In what one scholar calls “the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” the militant Islamic group ISIS has declared itself the new “caliphate” in the Middle East and is urging similar-minded groups to pledge allegiance to its authority. This is a direct challenge to the dominance of al-Qaeda, from which ISIS splintered off in early 2014, in the global jihadist movement. ISIS — which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — also announced that it’s changed its name to “Islamic State” and appointed a “caliph,” or leader, of the new pseudo-state.
"The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas," said ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in an audio message posted online. "Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day."
“Caliphate” refers to an Islamic state or empire that’s governed in accordance with Islamic principles. Several caliphates have existed throughout history, and the development of a new one has long been one of al-Qaeda’s stated goals. However, while al-Qaeda purports to want to unite Muslims of all sects under a new caliphate, ISIS openly considers Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of death.
ISIS’s declaration is a challenge both to al-Qaeda, as international jihadist groups will be forced to choose sides between it and ISIS, and the Sunni leaders of Gulf Arab states, who will now be directly competing with ISIS for legitimacy in the eyes of Sunni Muslims in the region.
"Whatever judgments are made in terms of its legitimacy, [the] announcement that it has restored the Caliphate is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11," said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. “The impact of this announcement will be global as al Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it."
Over the last month, ISIS has swept through Iraq with brutal and shocking success, taking several key northern cities and defeating the Iraqi military with ease. This, combined with ISIS’s successful campaigns in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, has resulted in the group gaining huge swaths of territory between the two countries.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq to meet with embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is facing mounting pressure to step down. So far, President Obama has resisted calls to redeploy American troops in Iraq, although he did send 300 military advisors to the country and has authorized limited weapons sales to Maliki’s government.