Viewpoint: Isis caliphate a dangerous development

Isis fighters in Anbar province (file photo) Isis's caliphate reaches from northern Syria to eastern Iraq

With the declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) of a caliphate - an Islamic state ruled by a single political and religious leader - a new era of international jihadism has been ushered in.

This has huge theological, ideological and political implications for both the international community and the jihadist groups that challenge it.

In Islamic history, the caliphate was viewed as a just leadership that facilitated the practise of the faith. The caliph was also a political leader that led an empire and was viewed as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Historically, the caliph was viewed as the leader of Muslims the world over, whose allegiance and loyalty he expected. This political model was eventually disbanded in the early 20th Century and replaced by the modern nation state.

The caliphate with Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at its head, however, is very different from its forebears. Its announcement will be rejected by nearly all Muslims, who do not want, at any cost, the jihadist group to represent them.

The declaration will be cast aside by Muslims in all walks of life, even if they believe in the concept of "khilafa" (caliphate), as perfidious, premature and blasphemous.

However, that does not change the situation for those living under Baghdadi's rule.

In the new seat of the caliphate, the Syrian city of Raqqa, as in the rest of Isis-controlled territory, the land is to be administered by a medieval and literalist interpretation of Sharia, under which smoking is punished by flogging, thieves face amputations and opponents are summarily executed.

In light of this, it is somewhat surprising that, in the wake of the announcement, on a local level Isis's popularity seems to have been fortified.

For example, as celebrations in Falluja show, there are many people who welcome this news with jubilance.

If, however, one is not a Sunni Muslim predisposed to Baghdadi's binary worldview, it is extremely troubling news, for his group has no tolerance for what it views as dissent, as demonstrated by June's massacre of Iraqi soldiers and reported crucifixions of moderate Syrian rebels.

Wider reverberation

Looking beyond Isis's territory, though, surrounding countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia are sure to be extremely concerned at the development.

That the caliphate has been re-established will most likely only serve to fuel support for the Isis brand of jihadism already present in these countries.

For months, there has been evidence mounting that Baghdadi's personality cult has spread to surrounding countries; now, it will advance even further.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been declared Caliph

Besides the above, we are likely to feel reverberations of the declaration on an international level in other ways.

While Baghdadi's concerns may appear localised, his long-term objectives are most certainly not.

Now that he has claimed the caliphate, he has effectively positioned himself as the standard-bearer of jihadism the world over.

This means that the possibility of an Isis attack against a Western target - coming as an attempt to drive al-Qaeda into global irrelevance - is not far-fetched.

The al-Qaeda factor is of particular interest. The rivalry between Baghdadi and al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has far-reaching implications, carrying with it a risk that either group might seek to "out-jihad" the other with an attack on the West.

So, of the many issues that the declaration raises, al-Qaeda's reaction is sure to be one of the most revealing.

As far as Baghdadi is concerned he has subordinated it entirely now. His spokesperson even made sure to assert that all other jihadist organisations were now defunct and that "baya" (pledge of allegiance) should be made to his group immediately.

Isis gamble

While it is unlikely that we will see thousands of jihadist foot-soldiers sign up to the Baghdadi cause, a small number are certain to, and that is not to mention those extremists who were on the fence already, as yet undecided in which group to support.

After all, fighting for the caliphate is a lot more exciting a prospect for would-be jihadists than fighting for a dwindling force like Zawahiri's al-Qaeda.

Pro-Bin Laden demonstration in Karachi, Pakistan (file photo) Isis has sought to sideline al-Qaeda, declaring itself the standard bearer of global jihad

However, announcing that the caliphate has been restored is a huge gamble and, from here on in, it could go either way for Isis.

Al-Qaeda supporters and other extremists may deepen their hatred for Baghdadi because of his demand for allegiance. Equally, though, it may inspire defections from jihadist groups as fighters, drawn in by the millenarianism of Baghdadi's worldview, jump ship onto the rising star of violent Islamist extremism.

Indeed, as one expert has noted, we have already seen some evidence of this latter phenomenon from recent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) activity.

So, as the Iraqi army pursues a counter-attack to retake the city of Tikrit with the help of Iranian strategic advice, as well as potential air support from fighter jets bought from Russia and US drones, the situation in Iraq is fluid.

A lot is riding on the army's latest offensive: if it goes its way and Isis is driven out of Tikrit, Baghdadi's legitimacy will take a huge hit.

If, however, Isis stays firm in the face of international military collaboration, it will only feed their global appeal.

Charlie Cooper is a Middle East researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter-extremism think tank.

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