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Islamic State Militancy Grows Behind al-Baghdadi's Leadership

FILE - This image from video posted in July purports to show Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon in Iraq.

It was the 20-minute sermon that shook the world.

By any standard the oration delivered in July in the Grand Mosque of Mosul was both audacious and subversive, and has plunged the Middle East deeper into bloody turmoil.

In announcing a caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the al-Qaida breakaway faction he calls the Islamic State, was throwing down the gauntlet - to established Muslim leaders and the West as well as fellow jihadists.

With U.S. drones flying the skies above Iraq, the elusive 42-year-old Baghdadi who styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim” was claiming leadership over a billion Muslims around the globe. He was also in effect demanding the allegiance of al-Qaida, which had cut ties with him just months earlier in a dispute over strategy and his refusal to obey orders.

Al-Qaida has not "bent the knee," but in northern Syria following U.S. bombing raids, some coordination is under way between Islamic State militants and local al-Qaida fighters, say senior moderate Syrian rebels.

Baghdadi’s declaration of a proto-state carved from the huge swath of land he and his fighters have grabbed in Iraq and Syria has sharpened the rivalry between Baghdadi and the leaders of al-Qaida, the onetime dominant jihadist group.

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, is reordering the global jihad movement and “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 that monitors jihadist Internet activity.

And that, despite the fact that old guard Islamic militant and jihadi scholars condemned the caliphate announcement.

Influential Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi warned that Baghdadi’s ambitions would have dangerous consequences for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and dismissed the announcement as “void under Sharia [law].”

In Lebanon, Salafist Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal has argued, “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.”

Even so, at least a dozen jihadist groups outside Iraq and Syria have made formal pledges of allegiance, or bay’ah, to Baghdadi. Analysts caution that more may have done so but not publicized the fact. While some of the groups are established, others are much newer and comparative unknowns and may be stalking horses to add an impression of increasing ISIL momentum.

The most significant to date to align with Baghdadi is the largest Egyptian jihadist group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), which has renamed itself Sinai Province.

The mainly Sinai-based group, which announced its allegiance to ISIL in November, has grown increasingly proficient in carrying out attacks and has become more sophisticated in selecting targets based on their “strategic value,” say analysts. It has conducted scores of attacks since the July 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military, and with each blast or shooting the group has been expanding its theater of operations.

Originally, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis conducted a low-level insurgency mainly confined to the Sinai Peninsula, but recently it has been hitting at high-profile targets and foreigners elsewhere in the country, including right in the heart of Cairo. In September 2013, it came close to killing Egypt’s interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim.

A few weeks after the Egyptian jihadists aligned with Baghdadi, a significant splinter group from Pakistan’s Taliban movement, Jundallah, joined several Tehrik-i-Taliban factions that had already pledged allegiance to ISIL.

“[ISIL] are our brothers, whatever plan they have we will support them,” a Jundallah spokesman said. The main Taliban leadership has historical ties to top al-Qaida leaders and so any inroads Baghdadi is making among Pakistan jihadists is a sign of strength.

And in Algeria, Soldiers of the Caliphate, also known as Jund al-Khilafa, split from Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to pledge allegiance to ISIL in mid-September.

“You have in the Islamic Maghreb men if you order them who will obey you,” the group’s leader, Gouri Abdelmalek, said in a statement. Within days the Algerian affiliate demonstrated its loyalty by beheading a captive, Frenchman Hervé Gourdel, in punishment for France’s participation in the U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIL in Iraq.

In neighboring Libya a group of jihadists in the Islamic hotbed town of Derna that only at the start of the year had declared allegiance to al-Qaida switched in June to ISIL.

“It is incumbent on us to support this oppressed Islamic State that is taken as an enemy by those near and those far, among the infidels or the hypocrites, or those with dead souls alike,” its statement read.

Further afield in the Philippines, the well-established Abu Sayyaf group aligned to ISIL several months ago.

“We pledge to obey [Baghdadi] on anything which our heart’s desire or not and to value him more than anyone else,” said Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon in a message posted on the Internet.

In the past two years Baghdadi has transformed a terror group into a terrorist army, and as he tries to build state legitimacy he is seeking two other objectives, say analysts: to draw a contrast between his caliphate rooted in Islam and the hereditary rulers of the Gulf, and to position himself as the top jihadist and their rightful challenger.

While his caliphate arguments have attracted so far the backing of only minor clerics, they have excited a younger generation of jihadists who thrill to his accomplishment of carving out a large chunk of real estate to rule over. That is something al-Qaida has never been able to match and for ISIL the result has been foreign fighters rushing to join up - about a thousand foreign recruits a month are enlisting, according to former CIA director John McLaughlin.

The younger jihadists who like Baghdadi are taunting al-Qaida, says analyst Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. Their attitude about al-Qaida leaders is “Al-Khilafah [the caliphate] does not need them, rather, they need al-Khilafah,” he said.

Hegghammer suspects that Baghdadi’s bravado adds to his appeal for radicalized young Muslims.

“Heavy criticism from the ideological establishment may paradoxically bestow an underdog image, which younger recruits may find attractive,” he said.

So far top al-Qaida affiliates like Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have withstood Baghdadi’s appeal to switch allegiance, but insiders say the group is wavering.