Establishment of the State

The death of the “father” of the Islamic State could have prevented any further progress. However, by existing in an environment of persistent threats, mujahidin terror groups have become adept at regrouping and replacing lost leaders. The death of Zarqawi did not stop the work of the Mujahidin Shura Council and it acquired a new leader in June 2006 – Abu Ayyub al-Masri (also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) – whose tenure lasted but a short while, as on 12 October of the same year another three Iraqi mujahidin groups joined the council and three days later a decision was made to establish a new organization, namely on 15 October 2006 the Mujahidin Shura Council established the Islamic State of Iraq.[i] This is the date of establishment for the organization known nowadays as the Islamic State.

Moreover, the statement video announced the new leader of the organization – Abu Omar al Baghdadi (not to be confused with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of the Islamic State). The new leader, born Hamid Dawud Khalil al-Zawi and a former police officer during the reign of Saddam Hussein, was conferred a significant title when he was proclaimed to be amir al-mu’minin – leader of the faithful. It is a title usually attributed to caliphs. The announcer went on by inviting all Sunni Muslims to pledge their loyalty to the new leader, to support the new organization etc. Abu Omar was appointed as the “president” of the organization, while Masri was named his deputy and minister of warfare, thus becoming the actual leader of the organization.[ii]

The Islamic State had been established and it had a caliph. A new era was supposed to begin. But nothing really happened. Both Masri and Abu Omar quickly found out that their call had not resonated with the people of Iraq who were not very eager to build the just-announced state.

On the contrary, instead of excitement they encountered arguments that almost led to an armed confrontation with dissatisfied allies. Before the end of October, a conflict arose with a mujahidin group in Iraq that was not a member of the Mujahidin Shura Council. Its leader, Abu Usamah al-Iraqi, believed the Mujahidin Shura Council and the Islamic State of Iraq to be subsidiaries of Al-Qaeda and thus addressed Bin Ladin.  His view of the new organization was highly critical, he considered the establishment of a caliphate a farce with no roots in reality, lambasted the competition calling them kharijites, and asked Bin Ladin to get his subordinates under control. When no answer was given, he even threatened to start a war against Al-Qaeda (sic!) and not the Islamic State of Iraq. Apparently, it was so poorly acknowledged, that even Iraqi mujahidin could not tell the two apart. Almost no one, besides small groups on website forums, seriously believed that the declaration of a new state is anything more than a change of name. And to an extent they were right.

Aware of its lowly status, the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq issued a statement “Informing Humanity About the Birth of the Islamic State” justifying its existence and listing arguments why it should be regarded seriously.[1] Cole Bunzel, a researcher who focuses on the Islamic State, indicates that the text employs vague expressions to give obvious hints that the Islamic State of Iraq is a caliphate. The author of this publication wrote that the traditional way to power for a new ruler is by elections, meaning, election of the new caliph by a group of representatives selected for their wisdom and excellence. The leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq insisted it had been authorised by exactly such an elite group. According to the author of the apology their entitlement to represent society stems from wide support among its members and consultations with sheikhs, local tribal leaders. Besides, the only voices that matter are those of the mujahidin waging a war against Americans and Shiites. As a result, they had created an electorate, that proceeded to elect itself. In their reasoning, the time was right for the establishment of a state since the Americans were leaving (wrong), the Iraqi government was a farcical mess (somewhat correct), and the mujahidin-controlled Sunni areas (partially correct).[iii]

Aware of the complexity of the situation but without a full comprehension of it, Al-Qaeda made an attempt to smooth things out. Bin Ladin published a speech in which he argued that the Islamic State of Iraq is a prominent organization, its soldiers are faithful followers fighting for a noble cause, and such an entity could help to consolidate the fragmented Sunni resistance movement in Iraq. Moreover, he added, Muhammad also had to contend with unfavourable political and military circumstances, yet he managed to prevail and achieve his objectives. Al-Qaeda evidently felt responsible for the project it had initiated, as it confirmed on several occasions that Al-Qaeda in Iraq no longer exists. This, however, seems to have been the only thing that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq could agree upon.

An important aspect is the fact the Islamic State of Iraq was established without consulting Al-Qaeda. Another aspect to consider is that in Islam an oath of loyalty – baiju – is not given to an organization, state etc. but from person to another. Zarqawi had sworn to be loyal, but not Masri and Abu Omar. So, they were under no formal obligation to consult with the supervising organization, an opportunity they were glad to take. Al-Qaeda on its part felt trouble coming and was relatively lukewarm towards the project. One of the possible reasons for the alienation was an aversion to Zarqawi’s extremism. This might be surprising, but Al-Qaeda had actually grown weary from the exaggerated violence and savageness. However, it should not be forgotten that the strategic priority of Al-Qaeda was to win support among Muslims, especially among Sunnis. Zarqawi though had achieved the opposite. Arguments over strategy grew so bad over time that Al-Qaeda considered the option of completely cutting ties with the Islamic State of Iraq or “the brutal gang of losers” that “tarnishes the good name of Al-Qaeda”.

