September 14, 2014 No.

Understanding Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi And The Phenomenon Of The Islamic Caliphate State

By: Yigal Carmon and Y. Yehoshua and A. Leone*


The successive atrocities committed by the Islamic State (IS, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham – ISIS) have diverted the discussion away from an understanding of this organization's political program, creating the erroneous impression that it is simply a more vicious version of Al-Qaeda. According to this view, this organization presumably intends to attack the West by means of its foreign militants who hold Western passports and could return to Western countries to carry out terror attacks – and hence it is paramount to destroy the IS forthwith. Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz promoted this approach when he said that he was certain that those jihadists "would arrive in Europe within a month and in America within two months".[1]

This report seeks to clarify the IS's doctrine based on the organization's official writings and speeches by its leaders. It will argue that, unlike Al-Qaeda, the IS places priority not on global terrorism, but rather on establishing and consolidating a state, and hence it defers the clash with the West to a much later stage. In this, it is emulating and reenacting the early Islamic model.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, IS Prioritizes State-Building

Although the IS and global jihad organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda share similar beliefs about the necessity to wage jihad for the sake of Allah and establish a caliphate where Islamic shari'a law will be instated, a major distinction exists between them in terms of the order of priorities for implementing these major goals. Whereas in Al-Qaeda, emphasis is on worldwide jihad prior to the declaration of the yearned-for Islamic caliphate (see Osama bin Laden's February 23, 1998 declaration of jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews), IS doctrine is characterized by prioritizing the establishment and consolidation of the caliphate state as the immediate and overriding objective.[2] This objective is presented by the IS leaders as a matter of survival[3] that warrants making compromises dictated by reality, the major compromise being deferral of the struggle with the West to a distant future. In other words, the IS' doctrine under Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi explicitly puts off the clash with the West to different times, and concentrates in the immediate term on the region where the Islamic caliphate is being established.[4] The IS's English-language magazine Dabiq says that the Islamic State "is a marvel of history that has only come about to pave the way for al-Malhamah al-Kubra [the grand battle against the Crusaders at the End of Days]."[5]

Furthermore, Al-Baghdadi's vision of the Islamic state is modeled on ancient Islamic history, and therefore does not descend to the level of wallowing in contemporary Middle East politics and struggles. Hence, it addresses political issues such as the Palestinian national struggle quite marginally, and even postpones them to the End of Days era as well.[6]

In the current stage, the IS is concentrating on consolidating its rule in the parts of Iraq and Syria it has already conquered, and on expanding its rule in these countries, beginning with areas where there is a Sunni majority.[7] The next stage will be conquering the bordering Muslim states.[8] The second issue of Dabiq cites a reliable hadith of the Prophet that precisely defines the organization's order of priorities following the establishment of the state – first Saudi Arabia, then Iran and ultimately "Rome":[9] "You will invade the Arabian Peninsula, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. You will then invade Persia, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. You will then invade Rome, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. Then you will fight the Dajjal, and Allah will enable you to conquer him."[10] In his declaration of the caliphate, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-'Adnani stated that the area from which the caliphate will expand is the region presently under Al-Baghdadi's rule, extending "from Aleppo to Diyala".[11]

What supplants the struggle against the West at this stage are the duties of hijra (migration to the Islamic caliphate state) and bay'ah (pledge of allegiance to the Caliph), both of them central components in building the caliphate. In an audio message published immediately after the caliphate was declared, Al-Baghdadi said to Muslims everywhere, including in the West: "Whoever amongst you can migrate to the Islamic State should migrate. Hijra to Dar Al-Islam is obligatory."[12] In his first public appearance, his Friday sermon in Mosul, [13] he referred to the implementation of the shari'a as "a religious obligation," while avoiding any call to global jihad or to harming the West. Both Al-'Adnani in the declaration of the caliphate and Al-Baghdadi in his Mosul sermon refer to the caliphate as an "obligation that has been forgotten for generations." In this, their discourse contrasts sharply, for example, with the discourse of Muhammad 'Abd Al-Salam Faraj, a major theorist of the Egyptian jihad movement in the 1980s, who termed jihad (rather than the establishment of a caliphate) the forgotten obligation.

