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The Rise of the Caliphate

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Forerunner, "WorldWatch," July-August 2014

As the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 47% of Americans believe the country is less safe now than before the terrorist attacks. It is a significant finding due to the fact that a similar poll, taken just before the attack’s first anniversary, showed that only 20% of Americans felt less safe. The Obama administration insists that core al-Qaeda has been degraded to the point of insignificance, so what has changed to make Americans so afraid?

The answer: The Islamic State.

The group, formed in 1999 and commonly known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” is a Sunni Muslim jihadist group with a hardline ideology and global jihadist aspirations. It follows an extreme “originalist” interpretation of Islam, encourages religious violence, and considers all who disagree with its beliefs as infidels or apostates. Known for its brutality and intractability, it played a substantial role during the Iraq War, but its harsh rule turned many Iraqis against it. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it grew in numbers and regained support in Iraq, moving on to Syria and entering the civil war there, attacking government and military targets. Today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that the Islamic State has about 80,000 fighters under its control between the two countries.

The Islamic State’s avowed goal is clearly proclaimed in its name. It aims to gather as many Islamic areas of the world as it can under its political control, that is, into a caliphate, a state led by a supreme religious and political leader who would be the successor to Muhammad. It undoubtedly believes that it has progressed a long way toward its goal, having proclaimed a caliphate on June 29, 2014, and naming al-Baghdadi as caliph. He is now known as Amir al-Mu’minin Caliph Ibrahim.

The new caliphate is by no means satisfied with its successes so far. In fact, it took “Remaining and Expanding” as its motto. As Ryan Crocker in The Wall Street Journal opines, the Islamic State has its eyes on a bigger prize:

The group on the march in the Middle East began calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. Then it chose the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], the latter term including Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Syria. Now it’s simply the Islamic State, geography unspecified. They already are a state, in that they carry out government functions in occupied territory. You can bet that their aspirations include Saudi Arabia and its holy cities of Mecca and Medina. With their gains in Iraq, nothing but sand separates them from the Saudi border. (“Islamic State Is Getting Stronger, and It’s Targeting America,” September 8, 2014)

As the article’s title reveals, the Islamic State also has the United States in its sights, desiring nothing more than to carry out terrorist strikes in the heartland of the Great Satan. For the first time since the retreat of core al-Qaeda into the mountains of Afghanistan, a terrorist organization has the capability and security to plan and carry out multifaceted, long-range operations. It also has the means to enter the U.S. essentially undetected, as several thousand of its members hold Western passports, some of them American.

The Islamic State’s sheer brutality—along with its willingness to use its violent behavior as propaganda on worldwide media—makes the far more humane Western nations nervous. Beyond committing war crimes and mass atrocities in the turmoil of civil strife in both Iraq and Syria, it compels everyone in the areas it controls, under the penalty of death, torture, or mutilation, to follow its interpretation of Islam and live under sharia law. It is especially cruel to Shia Muslims and Christians, and it has been accused of ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis in northern Iraq, a monotheistic people who worship a peacock angel. The group routinely carries out cold-blooded executions of enemy combatants and civilians who resist it, and it is not uncommon for women and girls to be abducted from their families and raped. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described ISIS fighters as barbaric, saying, “They have no standard of decency, of responsible human behavior.”

However, the act that stunned Westerners was the beheading of American journalist James Foley on August 19, a cruel display of resolve to force President Obama to halt airstrikes against the Islamic State. A few weeks later, a new video showed the beheading of a second U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff. The masked headsman spoke with a British accent, saying, “I’m back, Obama, . . . because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

Americans want Obama to act. The same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reports that “61 percent of American voters believe that the United States taking military action against ISIS is in [the] United States’ interest, versus 13 percent who don’t.” A U.S.-led international coalition is forming to confront Islamic State terrorists, but it is not clear how it will deal with them. To this point, Obama’s record in confronting Islamic terrorism has been disastrous, and his failures give little hope that this effort will be any more successful.

If nothing else, in the Islamic State we are witnessing the virulent and violent spread of jihadist fervor backed by state power and resources. If it is not eradicated swiftly, the whole world may soon contract a plague of bloody terrorism and war that will make the Ebola epidemic seem insignificant.




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