(CNSNews.com) – As Ramadan began on Sunday, the terrorist group fighting to control territory across northern Syria and north-western Iraq effectively named its leader as head of the world’s Islamic fighters and demanded that Muslims everywhere pledge allegiance.
In a speech on the same day Saudi King Abdullah alluded to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) as nothing more than “a handful of terrorists” whose aim was to sow discord among Muslims.
“We will not allow a handful of terrorists, using Islam for personal aims, to terrify Muslims,” Abdullah said in the speech, which was read out on Saudi television by the culture and information minister.
“We hereby declare that we will continue to confront and fight all forms of this menace that does not relate to Islam by any means,” he said.
The Saudi king’s own claim to Islamic leadership is enshrined in the title of “custodian of the two holy mosques,” a reference to the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Mohammed mosque in Medina, the most revered sites in Islam.
Notwithstanding Abdullah’s insistence that the jihadist campaign “does not relate to Islam by any means,” ISIS in its declaration, posted online as a 34-minute audio file and written statement, quoted liberally from the Qur’an and other Islamic texts.
ISIS declared it was establishing a khalifah (caliphate, or Islamic state), changing its name from ISIS to “the Islamic State,” and proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “caliph” – the political successor to Islam’s 7th century founder, Mohammed.
The title, also known as Emir al-Muminin (“commander of the faithful”), was used historically by Islamic leaders from the 7th century until Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the last caliphate in 1924.
ISIS said Baghdadi was caliph “for the Muslims everywhere.” (The statement called him “Caliph Ibrahim” – Baghdadi’s real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri.)
“It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance [to him],” it said. Once the caliph and his fighters arrive in a particular area, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah’s authority.”
Baghdadi was described as a holy warrior, a “scholar who practices what he preaches,” and “a descendent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah.”
The group said the caliphate currently stretches “from Aleppo to Diyala.” Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and has been a battle zone in the civil war since mid-2012. Diyala is the Iraqi province located to the north-east of Baghdad, and stretching to the Iranian border.
“Welcome to the new era of international jihad,” Brookings Doha Center visiting fellow Charles Lister said on his Twitter feed Sunday.
No matter how the ISIS announcement is perceived with regard to its legitimacy, he said, “Al-Qaeda Central is in massive trouble now.”
Lister said the next 24 hours were “key,” in seeing whether jihadist groups would pledge fealty to Baghdadi. The first to do so, he noted, was Jaish al-Sahaba, a group Lister said was based in Syria and described as “very small.”
In a statement Jaish al-Sahaba, which means “Army of the Prophet’s Companions,” declared loyalty to “Sheikh Baghdadi, may Allah protect him.”
Baghdadi is an Islamic law PhD (according to Iraqi law enforcement officials) who was imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2005 but was later released.
He was promoted to the head of the group – then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq – in April 2010, after its previous leader was killed in a U.S. airstrike.
But al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leader Ayman al-Zawahiri rejected the move, instructed ISIS to focus its campaign on Iraq and declared the al-Nusra Front to be the official al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria.
Baghdadi ignored the order, and ISIS now controls territory in northern and eastern Syria as well as in Iraq north and west of Baghdad.
At the weekend fierce fighting was reported in Tikrit, as Iraqi forces sought to oust ISIS and allied fighters from the key Sunni triangle town. It was the biggest push yet in the attempt by government forces to stop the advance of the jihadists, who captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, Tikrit and other areas earlier this month.
‘The infidel nations are terrified’
In its caliphate declaration, ISIS named among its enemies Western infidels (kufr), Shi’ites (rafidah), the Iraqi Sunni awakening councils (sahwat), apostates (murtaddin), Arab leaders such as the Saudi monarchy (tawaghit, or “transgressing rulers”) and “democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west.”
“Today the tawaghit in the east and west are frightened,” it said. “Today the nations of kufr in the west are terrified.”
ISIS gave a summary of the situation in areas it claims to control:
“Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhid (monotheism), rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala. Beneath it, the walls of the tawaghit have been demolished, their flags have fallen, and their borders have been destroyed. Their soldiers are either killed, imprisoned, or defeated.”
Hudud penalties – harsh Islamic law punishments such as amputations and beheadings – are implemented, “the hudud of Allah – all of them,” it said. “The frontlines are defended. Crosses and graves are demolished.”