In his speech following the declaration of the caliphate, Al-Baghdadi presented the vision of the caliphate following the hijra. He said: "Lift your heads up high. You now have a state and a caliphate that restores your honor, your might, your rights and your sovereignty. The state forms a tie of brotherhood between Arab and non-Arab, white and black, Easterner and Westerner. The caliphate brings together the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, North African, American, French, German and Australian... They are all in the same trench, defending each other, protecting each other and sacrificing for one another. Their blood mingles together under one flag [with] one goal and in one camp..."[14]

While Al-Qaeda publications in English, such as its magazine Inspire, are brimming with incitement, practical advice, and professional information for performing terror attacks in the West – either in organized groups or in "lone wolf" fashion – nothing of the kind appears in the IS' publications and in speeches by its leaders. On the contrary, IS spokesmen and mouthpieces constantly implore Muslims residing in the West to perform hijra to the Islamic State – which needs experts and qualified personnel (physicians, engineers, military experts, clerics and administrators)[15] to ensure its consolidation and success. The sequential order is clear: hijra is the path to jihad (specifically, jihad aimed at guarding the nascent caliphate and its evolving borders), and "the Islamic state [comes] before al-malhama [the battle against the Crusaders]."[16] Dabiq, which, being in English, is clearly directed at Western readers, states further: "A life of jihad is impossible until you pack your belongings and move to the caliphate."[17] Another article in the same issue states that "life amongst the infidels is heartrending."[18]

Issue 2 of Dabiq says: "Many readers are probably asking about their obligations towards the Khilafah right now. Therefore the Dabiq team wants to convey the position of the Islamic State leadership on this important matter. The first priority is to perform hijra from wherever you are to the Islamic State, from darul-kufr to darul-Islam. Rush to perform it as Musa ('alayhis-salam) rushed to his Lord, saying 'and I hastened to You, my Lord, that You be pleased' [Taha:84]. Rush to the shade of the Islamic state with your parents, siblings, spouses and children. There are homes here for you and your families. You can be a major contributor towards the liberation of Makkah, Madinah, and al-Quds. Would you not like to reach Judgment Day with these grand deeds in your scales[i.e. in your favor when your good and bad deeds are weighed against one another]. Finally, if you cannot do any of the above for reasons extremely beyond your control, inshallah your intention and belief that the Islamic State is the Khilafah for all Muslims will be sufficient to save you from the warning mentioned in the hadith, 'Whoever dies without having bound himself by a bay'ah dies a death of jahiliyya.'"[19]

Moreover, this struggle to establish the Islamic State also involves a major confrontation with rival jihad organizations, whom the IS expects to disband and swear allegiance to the Caliph. This is bound to delay the later stages of struggle even further. In his declaration of the caliphate, IS spokesman Al-'Adnani addressed the other organizations, saying: "Now that the caliphate has been established, the legitimacy of your groups and organizations is null and void. None of you who believe in Allah can remain for even a single night without declaring loyalty to the Caliph." This demand necessarily means a series of bloody confrontations that extend the first stage of building the caliphate and further postpone the battle to realize stages two and three. Dabiq often stresses the internal ideological struggle and the illegitimacy of the rival organizations, including by mocking their leaders, whose behavior, the IS believes, deviates from the true Islamic model. This contempt extends even to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and to Jabhat Al-Nusra leader Abu-Muhammad Al-Joulani.

The IS even directs oblique criticism at the global jihad movement for advising Muslims in the West to stay put in order to carry out terror attacks. Thus, for example, according to the third issue of Dabiq, anyone remaining in the West is a hypocrite who enjoys the illicit pleasures of Western living and is content to surf jihadi forums instead of participating in the preservation and defense of the Islamic State. Furthermore, it is argued that anyone failing to support the Islamic State falsely associates himself with jihad: "Those who are falsely associated with jihad turn away from the Islamic State, even publicly declaring their enmity against it in bizarre competition with the crusaders and the apostates."[20]

Pursuing A State As A First Priority, Even At The Cost Of Compromises - Emulating The Strategy Of Muhammad

