The al-Qaeda breakaway group fighting in Iraq and Syria declared an Islamic caliphate in areas under its control, an assertion of authority meant to consolidate power over a swath of territory that straddles the two nations.
The insurgent movement defined its state as stretching from Aleppo in northern Syria to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, according to an audio recording purportedly by its spokesman posted on websites and forums linked to radical Islamists. The group named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the head of state.
The announcement, which security and political analysts say is unlikely to sway the conflict in the group’s favor, comes after the militants seized Iraq’s biggest northern city this month, raising the specter of a sectarian civil war. The movement, which has changed its name to the Islamic State from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is also battling forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as other rebels seeking to end his rule.
Yesterday’s declaration marks the third rebranding since 2006 of a group consisting of the “same people, same leader,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.
“Without declaring a political entity to support their control on the ground, it won’t have any meaning,” Alani said in a phone interview. “They want to say that the victory isn’t only about occupying the land, but it is about developing the occupation.”
Sunni Islamist militants usually invoke references to the caliphate to refer to times when Muslim empires ruled over territories across the Middle East, Europe and Asia. The last great caliphate was formally abolished in 1924 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
In the decades leading up to that event, colonial powers, mainly Britain and France, had already occupied Arab lands such as Algeria and Egypt. They carved out Iraq and Syria as states during World War I.
Al-Baghdadi has lured Islamic fighters to the region with a call for holy war to abolish the colonial-era borders. His group, though, has sometimes been incapable of sustaining alliances. In April, 2013, it split from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, part of a Sunni-dominated insurgency in Syria that has been trying to oust Assad for three years.
Violent clashes between the Islamic State fighters and Nusra units, backed by other Islamist gunmen, erupted last night in al-Bukamal, a Syrian town on the Iraqi border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. The Islamic State sent reinforcements to the area, the group said.
In the audio recording, the group declared the rule of any other movement as illegitimate and called on Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi. It said that it has appointed “emirs and courts” and imposed taxes in territories under its control.
The “announcement of a caliphate doesn’t change anything on the ground,” said Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. “It’s real events on the ground that change things. It means that they think they’re strong enough to rule territory.”
After capturing Mosul this month, the group imposed rules on residents of the northern Iraqi city that included a ban on smoking, drinking and drugs. Prayer times should be respected, it said. Women must stay indoors, or, if they have to go out, then respectable, baggy clothes must be worn. Thieves would have their hands amputated.
In a report last week, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said ISIL fighters had executed as many as 190 men in the contested city of Tikrit, saying the real figure may be higher. Other rights groups, including Amnesty International, have reported atrocities by both the militants and government forces since fighting erupted.
“They are killing people and planting flowers at the same time,” said Perthes of the insurgents. “Wherever they are in charge, they have to do it by terror and extortion.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Alaa Shahine in Dubai at firstname.lastname@example.org