An al-Qaida breakaway group’s formal declaration of an Islamic caliphate across the stretch of territory it controls in Syria and Iraq sparked celebrations among the group’s followers today but condemnation and even ridicule from its rivals and authorities in Baghdad and Damascus.
The declaration was a bold move by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, not just announcing their own state governed by Shariah law but also claiming legitimacy as a successor to the first Islamic rule created by the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabian Peninsula 14 centuries ago.
In an audio recording last evening, the group proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph and demanded all Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.
The announcement risks straining alliances with other Sunnis in Iraq that have helped the Islamic State achieve its blitz this month, seizing control of a large swath of the country’s north and west.
Those Sunnis, including former officers in the military of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, have backed the Islamic State in hopes of bringing down Iraq’s Shiite-led government but not necessarily its ambitions of carving out a transnational caliphate.
Through brute force and meticulous planning, the Sunni extremist group which said it was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant has carved out a large chunk of territory that has effectively erased the border between Iraq and Syria and laid the foundations of its proto-state. Along the way, it has battled Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias and the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
Following the group’s announcement, Islamic State fighters in their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa paraded through the city to celebrate.
Some of the revelers wore traditional robes and waved the group’s black flags in a central square, while others zoomed around in pick-up trucks against a thundering backdrop of celebratory gunfire. Video of the celebrations was posted online, and activists in the city confirmed the details.
The Islamic State expelled rival rebel groups from Raqqa this spring, turning the city of some 500,000 along the banks of the Euphrates River into an image of the state it envisions.
Activists from Raqqa have described life under the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law: music has been banned, Christians have to pay an Islamic tax for protection and people are executed in the main square.