ISIS’s rapid rise illustrates how far jihadism has evolved

Hassan Hassan writes: As the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant has declared its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi a caliph, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a couple of colleagues during my first year of university in Damascus in 2000. The school curriculum in Syria steered clear of almost all sensitive issues, and it was natural for new university students to find themselves exposed for the first time to “serious” issues such as the caliphate and sectarian divisions in the Muslim world. Such discussions were mostly hushed, often discussed in coded language among trusted colleagues or friends.

“Ana mubayi’,” or I have a pledge of fealty [to a caliph], said one of my colleagues. It was strange to hear such a sentence in a secular country like Syria. He added, with a smile that suggested a suddenly shaken certainty as to whether it was safe to have said it, that pledging allegiance to the caliph could be done without even meeting him because it would be deemed sinful if he didn’t declare allegiance. The supposed caliph was Mullah Omar, the Afghan spiritual leader of the Taliban.

That was around a year before the September 11 attacks in the US. This view of global jihadist groups was, I believe, pervasive within circles that were susceptible to foreign ideas and was being expressed at a time when satellite channels had just become popular in the region – especially Al Jazeera – that broadcast glimpses of jihadists in some mountains in Afghanistan, dressed in white and riding horses, reminiscent of a bygone period in Islamic history.

This story is relevant today, as some observers of jihadists in the region tend to play down the dangers of the ISIL announcement. The move is much more than whether the Islamic State, as it is known now, will hold on to the territories it currently controls or whether it will push into neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

A month ago, Barack Obama cited the weakening of “Al Qaeda central” as one of his administration’s achievements. Commentators then highlighted that while that may be true – a more dangerous trend has taken place during his presidency, the rise of local jihadi groups in many more countries than Al Qaeda ever operated. After the announcement of a caliph this week, the one thing Mr Obama bragged about has been rendered hollow, as the Islamic State has all but taken on Al Qaeda’s role as a leader of jihad. Some may celebrate the fact that the Islamic State has harmed Al Qaeda more than the war on terror has, but the only difference is that the Islamic State is the extreme of the extreme and is more invigorating for jihadists than Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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