BAGHDAD – The al-Qaida breakaway group that has seized much of northeastern Syria and huge tracts of neighboring Iraq formally declared the establishment of a new Islamic state on Sunday and demanded allegiance from Muslims worldwide.
With brutal efficiency, the Sunni extremist group has carved out a large chunk of territory that has effectively erased the border between Iraq and Syria and laid the foundations of its proto-state. But the declaration, made on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, could trigger a wave of infighting among the Sunni militant factions that formed a loose alliance in the blitz across Iraq and impact the broader international jihadist movement, especially the future of al-Qaida.
The spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria declared the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the leader of the new caliphate, or Islamic state, and called on Muslims everywhere, not just those in areas under the organization’s control, to swear loyalty to al-Baghdadi and support him.
“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” said the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, in an audio statement posted online. “Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”
Al-Adnani loosely defined the Islamic state’s territory as running from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala – a vast stretch of land straddling the border that is already largely under the group’s control. He also said that with the establishment of the caliphate, the group was changing its name to just the Islamic State.
Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam’s 1,400-year history.
It was unclear what immediate impact the declaration would have on the ground in Syria and Iraq, though experts predicted it could spark infighting among the Sunni militants who have joined forces with the Islamic State in its fight against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government.
“Now the insurgents in Iraq have no excuse for working with ISIS if they were hoping to share power with ISIS,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst who specializes in Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. “The prospect of infighting in Iraq is increased for sure.”
The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of al-Qaida.
Founded by Osama bin Laden, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. has long carried the mantle of the international jihadi cause. But the Islamic State has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what al-Qaida never has: carve out a large swath of territory in the heart of the Arab world and control it.
“This announcement poses a huge threat to al-Qaida and its longtime position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, in emailed comments. “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.”
Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, took the reins of the Islamic State in 2010 when it was still an al-Qaida affiliate based in Iraq.
Since then, he has transformed what had been an umbrella organization focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force.