When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in the pulpit of a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to declare himself caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, many wrote him off as a short-lived charlatan produced by the carnage of the Syrian battlefield.
Many Western experts on the region predicted he would soon fail, insisting that young Muslims were more committed to democracy than theocracy.
But the caliph has surprised them all, dodging missiles from US, Russian, Iraqi and Syrian forces since ISIS seized Mosul. And despite hefty territorial setbacks in recent months, Baghdadi is likely to survive a lot longer.
Instead of collapsing, ISIS has held out in Syria and Iraq and struck at Egypt, France and Turkey. Although it lost Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province, Palmyra in the Syrian desert and is currently battling to hold onto Mosul, ISIS still controls major strategic cities on the Euphrates such as Raqqa, Albukamal and Deir ez-Zor.
Affiliate branches have mushroomed in Sinai, Nigeria, Mali, Gaza and Libya, all pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. These Salafist groups may have different names, but their core ideology is ISIS-driven and all of them are willing to kill and die for the sake of the caliph.
The elimination of many of ISIS’s top leaders has done nothing to clip the claws of the Islamic State, just as the 2006 death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air strike in Iraq had little effect on the fortunes of al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor.
In 2015, the infamous ISIS executioner Jihadi John was also killed in a US air strike, followed by Abu Omar al-Shishani, the Chechen who was one of ISIS’s ablest military commanders and, more recently, close Baghdadi aide and ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
ISIS will survive because, first and foremost, it is an ideology that binds together a group of men whose thoughts will live long after their deaths.
This ideology, based on a carefully distorted version of Sunni Islam, travels far and wide and settles in the minds and hearts of people, regardless of age, nationality or economic background.
As a package, ISIS still looks attractive to the brainwashed and disturbed or those with a wobbly Islamic education who are easily deceived by misinterpreted texts and charismatic preachers.
It has all the trappings of statehood, starting with a metropolitan capital, a national anthem, an army, police force and intelligence service, schools and a treasury filled with oil money.
For lack of a better alternative, joining its ranks seems logical to many, especially those millions of Muslims who dream of an Islamic state — not necessarily this Islamic State, but one that will restore the caliphate.
The theological foundations for the Islamic state and the caliphate are all there, clearly stated in the Prophet’s hadith and mentioned in the Quran.
Baghdadi really thinks he is the caliph of Islam and his supporters genuinely believe him. Nothing makes people in places such as Nigeria and Libya pledge support to a faraway Levantine organisation, one that sends them neither money, nor arms, nor advisers— except for the fact that they believe in Baghdadi’s vision and want to be part of it.
Coming as it does amid the colourless leadership in the Arab world, Baghdadi’s charisma stands out.
This belief has helped ISIS survive the last two years and explains why it still holds entire cities – although it is questionable for how much longer it can do that.
Despite its recent losses, ISIS still controls at least nine oilfields and earns $1 million a day from black market oil sales at low prices that attract even the Syrian and Iraqi governments.
Donations from sympathisers were almost non-existent before 2013-2014. Money was raised only in Syria and Iraq through kidnapping, theft and other illegal activities.
After capturing Mosul in June 2014, however, ISIS seized $420 million in cash from the city’s Central Bank, topped off with $35 million-$45 million in ransom money. According to the Guardian newspaper, ISIS is worth $2 billion.
ISIS lives on three pillars of support: Money, governance and religious legitimacy. If the money dries up, it would lose its ability to deliver in terms of government, but it would still have the religious legitimacy, based on its version of Islam.
More importantly, Baghdadi has credentials his rivals do not.
Take his title, “the caliph”. His rivals cannot claim it because according to Sunni tradition, the caliph has to hail from Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe, and according to the Shia, he has to be from Ahl al-Bayt, the Prophet’s family. Baghdadi claims both.
So the converted will support him regardless of what happens in Syria, even if a political settlement is reached between Damascus and Syria’s opposition.
The ambitions of Baghdadi and his thugs go far beyond controlling Damascus. They are exactly what their name implies, an Islamic state, one that doesn’t believe in democracy or political settlements, recognises neither the United States nor Russia and has its eyes on a much greater Muslim nation.
Arab Weekly, 27 November 2016