Thursday, May 28, 2015

How The Islamic State’s Caliphate In Iraq Was Originally Ignored

In June 2014 the Islamic State (IS) swept into Mosul taking Iraq’s second largest city. Afterward IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a public sermon in a Mosul mosque declaring the return of the caliphate. That sent shock waves through the international community, but was in fact a long term goal of the group. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who founded the organization that would become IS wanted to form an Islamic state long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After he was killed in 2006 his successors began forming a state, but that was largely ignored until their replacement Baghdadi began making it a reality.

Restoring the caliphate was a major goal of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That started in the early 1990s when he began working with Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. Together they criticized the west and the Jordanian government, and called for jihad and the formation of an Islamic state. In 2001, Zarqawi and Al Qaeda commander Saif Adl allegedly talked about how the impending invasion of Iraq might provide the opportunity to restore the caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood largely inspired these ideas. It talked about the caliphate when it was founded in the 1920s, and later in the 1950s its ideologue Sayid Qutb called for radical revolutionary activism, which inspired many groups in the following decades. Zarqawi came from this line of Salafi-Jihadist thought, and tried to implement it in Iraq.

Throughout Zarqawi’s time in Iraq he stated that his goal was to form an Islamic state. In May 2004 for example, he said he was in Iraq to wage jihad and create a state. Two months later he stated that an Islamic state was emerging in Iraq, and in August he claimed he was fighting to launch the caliphate. The next year he issued a strategy document, which concluded with a state. Then in 2006 Al Qaeda in Iraq created the Mujahedeen Shura Council with five other groups, which it said was the start of a new Islamic nation. Zarqawi was killed a few months later, but it was evident from these statements and more that he believed the vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent war was just the opportunity he had been waiting for to return the caliphate. He thought starting a civil war in Iraq would rally the Sunni population to his side in a jihad against the west and Shiites. The ensuing victory would open the door to a new Islamic era.

After the passing of Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq would continue on with his vision. Abu Hamza Muhajir also known as Abu Ayub Masri replaced Zarqawi as the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He named Abu Omar al-Baghdad as the official leader of the organization. In October 2006 they announced the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which was to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed. It claimed it controlled an area about the size of Medina under the Prophet. That included provinces in Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, Ninewa, and parts of Babil and Wasit. In turn, Muhajir called for Muslims to give baya or allegiance to Baghdadi. This was generally welcomed by jihadis such as Al Qaeda initially, but caused controversy within the Iraqi insurgency. The Islamic Army for example, criticized the idea in 2007. The United States on the other hand didn’t pay much attention, focusing instead upon calling Baghdadi a fake. The Islamic State of Iraq was actually the start of the caliphate, but was almost completely missed in the west. Muhajir and Baghdadi were fulfilling Zarqawi’s plan. The problem was that ISI didn’t have the power in Iraq to actually create a state on the ground. By 2007 for example, it was suffering major setbacks. It also lacked the standing in the jihadist community to convince many others that the caliphate was returning.

It wasn’t until the Syrian war, and the revival of IS that the Islamic state would really gain ground. The conflict in Syria allowed IS to gain new recruits, find new sources of income, and expand into another country. That led to the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in April 2013. In Iraq, the decline of politics for Sunnis after the 2010 elections, the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, Sunni protests, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s hallowing out of the Iraqi Security Forces all contributed to the return of IS. By 2014 IS was able to seize Mosul and declared the caliphate on June 29 resulting in the name change from ISIS to simply the Islamic State. This time the announcement was taken much more seriously and gained headlines around the world. IS had proved itself an effective insurgent group seizing huge tracts of land in both Syria and Iraq. That didn’t mean there was universal agreement upon the caliphate within the jihadi community as there were still plenty of dissenters, but IS had made gains like few other Salafists had done before giving an air of legitimacy to the new Islamic state.

The restoration of the caliphate was a long time coming for the Islamic State. Zarqawi had talked about it years before he even entered Iraq. He wasn’t able to declare it; that was left to his successors Muhajir and Baghdadi. Their announcement was barely even noticed at the time with many either ignoring it or just taking it as a name change for Al Qaeda in Iraq. It wasn’t until IS seized territory in both Syria and Iraq that the caliphate was taken as a reality. IS not only had the power to enforce its pronouncements, but started acting like a state as it always talked about. It has civil servants, provides services, runs schools, etc. It also demanded the loyalty of not only all the other insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq, but of all Muslims around the world. This has gained widespread support from many young jihadis. Now the question is whether IS has the resources to maintain and expand its state.


Bunzel, Cole, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, March 2015

Fishman, Brian, “The Imaginary Emir: Al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s Strategic Mistake,” Combating Terrorism Center, 7/18/07

Kagan, Kimberly, “The Anbar Awakening: Displacing al Qaeda from Its Stronghold in Western Iraq,” Institute For The Study of War and Weekly Standard, 8/21/06-3/30/07

Kazimi, Nibras, “Al-Qaeda Declares Government, Islamic State in Iraq,” Talisman Gate, 10/15/06

Myers, Steven Lee, “Arrest Led to Strike on Two Top Iraq Qaeda Leaders,” New York Times, 4/22/10

Roggio, Bill, “The Awakening, al Qaeda clash in Iraq,” Long War Journal, 12/17/07

Symon, Fiona, “The devil America knows,” Financial Times, 9/24/04

Weiss, Michael Hassan, Hassan, ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror, New York: Regan Arts, 2015


Unknown said...

I'm a bit confused as to what this post is trying to communicate. It is not clear who supposedly ignored the Islamic State. Certainly it wasn't the tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq, or the Iraqi Security Forces. Defeating Zarqawi/Abu Hamza's organization was their primary focus. As you mention in the article, the organization was nearly defeated by 2011.

Or, did you just mean that the media and analysts ignored the significance of the name change from AQI to The Islamic State of Iraq? That is more plausible. But weren't there good reasons to be dismissive at the time? The "state" was a bit of a farce, and it just seemed like a pathetic PR stunt. Had the organization been wiped out for good in 2011, would history have contradicted that assessment?

Joel Wing said...

Hi David,

the point was that IS began its trip towards creating an Islamic state far before 2014, but most of that history was ignored and/or missed by the west and even Iraqis. Just because the U.S. and ISF was fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq back then didn't mean it understood the significance of its name change in 2006. Who did take it seriously was the Iraqi insurgency, Al Qaeda and the larger jihadi community. Yes AQI was starting its decline by then, but it always had the desire to become a real state and now finally has the power to act like one on a grand scale.

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