Posted by Curt on 3 September, 2014 at 4:20 pm. 1 comment.


J.M. Berger:

Since late 2013, it has been clear that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now rebranded as simply the Islamic State, wants more than just a piece of land to call its own.

The Islamic State has thrown down the gauntlet to al Qaeda and seeks to supplant its former ally as the symbol and leader of a global movement acting out a twisted definition of jihad. Its sweeping military campaign has captured a huge swath of Iraq, even as it fights both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rival jihadi groups in Syria, while its proclamation in June of an Islamic caliphate has sparked a furious debate about its legitimacy among global terrorists.

The concept that Muslim militants around the world could even have a global leader is relatively novel and arguably unsound. During the 1980s and 1990s, countless independent regional groups were united by little other than a very broad outline of an ideology and, for some, the money and resources provided by Osama bin Laden.

While al Qaeda had influence on these groups — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot — bin Laden did not explicitly take on the mantle of leadership, and though there were endless “al Qaeda links” (the perceived importance of which has fluctuated in the eyes of most observers over the years), most jihadi groups were nominally or meaningfully autonomous most of the time, with a few notable exceptions.

At least on paper, al Qaeda itself was then — and continues to be — subordinate to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, through a loyalty oath from bin Laden to Mullah Omar, which was reaffirmed last year by al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and again this summer, in a print publication attributed to al Qaeda.

But in practice, the post-9/11 jihadi movement has split into two major groups — al Qaeda and its declared affiliates, under the leadership of bin Laden and now Zawahiri — and everyone else, a motley collection of more or less like-minded insurgents and terrorists around the world who have maintained their independence, even though many were friendly or linked to al Qaeda through shared resources or personnel.

The current list of official affiliates — over which Zawahiri acknowledges his authority — includes al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, mostly in Yemen), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, mostly in North Africa), al-Shabab (mainly in Somalia), and al-Nusra Front (in Syria).

In the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate — essentially firing it for failing to follow his orders. After seizing a substantial amount of territory in Iraq during June, ISIS renamed itself the Islamic State and declared that it is a “caliphate,” essentially asserting that it holds dominion over Muslims around the world and demanding that jihadi groups swear loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now restyled as Caliph Ibrahim.

When all the world’s Muslim militants failed to drop to their knees, the online supporters of the Islamic State were baffled and disappointed. The realist leadership of the group probably knew that the announcement would not produce immediate breakthroughs, but it may have been disappointed at the volume of the first wave of rejection. Given how tightly the Islamic State synchronizes its media strategy, it is telling that the group could not arrange even a single high-profile pledge within the first week after the announcement.

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