ISIS is dead, long live the Islamic State

Following the announcement by ISIS spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami of the creation of a caliphate, Aaron Zelin writes: The Islamic State’s announcement of the re-establishment of the caliphate has been a long time coming. It has also been a hope and dream for many Muslims over the decades, even if most do not necessarily agree with the Islamic State’s ideological leanings. The contemporary run-up to this announcement dates to Oct. 15, 2006, when the Islamic State of Iraq was first created and the movement for the first time attempted to establish institutions and governing structures. More recently, on March 25, 2014, the Islamic State and its key influencers online floated a trial balloon hashtag in Arabic, #We_Demand_Shaykh_al-Baghdadi_Declare_The_Caliphate, to get feedback on how individuals would react to such a declaration. Of course those who supported ISIS at the time were thrilled with the possibility, while those who opposed the group took issue.

The announcement of the caliphate’s creation on the first day of Ramadan, which is the holiest month of the year for Muslims, was no doubt meant to invoke the religious significance of the event. But the Gregorian date has significance as well: The June 29 announcement came one day after the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, which marked the beginning of World War I. While many historians point to Ataturk’s abolishment of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, as the end of the last line of caliphs, Islamic State followers see this as just the logical conclusion of a process that started a decade earlier with WWI, which led to the partition of the Middle Eastern states — a narrative that resonates for many in the region. Therefore, the June 29, 2014, announcement has been framed as an end to a century-long calamity, and as marking the return of dignity and honor to the Islamic umma.

The Islamic State can and will argue that it is the heir of past caliphates, especially the original Rashidun Caliphate (632-661). The Islamic State will also claim that it has been able to achieve what no other Islamist movement, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, has been able to do in the past century: fill the void left by the abolition of the caliphate and create a Muslim renaissance. It can now also argue that — unlike the past failed attempts to resurrect the caliphate by the Khilafat Movement in British India and the stillborn Sharifian Caliphate in what is today Saudi Arabia — the Islamic State was actually able to deliver a success for Muslims, and provide them with hope and strength once more.

In addition to the chorus of Muslims worldwide rejecting — and some even mocking — the Islamic State’s announcement, those in the leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates are in a precarious position. On the one hand, they are happy with the Islamic State’s recent advances in Iraq and do not in theory have an issue with a caliphate — though they may publicly argue it is too soon, or they may have privately hoped they would be the ones leading its reinstitution. On the other hand, Adnani’s proclamation could severely debilitate al Qaeda, which has been hit hard by the group’s advances in the past 15 months. Most notably, the Islamic State is eclipsing the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, gaining a military edge with foreign fighters and with defections of some members of other al Qaeda branches in Afghanistan, North Africa, and Yemen.

The Islamic State hopes to put al Qaeda and its branches in the unenviable position of having to reconcile with the reality of the new caliphate, or oppose it and therefore be viewed by global jihadis as hindering the caliphate project and showing its true nature as a sectarian organization that is not working for the best interests of Muslims. That strategy, however, is a gamble: It could open the Islamic State up for an even bigger fall if it does not follow through on its promise to fight enemies on all fronts, and if it fails in governing newly captured areas. There is already insurgent and noncombatant resistance to the Islamic State’s gains in both Syria and Iraq, so the group therefore has a thin needle to thread. [Continue reading…]

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