Marking the beginning of Ramadan, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of "the Islamic State" (formerly ISIS: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and declared Caliph Ibrahim, released a new audio message addressed to the Muslim world.
The new speech is most notable for being forthright about Baghdadi's message on the global nature of the Islamic State's struggle. Baghdadi touched on issues regarding the persecution of Muslims in Burma and the Philippines as well as the French restrictions on the wearing of the veil, and he responded to accusations that the Islamic State engages in 'irhab [terrorism].
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Ominously, Baghdadi concluded his speech with aspirations for the Islamic State's conquest of "Rome" and the whole world. Such emphasis on the transnational nature of the Islamic State's project corroborates Baghdadi's projection of himself as the caliph and sole representative of Islamic rule on earth to whom all Muslims must pledge allegiance.
While these explicit proclamations, however, may come across as new in the Islamic State's messaging, the reality is that emphasis on worldwide ambitions has actually been a part of the group's propaganda since at least last summer when it was still known as ISIS. This distinguished ISIS early on from its al-Qa'ida competitor Jabhat al-Nusra, which prefers a more gradualist approach of "hearts and minds" as advocated by jihadist thinker Abu Mus'ab al-Suri. This approach aims to have locals first become accustomed to the norms of Shari'a law, with ambitions for a global Caliphate not expressed openly except in unofficial videos primarily put out by members of Jabhat al-Nusra's foreign contingent.
Only more recently, in response to the dispute with ISIS, has Jabhat al-Nusra in any of its official media outlets explicitly affirmed the Caliphate ambition, specifically in Shari'a official Sheikh Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir's interview featured this year by al-Basira media (an outlet set up by Jabhat al-Nusra to counter ISIS).
In contrast, in a video released by ISIS' media wing al-Furqan Media in August 2013, an elderly native Syrian fighter for ISIS, who had participated in the ISIS-led takeover of Mannagh airbase in Aleppo province, affirmed that jihad is farḍ ul-ayn [an obligation on every individual Muslim] and that it is necessary for an "Islamic state" to be established "over the entire world," beginning with victory in Bilad ash-Sham [Syria]. Also within the realm of official media, one of ISIS' early slogans was "the promised project of the Caliphate," featured on a billboard ISIS erected in the northern Aleppo town of Azaz, bordering Turkey, after seizing control of it from a rival group -- Northern Storm -- in September.
Elsewhere, one could observe long-standing ISIS billboards in Syria carrying statements like "Together we cultivate the tree of the Caliphate" and "a Caliphate pleasing to the Lord is better than democracy pleasing to the West." Besides these explicit affirmations, Baghdadi was projecting himself as a de facto caliph, taking the names of "al-Qurayshi" (indicating descent from Muhammad's tribe) and "al-Husseyni" (to indicate lineage from Muhammad's family), enhancing legitimacy to claims of being a caliph.
The reference to Rome in Baghdadi's latest message might seem odd at first sight too, but that has also been part of Baghdadi's de facto caliph image for months, as was apparent in his imposition of the dhimmi [second-class, "tolerated" non-Muslim residents] pact on Christians in Raqqa in March. Dhimmi status, in traditional theology as expounded in the Umdat al-Salik manual, is to be imposed by a caliph. ISIS' official Raqqa province news feed expressed hope that "tomorrow" (not literally, but at some point in the future) the dhimmi pact would be imposed in Rome.
While no one expects the vast majority of Muslims worldwide to migrate to Baghdadi's state, or caliphate, in Iraq and Syria to build up from there to take over the whole world, the question does arise of what implications there are for Baghdadi's project and how it plays out on the ground. The first implication is that these most explicit affirmations yet send a clear message to the other insurgent groups in Iraq in particular that there is no room for power-sharing, significantly increasing the prospect of wider fighting with groups like the Ba'athist Naqshbandi Army and the Islamic Army of Iraq, both of which have previously fought with ISIS' predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Optimists, however, who are hoping that the infighting might roll back the Islamic State are likely mistaken: the insurgency is significantly different from the days of the Iraq War, precisely because the insurgency is much more dominated by the Islamic State, which has vastly superior financial and arms resources spanning borders.
The second implication is that, internationally, existing trends will most likely be strengthened: those already sympathetic to ISIS will be the ones most likely to heed Baghdadi's call, including jihadists in Gaza, Sinai, Libya and most notably Tunisia. In contrast, the ever pro-Nusra Maldivian fighters and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the latter of which has its own affiliated armed contingents in Syria, are predictably in opposition. At the same time, the Islamic State's project, in actually existing on the ground with a network of contiguous strongholds and the workings of an actual state, can have wider ideological appeal, in contrast to an al-Qa'ida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area that lacks the showings of real strength.
If the "Islamic State" ultimately goes into decline, it looks as if it will happen only in years, not months.