ISIS Declares Caliphate, Renames Itself ‘Islamic State’

Is ISIS's reach about to exceed its grasp?


The terrorist group that has ravaged much of Iraq for the past month has declared an Islamic Caliphate and is calling on all Muslims to rally to its cause:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The move signifies “a new era of international jihad,” said the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who also declared an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as the group had called itself.

Henceforth, ISIS will simply be known as the Islamic State, in recognition of the breakdown of international borders achieved as a result of the group’s conquests, he said. ISIS’s chief, an Iraqi known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will be the caliph, or leader, of the new caliphate, and all Muslims worldwide will be required to pay allegiance to him.

The proclamation is a powerful challenge to al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also claims supremacy over the global jihadist movement. Zawahiri repudiated Baghdadi early this year after the Iraqi leader rejected repeated al-Qaeda directives to adopt a more inclusive approach toward other jihadist groups, and it is unlikely that he will agree to bow to the authority of the proclaimed new caliph.

“This is a threat to the legitimacy of al-Qaeda as the representative of global jihad, and it lays down the threat big time,” said Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on al-Qaeda.”

Some jihadist groups operating in other parts of the region may be tempted to switch allegiance to the new Islamic state; such a state is also a proclaimed goal of al-Qaeda but one that the parent organization has said should be implemented only once conditions are right.

Others, however, may be deterred by the power grab. The audio statement declares Baghdadi to be the “Emir of the Momineen,” or “Prince of the Believers,” a title that effectively endows him with the legacy of the leadership of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

It is not clear, either, whether some of the other Sunni revolutionary movements fighting alongside the militants against the Iraqi government — many of which are fiercely nationalistic — will accept the Islamic State’s explicit rejection of national boundaries, including those of Iraq.

“This could potentially risk the Islamic State’s overall position within the Sunni uprising in Iraq,” Lister said.

The state will cover lands now under Islamic State control, stretching from the northern Syrian province of Aleppo to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, the statement said, adding that eventually it will grow to include the entire Muslim world. The militants have already asserted a de facto Islamic state in those areas, establishing their own courts, schools and services. The effort has received a big boost in the past three weeks from the vast quantities of weaponry the militants have taken from Iraqi army bases and the millions of dollars they have seized from banks in the towns and cities they have overrun.

CBS News’s take on the story also plays up the possibility that this could lead to infighting:

The al Qaeda breakaway group that has seized much of Syria and Iraq has formally declared the establishment of a new Islamic state, demanding allegiance from Muslims worldwide in a move that could further strain relations with other militant groups.

With brutal efficiency, the Sunni extremist group 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. But Sunday’s declaration, made on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, could trigger a wave of infighting among the Sunni militant factions that formed a loose alliance in the blitz across Iraq.

The spokesman for the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), declared the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the leader of the new caliphate, or Islamic state, and called on Muslims everywhere, not just those in areas under the organization’s control, to swear loyalty to him.

“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 the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, in an audio statement posted online. “Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”


The greatest impact, however, could be on the broader international jihadist movement, in particular on the future of al Qaeda.

Founded by Osama bin Laden, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. has long carried the mantle of the international jihadi cause. But the Islamic State has managed to do in Syria and Iraq what al Qaeda never has – carve out a large swath of territory in the heart of the Arab world and control it.

“This announcement poses a huge threat to al Qaeda and its long-time position of leadership of the international jihadist cause,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, in emailed comments. “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.”

Al-Baghdadi, an ambitious Iraqi militant who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, took the reins of the Islamic State in 2010 when it was still an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Iraq.

Al-Baghdadi has long been at odds with a -Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and the two had a very public falling out after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahri’s demands that the Islamic State leave Syria. Fed up with al-Baghdadi and unable to control him, al-Zawahri formally disavowed the Islamic State in February.

But al-Baghdadi’s stature has only grown since then, as the Islamic State’s fighters have strengthened their grip on much of Syria, and now overrun large swathes of Iraq.

In Washington, the Obama administration called on the international community to unite in the face of the threat posed by the Sunni extremists.

“ISIL’s strategy to develop a caliphate across the region has been clear for some time now. That is why this is a critical moment for the international community to stand together against ISIL and the advances it has made,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The Islamic State’s declaration comes as the Iraqi government tries to wrest back some of the territory it has lost to the jihadi group and its allies in recent weeks.

Based on most of the reaction I am seeing to this announcement is that it is somewhat more aspirational than something that threatens to destabilize the Syria/Iraq region in the near future and lead to the creation of a new cross-border state. For one thing, as the map above shows, it’s unclear just how much of the territory that ISIS claims is under its direct control or under the control of forces that have agreed to cooperate with the organization for what would obviously be self-interested reasons. To the extent that it is the later, ISIS obviously leaves itself open to a betrayal in the rear as it continues the fight in Iraq, especially from forces that could potentially be bribed into switching sides as is often the case in these types of situation. Even in former situation, though, ISIS’s control isn’t necessarily solid. It’s been noted before that the organization’s actual available forces, while not known in detail, don’t appear to number more than 20,000 people. While that is not insubstantial force, it would certainly not be enough to hold on to territory in the fact of a determined onslaught, especially if supplies are cut off. So, this announcement of the return of an Islamic Caliphate, which essentially has not existed since the Sultan was deposed at the end of the Ottoman Empire, seems a lot less foreboding than the announcements and indeed some of the analysis have made it out to be.

