ISIS is not a monolithic jihadi entity. Not surprisingly, its dramatic proclamation of a ‘Caliphate’ in the territories of Iraq and Syria has hardly evoked much enthusiasm outside ISIS’ immediate jihadi circle.
On June 29, the night before the commencement of Ramadan, the spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the establishment of the “Caliphate” in the territories of Iraq and Syria occupied by it. This, he said, was “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer.” He declared that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would be the caliph and called upon all Muslims to pledge their allegiance to him. The territory controlled by ISIS would now simply be called the “Islamic State.” This event marks the high point of endeavours by jihadists to capture the Islamic space and imagination that began in modern times with the global jihad in Afghanistan and reached its apogee with the assault on American targets on September 11, 2001.
The predecessor of ISIS is the ferocious jihadi zealot, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1999. Following 9/11, Zarqawi moved to Iraq and, after the United States occupation in 2003, gained notoriety for his violence — including beheadings, kidnappings and suicide bombings — against U.S. forces but more often against Shia targets and even Sunni civilians. In October 2004, he pledged his formal allegiance to bin Laden and named his group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in June 2006. Soon after, in October 2006, AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), emphasising its links to Iraq and its focus on setting up an Islamic state.
The jihadi outlook and violence of the ISI alienated large sections of the Sunni population in Iraq’s Anbar province, including tribal chiefs, professionals and Baathists, who then organised themselves into militia to fight the jihadis. In major confrontations in 2006-09, this movement, known as Sahwa (Awakening), succeeded in defeating the ISI and forcing it to go underground.
The civil conflict in Syria from 2011 provided the opportunity for the ISI to revive itself by sending fighters into Syria who set up a new jihadi organisation, Jabhat Nusra, which formally came into being in January 2012 under the leadership of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. By the end of 2012, Jabhat Nusra had become the most effective fighting force in Syria. This success encouraged the ISI leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had taken over in 2010, to extend ISI’s role into Syria by renaming his organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and announcing the merger of ISIS with Jabhat Nusra. This was rejected by Jolani, who had the support of Ayman Zawahiri, now head of Al-Qaeda.
This caused fierce infighting among the anti-Assad militia, leading to several hundred deaths in 2013. The situation was resolved when the anti-Assad militia coalesced around Jabhat Nusra as the Islamic Front and, at the end of 2013, evicted ISIS from most of its positions in Syria. In February 2014, al-Qaeda formally disavowed any links with ISIS.
The most fascinating aspect of the scenario that will play out in coming months will be the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda as the fountainhead of global jihad
ISIS now consolidated itself once again in Anbar province, taking the town of Fallujah in January 2014. On June 5, it captured Samarra and on June 10 took Mosul, without a fight. Over the next few days, ISIS captured most other towns in north and west Iraq, outside the Kurdish areas, as also posts on the Iraq-Syria border, finally announcing the “Islamic State” on June 29.
The caliphate announced by ISIS is redolent with historic and emotive content. It recalls the era of early Islam after Prophet Mohammed’s death, when the Muslim ummah was headed by the four “Rightly Guided” caliphs. They were the temporal and spiritual heads of the community and also its supreme military commanders, leading the new community to extraordinary victories and the spread of their faith. As Muslim monarchies were set up later, the caliphate became hereditary but continued to be significant up to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan in 1258. With the emergence of several Muslim kingdoms, the caliphate ceased to have any significance.
However, throughout the period of colonialism, there were sentimental references to the caliphate as an office that would free the Muslims from western domination and give them the possibility of rejuvenation and victory, as it had done in Islam’s early history. Radical Arab intellectuals in the last century had an added reason to seek the revival of the caliphate: for them it stood for the unity of the Arab lands that had been arbitrarily divided into independent states after the First World War, resulting from the Sykes-Picot Agreement secretly worked out between Britain and France during the war itself. Last week, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi recalled this painful division when he announced his rejection of the borders set by “western infidels and their agents,” and asserted that the borders of the Islamic state would be determined by “the blood of the martyrs.” The blurring of the Syria-Iraq border by the nascent “Islamic State” is the first step in restoring the unity of the Arab and ultimately all Muslim people. ISIS is not a monolithic jihadi entity. While two jihadi groups are at its core, numbering about 5,000, it consists of other Sunni groups which are not jihadi but have come together in a coalition of convenience in opposition to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s avowedly sectarian policies. The principal constituents are: first, Salafi groups that wish to confine their movement to Iraq and seek an independent Sunni state; second, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group (Iraqi Hamas) that seeks separate Sunni and Kurdish areas in an Iraqi confederation; third, a large group of tribal chiefs, soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army and a Naqshabadi force, who support a united Iraq; finally, these are elements linked to the former Baath order that have no Islamist agenda but simply wish to restore Baathist rule in the country.
Challenges before ISIS
Not surprisingly, while the proclamation of the caliphate is quite dramatic, it has hardly evoked much enthusiasm outside ISIS’ immediate jihadi circle. The Baathists and the Naqshbandis have rejected it as alien to their ideological orientation. The extremist doctrines and harsh conduct of the hard core jihadis have put off even those groups that are Islamic, including the Salafi militia in Syria who believe that al-Baghdadi and his cohorts are in a “fantasy world” for attempting to set up an Islamic state through “looting, sabotage and bombing.” Prominent Sunnis in Iraq fear that ISIS will only foment chaos and aggravate divisiveness, while the Shia leaders stigmatise ISIS as terrorists.
Given the small numbers that constitute ISIS’ core jihadi membership, estimated at about 10,000 in both Iraq and Syria, and the large number of groups with different agendas that are part of its coalition, in coming weeks and months ISIS should have considerable difficulty in holding on to the territory it has captured, providing some modicum of governance and maintaining the cohesion of its coalition. The Sunni groups are divided among themselves, with many of them favouring a national government that is non-sectarian and giving Iraq’s different communities a sense of acceptance and participation.
The most fascinating aspect of the scenario that will play out in coming months will be the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda as the fountainhead of global jihad. As of now, ISIS enjoys several advantages over al-Qaeda: while the al-Qaeda leadership is located in the remote inaccessible areas of Afghanistan, ISIS has placed itself at the heart of the Arab world. Again, while al-Qaeda has been paying lip service to the caliphate, ISIS has actually achieved it with dramatic military successes.
Above all, ISIS is flush with funds and weaponry seized in Mosul and other towns, and has boosted its strength with those released from Iraqi prisons. However, these achievements could be short-lived in the face of a powerful external coalition mobilised against it or from its own internal contradictions.
But, that is for the future: as of now, the spirit and forces of jihad, at once relentless and unforgiving, reverberate through the deserts and river valleys of Iraq and parts of Syria. ISIS has proclaimed: “Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared.” However, as an Arab commentator has noted, the successors of Hulagu Khan now stand before the gates of Baghdad not to restore a caliphate but to wreak destruction on Muslim lands, just as their ancestors had done.
(Talmiz Ahmad was India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.)