It has been almost a year since June 29, 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) declared the formation of a new caliphate and dropped the second half of its name, rebranding itself as simply the Islamic State. It has survived nine months since Barack Obama vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it.
It has survived, and has continued to attract Muslims from all over the world, even after virtually every major world leader and Islamic group has condemned it as un-Islamic. And it shows no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
All this is well-known. What is less known is that the plan for the restoration of the caliphate was sketched out ten years ago by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has been followed out more or less exactly by the Islamic State.
The claim to reconstitute the caliphate is the key to the Islamic State’s success — the importance of this cannot be overstated.
The revival of the caliphate is, in the eyes of those who support it and have longed for it all these years, a return to the form of government of the glory days of Islam. From Muhammad’s death through Islam’s Golden Age up until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I, Muslims were ruled by a caliph, the successor to Muhammad as spiritual and political leader of Islam.
And the declaration of the caliphate, and its placement in and around Syria and Iraq, was not an invention of the Islamic State, or incidental to what it perceived as its mission from the beginning. In reality, a new caliphate had long been an aspiration dear to the hearts of many jihadi terrorists, including al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (which ultimately became the Islamic State), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on July 9, 2005:
It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt, and the neighboring states of the Peninsula and Iraq; however, the center would be in the Levant and Egypt.
Zawahiri also heaped praise on Zarqawi for helping bring that state — the revived caliphate — closer to reality:
If our intended goal in this age is the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet and if we expect to establish its state predominantly — according to how it appears to us — in the heart of the Islamic world, then your efforts and sacrifices — God permitting — are a large step directly towards that goal.
Zawahiri then offered Zarqawi his “humble opinion that the Jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals,” the first of which was to “expel the Americans from Iraq.” The second stage, wrote Zarqawi, would be exactly what the Islamic State ended up doing nine years later:
The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate — over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, is in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void, whether those whom the Americans will leave behind them, or those among the un-Islamic forces who will try to jump at taking power.
Following the establishment of this state, the third stage would be to “extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq,” followed by the fourth stage, which “may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.”
Zawahiri wrote in an extremely deferential manner to Zarqawi, repeatedly assuring the Iraq commander that his analysis was not “infallible.” Nonetheless, he did not hesitate to give him direction, emphasizing that:
The mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.
If they did that:
We will return to having the secularists and traitors holding sway over us. Instead, their ongoing mission is to establish an Islamic state, and defend it, and for every generation to hand over the banner to the one after it until the Hour of Resurrection.
Zawihiri summed up the “two short-term goals” as “removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic amirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible.” Attaining them, he wrote, would ensure possession of “the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy — after the help and granting of success by God,” which was “popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries.”
But al-Qaeda itself hesitated to declare a caliphate for fear that the Americans would nip it in the bud. A letter from Osama bin Laden, found in the trove of documents at the Abbottabad compound and declassified in May 2015, explained:
We should stress on the importance of timing in establishing the Islamic State. We should be aware that planning for the establishment of the state begins with exhausting the main influential power that enforced the siege on the Hamas government, and that overthrew the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the fact this power was depleted. We should keep in mind that this main power still has the capacity to lay siege on any Islamic State, and that such a siege might force the people to overthrow their duly elected governments. We have to continue with exhausting and depleting them till they become so weak that they can’t overthrow any State that we establish. That will be the time to commence with forming the Islamic state.
Bin Laden saw the restoration of the caliphate as the ultimate goal of al-Qaeda’s activities:
[T]he result that we deployed for … to reinstate the wise Caliphate and eliminate the disgrace and humiliation that our nation is suffering from.
But he argued against “insisting on the formation of an Islamic State at the time being” — and instead wanted his followers:
… to work on breaking the power of our main enemy by attacking the American embassies in the African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Togo, and mainly to attack the American oil companies.
Bin Laden was overcautious. The Islamic State established itself as the new caliphate and has thrived, and no one seems to have the will to do what is necessary to “degrade and destroy” it in any real sense. And so its first anniversary is unlikely to be its last.