BEIRUT - Iraqis aren’t alone in wondering if the Sunni Muslim insurgency led by the al-Qaida offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) can be stemmed. Al-Qaida, once the world’s leading terror organization, is being surpassed by its onetime, wayward affiliate and it is none too pleased, say analysts.
In the winter, al-Qaida’s top leadership disowned ISIL and its mercurial leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a slap down for refusing to obey orders and for his ambition to carve a borderless caliphate across the Levant taking in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and even Lebanon. And al-Qaida’s official affiliate in Syria joined Islamist and mainstream Syrian rebels in battling ISIL and pushing its fighters out of some key northern Syrian border towns and the city of Aleppo.
On Sunday, in an audio recording posted online, ISIL declared its chief “the caliph” and “leader for Muslims everywhere” – another affront to al-Qaida, which claims that al-Baghdadi swore allegiance it its overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor.
According to ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani the group decided “to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims.”
He added: “the words ‘Iraq’ and ‘the Levant’ have been removed from the name of the Islamic State in official papers and documents.”
Caliphate refers to a system of government stretching across most of the Middle East and Turkey that ended nearly a century ago with the fall of the Ottomans.
ISIL’s increased standing
ISIL’s recent successes in Iraq have increased its standing among jihadi groups worldwide and more foreign fighters are choosing to join ISIL rather than al-Qaida, analysts say. “The two groups are now in an open war for supremacy of the global jihadist movement,” according to Middle East scholar Aaron Zelin in a research paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank based in the U.S. capital.
“ISIL holds an advantage, but the battle is not over yet,” Zelin said.
The announcement of the establishment of a caliphate by ISIL will likely exacerbate the feuding between the two terror groups and intensify their fierce competition to secure the loyalty of affiliates and offshoots across the Middle East and Africa. Jihadi religious scholars skirmished in the winter and spring with opposing rulings about al-Baghdadi’s refusal to obey instructions and withdraw ISIL to Iraq and allow al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to assume the lead role in Syria.
Most of the leading jihadist ideologues such as Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Iyad Qunaybi sided with al-Qaida. Abu Qatada al-Filastini, a Jordanian whom Britain deported to Jordan this summer, criticized al-Baghdadi for being power hungry.
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi - according to the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Media Research Institute the most senior jihadist ideologue - bewailed the al-Qaida disputes in Syria but condemned al-Baghdadi.
Baghdadi on the rise
But the ISIL leaders have attracted the backing of his fair share of militant theologians in the continuing struggle for ideological supremacy. Another Jordanian sheikh, Omar Mahdi Zidan, defended the ISIL leader, arguing the mujahedeen (warriors) are entitled to exercise their own judgment and choose which commanders they want to follow.
And in shake-up of the global jihadi order, al-Baghdadi has secured the backing of some al-Qaida affiliates and other jihadist groups.
The Sinai-based Egyptian jihadist group Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing of a tourist bus earlier this year in Egypt that left three South Koreans dead and more than a dozen people injured, has been sympathetic to al-Baghdadi. “There are indications that it is allying itself with ISIS [aka ISIL]”, says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
He says ISIL “is positioning itself as an alternative to al-Qaida.”
Ansar al-Sharia groups in the North Africa’s Tunisia and Libya have posted pro-ISIL propaganda online. And jihadists in Gaza are siding with al-Baghdadi.
Huge threat to al-Qaida
Sunday’s declaration of a caliphate by ISIL “poses a huge threat to al Qaida and its long-time position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center.
“Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on al-Qaida. While it is now inevitable that members and prominent supporters of al-Qaida and its affiliates will rapidly move to denounce Baghdadi and this announcement, it is the long-term implications that may prove more significant,” says Lister.
For Lister and other analysts Sunday’s announcement demonstrates that al-Baghdadi has no intention of caving in to al-Qaida, and means to pursue a rivalry that they say represents its biggest challenge since U.S. Special Forces killed bin Laden.
Lister adds: “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of ISIL, largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality. We will very likely find ourselves in a dualistic position of having two competing international jihadist representatives – al-Qaida, with a now more locally-focused and gradual approach to success; and the Islamic State, with a hunger for rapid results and total hostility for competition.”
But some analysts say the declaration also risks splitting the Sunni coalition ISIL has managed to pull together for an insurgency that in the last two weeks has swept northern and western Iraq.