BEIRUT - A powerful jihadist group known for its ruthless tactics and systemic abuses in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts announced Sunday the establishment of a “caliphate”, or Islamist state.
In an audio recording distributed online, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “the caliph” and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. The jihadists said they would impose their caliphate on areas they have conquered in Syria and Iraq.
“The Shura (council) of the Islamic State met and discussed this issue (of the caliphate)... The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims,” said ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
“The jihadist cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims,” said Adnani, adding that the caliphate will extend “from Aleppo (in northern Syria) to Diyala” in Iraq. Baghdadi “has accepted this allegiance, and has thus become the leader for Muslims everywhere”.
“The words ‘Iraq’ and ‘the Levant’ have been removed from the name of the Islamic State in official papers and documents,” Adnani said, describing the caliphate as “the dream in all the Muslims’ hearts” and “the hope of all jihadists”.
Ever since the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s death, a caliph was designated “the prince” or emir “of the believers”.
After the first four caliphs who succeeded the Holy Prophet, the caliphate lived its golden age in the Omayyad empire from the year 661 to 750, and then under the Abbasids, from 750 to 1517. It was abolished when the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1924.In the recording, Adnani demanded that “all Muslims all pledge allegiance to the caliph”. An activist in Raqa, the bastion of ISIL, told AFP via the Internet: “Large convoys of ISIL members arrived in the city just as the declaration was issued, to celebrate their caliphate.
“There was very intense gunfire. ISIL supporters were shooting in the air with joy,” Hadi Salameh said. “I even saw seven ISIL members come into Raqa on horseback.”
Another activist, Abu Ibrahim, said via Facebook: “ISIL members in Al-Naim Square (in Raqa) are calling on all residents to pledge their loyalty.” Opposed to ISIL, both Salameh and Abu Ibrahim said they feared the consequences of the declaration.
“More jihadists will be drawn to join ISIL, and they will become stronger. It’s crazy,” said Abu Ibrahim.
In Syria, ISIL’s fighters control large swathes of territory in Deir Ezzor near the Iraq border, Raqa in the north, as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo province.
In Iraq, it has spearheaded a lightning offensive in recent weeks, capturing sizeable territories in the north and west of the conflict-torn country.
Once welcomed in Syria by rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, ISIL quickly earned the wrath of the Syrian opposition because of its systematic abuses. On a near-daily basis, reports have emerged of ISIL jihadists summarily executing political and military rivals, as well as average civilians. It has kidnapped thousands of people, including many rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow.
ISIL’s announcement was met with intense celebratory gunfire in Raqa in northern Syria, according to an activist in the jihadist-controlled town.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy jihadist fighting in Iraq and Syria, and newly declared leader of a “caliphate” encompassing all Muslims, is increasingly seen as more powerful than Al-Qaeda’s chief.
Baghdadi, born in Samarra in 1971 according to Washington, apparently joined the insurgency that erupted shortly after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, at one point spending time in an American military prison in the country.
In October 2005, American forces said they believed they had killed “Abu Dua,” one of Baghdadi’s known aliases, in a strike on the Iraq-Syria border.
But that appears to have been incorrect, as he took the reins of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in May 2010 after two of its chiefs were killed in a US-Iraqi raid. Since then, details about him have slowly trickled out.
In October 2011, the US Treasury designated him as a “terrorist”, and this year, Iraq released a picture they said was of Baghdadi, the first from an official source, depicting a balding, bearded man in a suit and tie.
US officials said last year that the jihadist was likely in Syria, but information of his whereabouts since has been unclear. Late last month, Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi, who heads a northern security command centre, said his forces believed Baghdadi was inside Iraq, but other officials have contested this.
He is touted within ISIL as a battlefield commander and tactician, a crucial distinction compared with Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, has attracted legions of foreign fighters, with estimates pegging them in the thousands.
At the time Baghdadi took over the group in April 2010, when it was ISI and tied to Al-Qaeda, it appeared to be on the ropes, after the “surge” of US forces combined with the shifting allegiances of Sunni tribesmen to deal him a blow.
But the group has bounced back, expanding into Syria in 2013.
Baghdadi sought to merge with Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Al-Nusra Front, which rejected the deal, and the two groups have mostly operated separately since.