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Jul 3, 2014 | 08:07 GMT

8 mins read

The Organizational Hubris of the Islamic State

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
A video taken July 5, 2014, shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom the Islamic State called Caliph Ibrihim.
(AFP/Getty Images)

On June 29, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant announced that it was changing its name to simply the Islamic State and that it was re-establishing the caliphate — an Islamic empire that once spanned much of the Middle East. In the proclamation, the Islamic State noted that it had met all the requirements for re-establishing the caliphate and that all Muslims would be required to swear an oath of obedience to the new caliph, the Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now known as Caliph Ibrahim.

The move is the latest in a long history of audacious moves by the Islamic State and its many parent organizations, such as Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, al Qaeda in the land of the Two Rivers (commonly referred to as al Qaeda in Iraq), the Mujahideen Shura Council, and the Islamic State in Iraq. Indeed the group's founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was known for his brutality and imprudence, traits that brought al Qaeda's then-deputy and now-leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to send a letter to al-Zarqawi in 2005 admonishing him for his ruthlessness and disregard for winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Interestingly, the actions of the Islamic State and its predecessor groups are roughly following the progression outlined by al-Zawahiri in his letter to al-Zarqawi. Al-Zawahiri wrote: "It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world." He also noted that the first step in such a plan was to expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage was to establish an emirate and expand it into a larger caliphate. The third stage was then to attack the countries surrounding Iraq, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan, and bring them into the caliphate. The fourth step was to use the combined power of the caliphate to attack Israel.

Despite al-Zawahiri's thoughts, many observers in the jihadist world thought the group's 2006 proclamation of the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq was reckless and premature. Indeed, shortly after the announcement of the establishment of an Islamic State in Iraq, the group lost control of the vast majority of the territory it had conquered due to the Anbar Awakening. The group was terribly weakened by the awakening, but the sheikhs who controlled the Sunni militias involved in the awakening chose not to totally destroy the Islamic State in Iraq. The sheikhs remained suspicious of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regime and viewed the jihadists as a tool they could use later. Indeed, they used them first against the Alawite regime in Syria and have now turned them against the al-Maliki regime in Baghdad.

In the years since the Islamic State in Iraq lost its emirate, there have been abortive attempts to establish jihadist polities by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was cautious and did not formally proclaim the creation of an emirate as it was working to construct one. But al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did in April 2012.

Two letters discovered by journalist Rukmini Callimachi in Timbuktu, Mali, provided some interesting insight on the calculations behind the announcement of a jihadist emirate. The letters were written by Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and sent to Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud), the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Wahayshi detailed some of the lessons and mistakes his organization had made while it was attempting to establish its emirate in Yemen. He sought to share those lessons with al-Wadoud so al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's emirate in Mali would be more successful. 

In one of the letters, al-Wahayshi explained that his group purposefully did not proclaim an emirate in southern Yemen. "As soon as we took control of the areas, we were advised by the General Command here not to declare the establishment of an Islamic principality, or state, for a number of reasons: We wouldn't be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable. Second: Fear of failure, in the event that the world conspires against us. If this were to happen, people may start to despair and believe that jihad is fruitless."

Failure came to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2013, when the group lost control of its territory following the French intervention in Mali. During the time jihadists ruled northern Mali they alienated a substantial portion of the population by destroying libraries, tombs and other cultural artifacts, and by enforcing a harsh version of Sharia that resulted in amputations and executions.

The Great Divide

But the 2006 proclamation of an emirate was not the only example of the Islamic State's arrogance. In April 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq released an audio recording in which al-Baghdadi announced that his group had subsumed the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra and that they would henceforth be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Two days after al-Baghdadi's announcement, it became apparent that he had not coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and that the union of the organizations was more akin to a hostile takeover than a friendly merger. In his own audio message, al-Golani acknowledged the assistance that Jabhat al-Nusra had received from the Islamic State of Iraq in the struggle against the Syrian regime, but he said that he had not been consulted about the merger and learned about it only through the media. Al-Golani then re-pledged his allegiance to al-Zawahiri and noted that his organization would remain independent from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. A Jabhat al-Nusra spokesman later told Al Jazeera that al-Baghdadi's takeover attempt was "the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad."

Al-Zawahiri's ruling on the matter came in a letter released in June 2013 in which he urged the leaders to stop feuding. The letter noted that al-Baghdadi had erred in declaring the merger without consulting the al Qaeda leadership and that, like al-Golani, the core leaders had heard of the merger only through media reports. Al-Zawahiri also noted that al-Golani was wrong to publicly announce his rejection of the merger and to publicly reveal his group's affiliation with al Qaeda. He also declared that the Islamic State of Iraq was to be confined to the geography of Iraq while Jabhat al-Nusra was to remain in charge of Syria. Al-Zawahiri instructed both groups to cease fighting and to support each other with fighters, arms, money, shelter and security as needed.

Assuming the mantle of leadership and uniting the global jihadist movement, much less all Muslims, will not prove easy for al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State.

Al-Baghdadi's response to al-Zawahiri's admonition was sharp and quite clear. In the audio message released days after al-Zawahiri's ruling, al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri's order, stating that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would remain and would not compromise or back down. Regarding the instructions in al-Zawahiri's letter, al-Baghdadi said he had been forced to choose between God's command and an order that transgressed it. Al-Baghdadi said he chose the order of God over that of al-Zawahiri, a very clear and very public attack on al-Zawahiri's legitimacy and authority.

In January 2014, the Islamic State formally split from al Qaeda, a move that signaled a challenge to the organization for leadership of the global jihadist movement. But assuming the mantle of leadership and uniting the global jihadist movement, much less all Muslims, will not prove easy for al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. In the year since their failed takeover of Jabhat al-Nusra, several Syrian jihadist and other rebel groups have turned against the Islamic State and have actually worked to push it out of some of the territories it previously occupied in northern Syria. The Islamic State is working to consolidate its forces in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border in towns like Raqqa and Deir al-Zour.

There are already signs that the Islamic State will face similar problems in Iraq, as Sunni militias have begun to turn against them in Nineveh province. The current Sunni offensive must be viewed within the context of the recent Iraqi elections and the efforts to form a government — and the Sunni sheikhs' efforts to secure the benefits they believe they deserve.

Once the Iraqi Sunni sheikhs have finished using the Islamic State as a tool, there is a very good chance they will again turn on the organization and cause it to fail in its bold attempt to establish a caliphate in much the same way the Islamic State in Iraq lost its bid to establish an emirate in Iraq due to the Anbar Awakening.


Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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