In the near term, the worrisome question for the west will be the extent to which other terror groups proclaim loyalty t0 ISIS now. The best of all possible worlds, of course, would be if this intensifies the rivalry between ISIS and al Qaeda and its affiliates that they actually start fighting each other. In that case, it would be far better for them to be going after each other than going after targets in the West. Add in the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to have something to say about the group’s declaration of being the sole political authority for Islam and we’ve got a situation where a bunch of really bad people could end up fighting each other instead of attacking the West. Quite honestly, if there was some way we could reliably encourage this outcome via covert action it might be worth giving it a try.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Interesting possible knock-on effect, if you look at the map, and pretend for the moment that this new state actually survives, what do you see between this extremist Sunni state and the extreme Shia state of Iran? I see a moderate, militarily-competent buffer state called Kurdistan. Interesting. I wonder if that’s how the Ayatollahs will come to see it.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    I’m the King of the World!!!!

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    For a devout, traditional Sunni Muslim all lower authorities, emirs, etc. derive their authority from the caliph. The question is now whether al Baghdadi receives pushback from Sunni Muslim states, e.g. Saudi Arabia, that won’t acknowledge his authority. That’s what may be more than he can handle.


    I think you’ve been reading the Kurds’ press releases for too long.

  4. Tyrell says:

    The idea of this extreme, dangerous group having control of such a large region is very worrisome, considering the impact it could have on economies. This group is not very large, as pointed out, and I have not heard what kind of armaments it has, so it does not seem there there would be a lot of artillery or air power at their disposal, unless you include guns mounted on pickup trucks (this would be a good trick for “Myth Busters”) and squadrons of flying carpets. Taking these areas is one thing, holding onto to them and maintaining some kind of infrastructure, utilities, active economy, and living standards (health, sanitation, education, transportation, technology) for any length of time will prove to be difficult. At some point they are either going to have to accommodate, negotiate, and come up with a realistic government that includes working with other countries. I can’t see a whole lot of the population willingly giving them support. Then they will see a total breakdown in their own group. And then who will pick up the pieces? Putin?
    President Obama is either keeping his cards hidden or does not have a clear idea of what he wants to do yet. At this point, I would let this “ISIS” , or whatever, draw their own line in the sand. Then they are stuck with it. Most likely it will be a line in quicksand.

  5. anjin-san says:

    @ Tyrell

    The idea of this extreme, dangerous group having control of such a large region is very worrisome,

    Yea, that is why I am worried about modern conservatives in America…

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    ISIS’ reach long ago exceed its grasp. Soon enough the big boys (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel) in the Middle East will slap it down. At which point they will become the new targets. Of course, ISIS will probably say those people were just doing our bidding and target us anyway. If we are smart we will stay out of it and keep our powder dry for when that day inevitably comes. We will get blamed for everything. And looking at the past 50-60 years of Middle East history, who can blame them?

  7. Dave D says:

    I’m confused about the map provided, I have seen conflicting reports but nothing to indicate IS controls Kirkuk as seen in the above map. Five days ago it was taken by the KRG and it seems they are clashing with ISIS on the outskirts but nowhere was it reported they control the town. Am I just unable to find it and am missing something?

  8. Tillman says:

    Part of the reason ISIS has gotten as far as it has is because it’s received funding from bigger players in the region. Making itself a state makes it the competition.

    Also, they need a better name. Be serious.

  9. Pinky says:

    @Dave D: My guess is, the map is changing hourly, and is very dependent on how you define “control”.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    As I see it ISIS is rapidly making new enemies. Many Sunni tribal leaders have turned against them. In Saudi Arabia Prince Bandar was fired for his support of ISIS. The Iranians and the Assad Government are already involved and there were unconfirmed reports that the Russians were getting involved. Have they overreached? Yes

  11. Dave D says:

    @Ron Beasley: J.M. Berger over at Intelwire and I believe maybe reposted on the dailybeast yesterday had a good article on how big of a gamble this was for IS.

    The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim — legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

    (Iran could also possibly fill the villain role here, resulting in a different possible tectonic shift in the global movement. And I suppose the Israelis could also intervene, which would probably overturn the entire playing board and start a new, very unappealing game.)

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Fwck it, if they can do it, so can I.

    I hereby declare the Khanate of Tiburon. Death to Belvedere! And just so we’re clear, all the restaurants, the CVS, the dry cleaner and Woodland’s market are ours! The Yacht Club is the Line of Death! Good luck getting to the 101, infidels.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: There goes my California vacation.

  14. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Might have a problem with the Belvedere-Tiburon public library.

