July 16, 2014
Half a dozen so-called Islamic states have been created out of countries in crisis in the last 20 years, and each new one is more brutal and bloodthirsty than the last.
The latest is the “caliphate” created by the messianic descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, soldier and Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the territory he and his followers control in the border region of Syria and Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi’s puritanical Muslim enclave may well be the most brutal of all the Islamic states that have flared and died since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996 with the aid of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency after the departure of the invading Soviet Union.
The surge of al-Baghdadi’s fighters over the fellow Sunni Muslim homelands of central Iraq has been accompanied by the mass executions of rival Shiia Muslims, beheadings and the crucifixion of at least eight people.
Not that the other militant-ruled Islamic enclaves of the last two decades have been much better. All have been terrorist states by any reasonable definition. The Taliban in Afghanistan were crudely puritanical, harboured al-Qaida, and may well return to a degree of power in the administration being put in place after recent elections.
Al-Shabaab filled the power vacuum in Somalia after the ouster of President Siad Barre and the failure of international attempts to curb the ambitions of regional warlords. In this chaos, very many Somalis welcomed al-Shabaab’s establishment of a harsh, but dependable rule under Islamic Sharia.
Forces from neighbouring African states have now removed Al-Shabaab from most of the areas it controlled, but it remains a potent terrorist force.
The same is true of Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), which had virtual control of much of the central Sahara Desert in West Africa, and captured northern Mali in 2012. But when it began early last year to use this as a base for expanding its territory, France led a coalition of West African states to overrun the group.
Nearby in the area where northern Nigeria borders Cameroon, the group Boko Haram has yet to be confronted. It continues to slaughter civilians with terror bombs, but the abduction and enslavement of hundreds of Christian schoolgirls has shocked the international community and Boko Haram’s days must be numbered.
Al-Baghdadi’s militants used to be called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, but adopted the name the Islamic State (IS) after their leader declared the caliphate at the end of June. IS now controls over 92,000 square kilometres in eastern Syria and central Iraq. The area contains significant oil and gas reserves and is about the same size as Jordan, Hungary or the American state of Indiana, and is larger than the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
The caliphate was the political state created over the territory captured and converted to Islam by the Prophet Mohammed after his death in 632. It was led by religious leaders and had a turbulent history until it was abolished in 1924 by the staunchly secularist Turkish leader, President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The dream of recreating an idealized Islamic state, governed by righteous religious leaders administering Sharia religious law, has inspired all the Muslim militants of the last decades, including al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden.
What sets al-Baghdadi apart from all the others, including bin Laden and his successor as al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, is that he is supremely qualified to be the new Caliph. There are three requirements. The Caliph must have proven qualities as an Islamic scholar and as a soldier. Critical, though, is that he must be from the Prophet’s tribe of Quraysh.
Al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim ibn Awwad, fulfils all those requirements. He has a doctorate in Islamic law from Baghdad’s Islamic University, and gathered a group of fighters who joined the insurgency after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That group evolved into the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, and al-Baghdadi became its leader in 2010 after his predecessor was killed in an American air strike.
Since then, al-Baghdadi’s fighters have joined brother extremists rebelling against the Shiia Muslim regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria. The combined force is well equipped with captured weapons, tanks and artillery, and has control of sufficient oil and gas reserves to finance its rule. The Islamic State caliphate appears to pose a threat to both the Assad regime in Damascus and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
However, despite his impressive credentials, al-Bagdadi has not been universally welcomed among Muslim jihadist groups as the new embodiment of Islamic rule on Earth.
The rivalry with al-Zawahri and al-Qaida is bitter. Al-Zawahri has rejected the al-Baghdadi caliphate and his pretensions to be the supreme authority over all Muslims everywhere, as have some al-Qaida affiliates. AQIM this week issued a statement rejecting al-Baghdadi’s caliphate and reaffirming its loyalty to al-Qaida and al-Zawahri, who is believed to be holed up in the lawless territory of western Pakistan.
Boko Haram, in Nigeria, didn’t go as far as its neighbour cousins in AQIM. Boko Haram merely put out a statement supporting all jihadists.
Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, a terrorist group in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, , has expressed support for al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, but did not acknowledge the supreme authority of his caliphate.
The only unequivocal support for al-Baghdadi has come from Tehrik-e-Khilafat, a junior member of the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group. As its name implies, Tehrik-e-Khilafat has a long history of supporting the re-establishment of the Muslim Caliphate going back to the days of the British Indian Empire.
The declaration of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is undoubtedly acting as a draw for would-be jihadist fighters from all over the Muslim world, including, of course, Europe and North America. But the expansion and, indeed, the survival of this domain will depend on al-Baghdadi’s continued military victories.
There are limits to how much he can achieve. For one, there is Iran’s unwavering support for the fellow Shiia governments in Baghdad and Damascus. For another, there is growing alarm among the leading Sunni Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, that the Syrian rebellion, which they support, is being taken over by extreme militants like al-Baghdadi.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Related and further reading:
Nation of Kurdistan springs from Arab chaos by Jonathan Manthorpe on Facts and Opinions, March, 2014
The Cold War 2.0 by Jim McNiven on Facts and Opinions, June, 2014
Let Nature’s Geography Trump Westphalian View by Chris Wood on Facts and Opinions, June, 2014
Bin Laden’s disciples move to realize his dream by Jonathan Manthorpe on Facts and Opinions, June, 2014
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