Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The formal declaration by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) of an Islamic caliphate, with ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as caliph, looks set to create an inter-Islamist war between the militant group and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
ISIS on Sunday declared “an Islamic caliphate” in territory under its control in Syria and Iraq, proclaiming Baghdadi as “imam and caliph for Muslims everywhere.” ISIS, which has also changed its name to the “Islamic State,” is in control of large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, extending from Al-Bab city in the Aleppo countryside (eastern Syria) to Diyala governorate (eastern Iraq).
“One of those hit the hardest by the declaration of the caliphate will be the leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who could find himself forced to pledge support to his disciple (Baghdadi),” Syrian National Coalition member and jihadist groups expert Abdulrahman Al-Haj told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Baghdadi had originally pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda but subsequently declared war on the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
“The caliphate means that all Muslims in the world should pledge allegiance to one caliph. This means that Al-Baghdadi has become more important than Al-Zawahiri and all leaders of jihadist organizations in the world,” Haj added.
The announcement of the ISIS caliphate was made by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed Al Adnani. In the recorded statement, Adnani says it is incumbent on all Muslims across the world to pledge allegiance to Al-Baghdadi—who ISIS now calls Caliph Ibrahim.
Syrian military analyst Abdul-Nasser Al-Ayed told Asharq Al-Awsat that Zawahiri had been eclipsed by Baghdadi as a jihadist leader. “Baghdadi controls a large geographic area, and Zawahiri does not even have 10 percent of this,” Ayed said.
He added that Baghdadi’s overshadowing of Zawahiri could see ISIS “attracting the attention of jihadists around the world who will flock to fight under his command, particularly as major successes often influence public opinion.”
Both Haj and Ayed concurred that this new “Islamic State” would seek to expand and capture more territory, hoping its successes would attract other jihadist groups to align with it.
“It is likely that the geographic boundaries of the organization will expand to include neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, in addition to the [Palestinian] occupied territory,” Ayed said.
“Al-Baghdadi belongs to the third generation of the Al-Qaeda organization, which follows the strategy of annexing provinces,” he added.
ISIS originally emerged in Syria, fighting against the Assad regime. However the Islamist group quickly turned against its moderate opponents, fighting a war on two fronts. ISIS has subsequently moved across the border to Iraq, where it has taken control of vast territory with the support of some Sunni Arab tribesman.
Speaking about the next step after the declaration of the Islamic State, Ayed told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The next stage for the organization will be to focus on building a network of services in the areas under its control to win the sympathy of the local residents through providing electricity, water and security.”
“The priority will be to strengthen the signs of a state,” he added.
But, according to Haj, this will not reduce the level of violence of the ISIS fighters. “They will exercise greater violence toward civilians and the other [Islamist] organizations,” he said, adding: “The speech by [Abu Mohammed] Al-Adnani [spokesman for the “Islamic state”] endorsed violence against foes and opened the way for further escalation.”
In the recording, Adnani addressed Islamist and jihadist groups saying: “By God, we cannot find for you a religious reason to lag behind in supporting this state. Today, fie on Rawafid [Shi’ites], Sahawat [Awakening movement] and apostates. Today the nations of infidelity in the West shiver in fear. Here is the dream which has come true.”
The Al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, is the most prominent competitor to ISIS on the jihadist scene, particularly in Syria. But according to Ayed: “The Al-Nusra Front is on its way to degeneration and collapse after ISIS has become the most influential power in the jihadist arena.”