For example, a US citizen, Islam convert and Al-Qaeda spokesman, Adam Gadahn, wrote in a letter to Bin Ladin that the only solution is to formally cut all ties with the Zarqawi group otherwise “the reputation [of Al-Qaeda] will continue to fall.” [iv] Bin Ladin was also concerned about the situation and wrote in a letter in 2010 that, in order to regain the trust of ordinary Muslims, Al-Qaeda should enter a new phase in its operations by paying more attention to they way it communicates, adapting the content of its message so that the masses could understand it, trying to present a friendlier face etc.[v] Apparently Bin Ladin encountered a very modern issue – people nowadays do not want to read and delve into long texts. The people behind the Islamic State propaganda are aware of this and, unlike Al-Qaeda, distribute short, vivid, Hollywood-style videos – more pictures, less text.

The crisis was reported by several sources. Cole Bunzel describes the situation using intercepted mujahidin letters: “When news finally did reach the al-Qaeda leadership, they were appalled by the state of affairs in Iraq. The Islamic State’s founding had been a miserable failure. In late April 2007 the Islamic State’s senior jurist, a Saudi named Abu Sulayman al-‘Utaybi, drafted a letter to al-Qaeda’s leaders alerting them to the discouraging situation. Not only was the Islamic State losing territory in its supposed strongholds, such as Ramadi, but its leaders were misrepresenting reality. Abu Hamza’s oft-repeated claim to have won the support of numerous Sunni Arab tribal shaykhs was simply untrue.  .. The announcement of the state had been rushed and the “commander of the faithful,” Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, had been chosen haphazardly.”[vi] The newly established caliphate, or “paper state”, as Bunzel calls it, caused some ripples among the mujahidin, but quickly lost its topicality.

Poor leadership was only one of the reasons behind losses suffered by the Islamic State of Iraq. In January 2007, three months after the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq, US President George W. Bush announced “The New Way Forward” programme, also known as the “Surge”, changing the US strategy in Iraq and increasing the presence of US armed forces. Almost 30 000 additional soldiers were deployed in Iraq within a year and, contrary to an agreement between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, were directly engaged in solving Iraqi security problems. This proved successful. The presence of US armed forces grew at a time when Iraq experienced an internal resistance against mujahidin. A rebellion against the rebels. Step by step the Islamic State of Iraq or Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as it was then called in the West, lost its positions and forces. Later, when looking back at this time, US general and former CIA director, David Petraeus, could even claim with confidence: “We had our boot on their neck!”[vii]

[1] The author of the document, Uthman Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, did concede some significant flaws of the new state: it is not controlling a significant area, it has no monopoly of power, it cannot provide security and public order, it has no institutional capacity, its leadership lacks the necessary qualifications etc. Yet Tamimi hastened to add: Muhammad had none of this at the beginning as well.

In his comments on this document, Brian Fishman, a researcher of terrorist organizations, writes: “Tamimi argues that the ISI, unlike a modern Western state, is not defined by absolute geographic boundaries, a monopoly on the use of violence, or bureaucratically-administered services. According to Tamimi, measuring the ISI against that metric misunderstands both Islam and the globalization revolution. The ISI is structured around pseudo-feudal allegiances from subject to Emir, shared ideological goals, and the execution of judicial proceedings.” (Fishman, Brian. “Fourth Generation Governance: Sheikh Tamimi defends the Islamic State of Iraq.” Combating Terrorism Center — p. 2)

[i] For an English version of the statement on establishment see: Stratfor. “Translation – Statement of Mujahidin Shura Council on Establishment of ‘Islamic State of Iraq’.” WikiLeaks. February 21, 2013.

[ii] For more on these events, see: Hazan, D. “Sunni Jihad Groups Rise Up Against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Vers. No. 336. MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series. 31 March 2007.

[iii] Bunzel, Cole. From Paper State to Caliphate — p. 20.

[iv] Gadahn, Adam. “Letter from Adam Gadahn.” Combating Terrorism Center. January 2011.

[v] Bin Ladin, Usama. “SOCOM-2012-0000019.” Letters from Abbottabad. Abbottabad, 2010. For more on Bin Ladin letters seized in Abbottabad, see: Lahoud, Nelly, Stuart Caudill, Liam Collins, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Don Rassler, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi. Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? New York: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012.

[vi] Bunzel, Cole. From Paper State to Caliphate — p. 22.

[vii] Petraeus, David, interview by Michael Kirk. David Petraeus: “No Substitute” for U.S. Leadership in Iraq, Syria PBS. May 17, 2016.