  15. wr says:

    The great strength of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda is that they’re stateless. They can attack anywhere, and then disappear, leaving little or no trace behind. A “caliphate” or any other kind of government requires a stable physical presence. They’re no longer the sly fox hitting and running away — they’re a target for every other power in the world.

  16. michael reynolds says:


    I made this same point over at Schuler’s. The real danger now is the lone wolf or small cell. A terrorist state occupying land and defending borders – and not all the way up in the Afghan mountains, but right within easy flight time from the Gulf and the Med – is a problem we and our allies are well-suited to hurting. The worst terrorist is one we can’t bomb, not the one we can.

    Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran surround this new Caliphate. And we own the skies above it.

  17. michael reynolds says:


    Nah, I am actually looking down at the library right now. I have a clear line of sight from my deck. No one is borrowing a Stephen King book unless I say so.

  18. Tillman says:

    @michael reynolds: See, this is why we need concealed carry laws in this nation. No way am I letting Michael Reynolds take over my public library.

    “But he’s on the other side of the country!” you say. And I say, “That jackass might go on a book tour and decide to conquer the book stores at the mall, and I’ll be damned if I’m driving twenty more miles for the convenience of buying something in person.”

  19. Tillman says:

    The more I think about it, the less this move makes sense. I guess they’re trying to whip up some sort of momentum and drive up recruiting? You shouldn’t declare yourself a state in the face of the hegemon with a military that is really good at basic conventional war involving seizure of territory.

  20. Muchbox says:

    @ Tillman . When the president says stuff like “my muslim faith” and when the political winds shift “I will stand with the Muslims”. We might have something to worry about. Consider ing two our the biggest Intel leaks under the current admin and this all happened when the power vacuum was filled when the troops left.

  21. anjin-san says:

    The Muslims who are going to force me to convert at the point of a sword and the gay activists who are going to make a mockery of my marriage are having a fight to the finish on my front porch.

  22. jim m says:

    @Tillman: Whether it makes sense or not, people were saying that the aim of islamists was to recreate the caliphate in the ME. Many on the left scoffed at this as being outrageous fear mongering. Whether or not ISIS is capable of actually coming through on their claims is one thing, but it can no longer be denied that this is their aim.

  23. PJ says:

    When Obama leaves office in 2016, he’s going to become the new leader of ISIS.
    But remember, it’s still a secret, so keep quiet!
    And whatever you do, don’t tell Malory…

  24. Muchbox says:

    @ pj straight from the “home” state that brought You obama. Islamists have tricked(ssshhh it’s a secret!) the Hawaii Legislature into celebrating Islam on September 11. they picked the modern Gregorian date September 24, 2009. This day corresponds to no holiday in the Islamic calendar. But on the Julian calendar it is September 11, 2009.

  25. lounsbury says:

    @ Dave Schuler:

    For a devout, traditional Sunni Muslim all lower authorities, emirs, etc. derive their authority from the caliph.

    For devout, backwards looking Sunnis a Caliph who has been appropriately recognised and appointed is at the apex of secular authority. Not even devout Sunni thinkers of a traditionalist bent take the Caliphate idea very seriously any more.

    Not merely that someone calls themselves Caliph. Nevermind a Takfiri loon (however skilled in organisation) like Baghdadi.

    You’ve taken a slim understanding of Sunni religious thinking and rather been duped by ISIS own agit prop even to consider this as plausible at the state / elite level at this stage.

    The question is now whether al Baghdadi receives pushback from Sunni Muslim states

    No, there is zero question that Baghdadi, who’s nothing more than a provincial bootstrapping himself (even allowing for his claims to be sharif and have a doctorate in Islamic studies), will receive pushback. Bloody hell you have to believe the Takfiri agitprop to believe he has any real credibility in this claim, particularly in respect to Sunni elites, religious and secular.(*)

    There is zero question that unless and until ISIS / DAISH etablishes real long-term control of a proper state, the reaction outside of Salafist and Takfiri Salafist circles will be a mixture of derision and hostile reaction.

    To imply this has any automatic street cred is to be duped by Takfiri agitprop.

    , e.g. Saudi Arabia, that won’t acknowledge his authority. That’s what may be more than he can handle.

    No one other than some allied Takfiri fellow travellers will recognise him. Period.

    However, the attraction to the hard-line Salafists and particularly the Takfiri wing will indeed be very strong, and that will be dangerous.

    Not state recognition, which is a religious idea even to raise, nor even general Sunni support (again ridiculous). The romanticism Salafist wing, however, is dangerous.

    (*: not that historically provincials haven’t bootstrapped themselves, but almost never directly to Caliph, the reaction of established religious elites is nearly always massively negative, history suggests he’s made a real strategic error in claiming this directly on the slimmest pretexts).

    @Dave D: That Map seems like pure bollocks to me. There is no doubt that the Kurds control the area of Kirkuk and East. That map seems designed to maximise the apparent extent and power of DAISH / ISIS.

  26. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: I am plodding my way through “Dr. Sleep”.