Call Me Ibrahim

The Terrorist Caliph as Nation Builder in Iraq, Syria, and Beyond

Jihadist troops and administrative smarts make the leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ a threat not only in Syria and Iraq, but in Palestine and the Gulf.

Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty

He came out of the shadows dressed in black to deliver a 20-minute sermon to the people he claims to command—a billion Muslims around the globe—and to urge them to help build a caliphate in the heart of the Arab world. By any standards Friday’s video appearance by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the al Qaeda breakaway faction he calls the Islamic State, was both subversive and audacious.

Of course, the elusive 42-year-old “Caliph Ibrahim,” as he now styles himself, had to make an appearance sometime, to show himself to his people—notwithstanding the $10 million bounty on his head and U.S. drones no doubt flying in the skies above the Grand Mosque of Mosul where he spoke.

In 2010 he forbade his followers to show any images of him, but the appearance of the man who would be king at communal prayers points to al Baghdadi’s confidence in his control over Iraq’s second-largest city, which was captured less than a month ago by his fighters.

“He is asserting his leadership,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. And as Bruce Riedel of Brookings points out, the symbolism surrounding his declaration, from his choice of venue to the adoption of his name, was calculated to evoke memories of the vast Abbasid empire in the Middle Ages while giving “Ibrahim,” or Abraham, claims to “his” city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and to Palestine, as well as to Baghdad and the desert lands he’s conquered in Syria and Iraq.

The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, always several steps behind, scrambled to deny the video’s authenticity. Baghdad officials claimed the self-proclaimed caliph was wounded in an air strike days earlier. “We have analyzed the footage, and found it a farce,” an Interior Ministry spokesman declared.

Certainly the man on camera looked healthy enough. But, perhaps more importantly, this caliphate whose creation was announced by aides on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan already is showing attributes of a functioning state.

While Iraqi lawmakers are deadlocked trying to form a new government that might save their skins as well as their state, al Baghdadi’s jihadists are busy developing their own Islamic polity. As they do so they are demonstrating both a sophisticated understanding of state building and a breathtaking ambition that threatens not only Baghdad but also the Sunni emirates and kingdoms of the Gulf.

In much the same way some Western officials and Maliki’s government underestimated al Baghdadi’s military capability in the run-up to his stunning jihadist blitz, so, too, they’ve underrated his group’s competence in piecing together the complex functions of civil administration.

“We have had all the requirements of the Islamic state like fundraising, alms-giving, penalties, and prayers,” said Abu Mohammed al Adnani, the IS spokesman, when he announced the creation of the caliphate. In short, they know how to tax and raise revenue, provide social benefits, maintain law and order and underpin it all with a religious, state-building narrative.

Religious schools are being opened; social services, if rudimentary, are being organized. All this is being done while conducting a war on three broad fronts and maintaining fragile alliances with a hodgepodge of other Sunni groups, from former Saddam Hussein-era military commanders and soldiers to restive tribal leaders. The juggling act would stretch even an advanced modern Western state.

And they have a banner—the black tawhid standard—as they seek to morph themselves from a rabble in arms, as it were, to a theocratic nation with a flag.

Al Baghdadi has called on doctors, engineers and Islamic jurists around the Muslim world to join him in building the new caliphate. “Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.”

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Analysts say the group is spending millions of dollars of its mainly oil-derived wealth on subsidizing food, donating to charities and maintaining public works in a bid to secure more allegiance in the Sunni-majority towns and villages it has seized with other militants in Iraq. And it has already posted basic rules of God-fearing behavior it expects the citizens of its new state to observe—from refraining from smoking or drinking alcohol to “modest” dress for women and the destruction of idols.

“Having taken control of large areas of Iraq, ISIS is now enjoying increasing shows of solidarity from the Middle East and from across the Muslim world,” say researchers at the Middle East Media and Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit which monitors Muslim media.

The group’s practical approach and its determination to establish a state based on strict Sharia law contrasts with the less focused strategy pursued by al Qaeda. Under Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda fighters were in essence guests—albeit honored ones—in Taliban-run Afghanistan, and the terror group’s current chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, who disavowed al Baghdadi last winter, is a fugitive likely holed up in Pakistan. Al Qaeda has never managed to carve out a large chunk of real estate to call its own, nor has it been able to match al Baghdadi’s skill exploiting social media for propaganda and recruitment purposes.

Al Qaeda’s leader has been silent on the caliphate announcement—suggesting he may be unsure how to respond. Some analysts suspect an internal debate is underway within the once-dominant terror group. Several major jihadist factions have held their counsel and are remaining publicly neutral, avoiding declaring one way or another.

