iraq and the coalition of Sunni tribal groups that fought against al-Qaeda’s presence in the country. But under his leadership the group thrived and is now believed to be the wealthiest militant organisation in the world with assets in the billions, “simultaneously implementing harsh mediaeval justice and a whole range of modern social services”, Mr Lister said.
Relations between between ISIL and its prior incarnations and al-Qaeda have been fraught with distrust, open competition, and outright hostility, said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describing the two groups as “now in an open war for supremacy of the global jihadist movement”.
ISIL “holds an advantage but the battle is not over yet,” he wrote in the institute’s journal.
Meanwhile, a fierce battle raged in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit after the Iraqi military, backed by Shiite militia, launched an offensive to try to take back Tikrit from Sunni insurgents after they lost control of the area on June 11.
And while the military and Iraqi state television claimed security forces had cleared the centre of the city of militants, it appeared the army had been pushed back 15 kilometres from the city as the insurgents fought back, Tikrit residents said.