In one week a group of jihadists based in Syria broke through the Iraqi border and blitzkrieged its way across northern Iraq—undoing in a week the stability and relative peace for which Americans fought and died. Who are these people and what are they really up to?
They’ve been referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As of Sunday, June 29, they’ve begun calling themselves “The Islamic State” (IS), coinciding with their announcement of the “restoration of the caliphate.” Neither the press nor terrorism experts are willing to ratify the existence of the so-called caliphate just yet, so we’ll refer to them simply as ISIL (except when quoting sources using ISIS).
1. Who’s in charge?
Born Ibrahim al-Badri in Samarra and educated in theology in Baghdad, he adopted the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and “rose from anonymity to become the feared leader of ISIL,” according to Al Jazeera. As of Sunday, he became Caliph Ibrahim.
2. What do all these name changes mean?
By dropping Iraq, Syria and the Levant from their operational name, they mean that the newly-minted “caliph” is asserting temporal power beyond the territories in Syria and Iraq currently held by ISIL. And “beyond” in this case means worldwide.
3. What is a caliphate?
Simply put, it’s a government under a caliph, but the implications of a caliphate are enormous. “Caliph” means a “successor,” i.e. of the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Ibrahim claims to be the supreme worldwide religious and political ruler of all Muslims, the one to whom ALL owe allegiance.
4. Is there a reason for establishing a caliphate, other than trying to unify all Muslims under one leader?
Several. First, Ibrahim likely hoped to complete the takeover of Iraq quickly by convincing all Iraqi Sunnis to lay down their arms and join the IS cause. A message from the IS was clear:
‘The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,’ said the group’s spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani. ‘Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.’
Second, a real caliphate, in the dreams of jihadists, would serve as a state sponsor of terrorism, harnessing wealth and manpower to wage global jihad until all are converted, dead or paying jizya (payments to protect the payee from death for being non-Muslim).
5. How likely is Ibrahim to succeed with his plan for global hegemony?
Regardless of the loyalty Ibrahim has inspired among some impatient jihadists (including fifteen from Minneapolis-St. Paul), the new “caliph” may find allegiance from 1.5 billion Muslims elusive.
Even among the small number of Sunni Muslims who are jihadists/terrorists, Ibrahim’s ISIL has been roundly condemned. Al-Qaeda, for example, publicly criticized ISIL for “its brutality and its willingness to kill anyone, even Sunni Muslims, it considered betrayers of their religion.”
6. Isn’t there already a caliph among Sunni Muslims?
Yes, there’s Mulla Mohammed Omar Uruzgani of Afghanistan, whom the Taliban and al-Qaeda declared to be “caliph.” Mulla Omar recently showed that he’s still an active spokesman when he declared that the release of five jihadist leaders from Guantanamo in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl “a big victory.”
7. Then how much of a threat is Caliph Ibrahim?