One way of seeing the difference between the two competing jihadist chieftains is to see al Zawahiri as Leon Trotsky, the less ruthless and more theoretical Bolshevik leader; and for al Baghdadi read pitiless Stalin, the harder-nosed, pragmatic, vicious revolutionary who methodically isolated, banished and subsequently murdered his rivals to establish an iron-fisted dictatorship.

If al Baghdadi can transform his proto-state into one that endures—admittedly a big “if” considering the obstacles—the regional consequences will likely be far-reaching and spread from Libya to Saudi Arabia.

In the warped world of jihadists, “it is only a caliph that has the legal legitimacy to declare or order an offensive jihad,” says Charles Lister, a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. He argues the targets of the new caliphate are as much the hereditary rulers of the Gulf and Jordan as apostate Shia Iran or the infidel West.

In the initial caliphate announcement, al Adnani declared “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.” Al Baghdadi likes to bluster and bait and no one expects his fighters—some analysts estimate them at only about 15,000—to march triumphantly into Riyadh anytime soon, but the ambition is there and there is evidence of much painstaking planning.

Lister argues in an email briefing that the decision to announce a caliphate was likely not taken on the spur-of-the-moment—however much it caught outsiders by surprise. “In retrospect, one could surmise that ISIS has been working towards this point for years now,” he says. “As an organization, ISIS has become the wealthiest militant group in the world with assets in the low $ billions and has developed an almost obsessive level of bureaucracy, account keeping, and certainly controlled but locally implemented military-political coordination.”

The coordination between the military and the civil wings of IS has gone through a transformation since last year when al Baghdadi’s jihadists in insurgent-controlled northern and eastern Syria found themselves at war with moderate and Islamist rebels battling President Bashar Assad.

A sharp backlash was triggered by the group’s predatory opportunism grabbing villages and towns seized by other Syrian rebels, insisting that all bend to its will and meting out of vicious punishments that included public beheadings of rivals and anyone who offended the group’s rigid Sharia law strictures.

Today, IS appears to have learned a lesson and has been taking noticeably more care to incorporate a hearts-and-mind strategy in its model of governance. But it has not softened its medieval interpretation of Sharia law, or foresworn barbaric treatment of foes and those it views as delinquents or apostates.

Within days of seizing control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the group boasted of slaughtering 1,700 people, mainly Shia Muslims. And last week in a town east of Syria’s Aleppo, the group crucified nine men, eight of them anti-Assad rebels, according to a pro-opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The self-declared caliphate is targeting its leniency, such as it is, along strictly sectarian lines. It has offered Sunnis who had worked for the Iraqi government or had been soldiers in the army the opportunity to atone for their pasts and escape punishment, if they repent. With an eye to maintaining its current alliances with Sunni tribes, it also has allowed a repentance process for those who fought alongside the U.S. Army in the so-called Sunni Awakening against IS’s forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al Baghdadi’s bravado, ambition, momentum, and administration have made him the brightest star in the jihadist firmament for now. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a scholar at the Middle East Forum, argues IS may have made a strategic error in declaring a caliphate and announcing that the unabashed al Baghdadi is the emir of all Muslims everywhere. His self-directed elevation to caliph, a title held by the Prophet Mohammad’s successors, smacks of blasphemy.

Certainly the declaration has provoked an outcry from prominent Islamic and jihadi scholars, including the influential Qatar-based Egyptian Yusuf al Qaradawi. On Saturday he warned that al Baghdadi’s ambitions would have dangerous consequences for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and dismissed the announcement as “void under Sharia.”

In Lebanon, the Salafist Sheikh Dai al Islam al Shahhal said, “We want a caliphate; it is at the core of our ideology…But such a state should be founded on several criteria, which have not yet been met.”

Clearly there are risks that al Baghdadi’s effrontery could so offend other militants in the Sunni insurgency that they start peeling away, which is why state building is an imperative for the self-styled emir. Much of what IS is doing now in the territory it controls in Iraq is based on the model of governance it started to fashion in Raqqa province in eastern Syria. Some of it has been copied from the playbook of Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, which was much quicker in seeing the importance of a hearts-and-mind strategy and providing charity, sharing loot, offering municipal services and governing the distribution of fuel and bread. In Aleppo, al-Nusra and IS were in competition to be more efficient.

In Raqqa, IS has been running an office seeking foster families for children who have lost their parents, overseen alms-giving, repaired energy facilities and is running public transport… and the list goes on. With the assets and revenue streams IS has now got—it reportedly seized half a billion dollars from the central bank in Mosul—it has the wherewithal to fund a lot of governance and welfare while still financing its military effort.

In the past two years al Baghdadi has transformed a terror group into a terrorist army and as he tries to build state legitimacy he is seeking another objective: to draw a contrast between his caliphate rooted in Islam and the hereditary rulers of the Gulf who, in his view, owe their emirates and kingdoms to the infidel West.