In his approach that prioritizes the consolidation of the Islamic State over an all-encompassing battle with Islam's enemies, Al-Baghdadi is emulating the Prophet Muhammad – the ultimate Islamic role model.[21] The Prophet, while displaying cruelty in battle ­– cruelty mirrored by the IS – put off battles with his enemies and integrated compromises and tactical agreements in his policy, in order to gather strength prior to renewing action to obtain his ultimate goals.[22] The IS, ruling from its informal capital in Syria's Al-Raqqa, conducts itself in a similar manner, enforcing the laws of the shari'a while selling oil to Europe via the black market.[23]

Assessing The Threat Posed By The Islamic State To The West

The IS's ideology, discourse and conduct thus demonstrate that terror attacks in the West are at the bottom of its order of priorities. However, it is equally clear that, once the near and immediate enemy has been defeated, the West's turn will arrive. Moreover, if allowed to implement its strategy of stages, upon reaching the third stage, the stage of war against the West, the Islamic state will no longer marshal only a few thousand fighters riding pickup trucks. Instead, it is likely to command a wide range of modern military assets, possibly including planes, guided missiles, and chemical weapons or some other kind of WMD. Therefore, postponing the clash with the West serves the IS' interests rather than the West's (which is precisely why it opts to postpone it in the first place).[24]

Furthermore, while the threat of terror in the West is not part of the IS's immediate agenda, the threat to Western interests in the Middle East, for instance in the Gulf States, Yemen, and Jordan, materializes in the second stage, a good deal before the millenarian battles.

It should be emphasized that although the doctrine of postponing the clash with the West is solidly entrenched, as reflected in the organization's writings and actions, it cannot be ruled out that certain developments, such as a massive Western attack, could change the organization's order of priorities and advance the stage of conflict with the West. The Western strategy of nipping the Islamic State in the bud may provoke counterattacks that were not planned by the organization at the outset. This places the West in a bind: inaction endangers the West in the long run, while immediate action may exact a heavy price that Al-Baghdadi did not plan to exact in the present stage.

Indeed, the parties who should have countered the caliphate, thus obviating the need for Western intervention in the first place, are the regional Muslim states who are threatened by the IS. However, these countries are incapable of acting alone. They need the U.S. to form an anti-IS coalition, and even with American and other Western assistance, the job is proving difficult, as evident from the refusal of Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to commit themselves to the effort on the ground. [25]

* Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel; A. Leone is an editor at MEMRI.


[1] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), August 30, 2014.

[2] In practice, the foundations for Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's ideas on the establishment of the Islamic State were laid down by his predecessors, primarily Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, and IS spokesmen have acknowledged this ideological debt. It was Al-Zarqawi who promised "the establishment of an Islamic Emirate" during his lifetime. In an interview he gave, he outlined the stages his organization would follow in this "political enterprise": "First we will eliminate the enemy and establish the Islamic State, then we will burst out of [this state] to conquer the Muslim countries and restore Islam there, and [finally] we will fight the infidels." (, December 7, 2006). The first issue of the IS's English-language magazine Dabiq also stated that Al-Zarqawi had paved the way towards the establishment of the Islamic state.

Under Al-Zarqawi's successors, Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir and Abu 'Omar Al-Baghdadi, the organization announced in October 2006 the establishment of the "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI). Abu 'Omar was proclaimed "Amir al Muminin" (Commander of the Believers, the title of a sovereign Muslim ruler), and later other senior officials were named "ministers." However, despite calling itself a state and conferring appropriate titles on its leaders, the ISI did not "liberate" territories, nor did it establish government institutions. It functioned as a terror organization acting against the American occupation and later against (the predominantly Shi'ite) Iraqi regime.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who succeeded Abu 'Omar Al-Baghdadi in May 2010, was more charismatic than Abu Hamza and Abu 'Omar, and also took the stage under circumstances that were much more favorable to the organization, as the American forces who had hobbled the organization's activity had either left or were on their way out, leaving behind them a vacuum and instability. This instability was further exacerbated by the Arab Spring, which touched off civil war in Syria. Furthermore, then-Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki played into the organization's hands by his discriminatory and repressive policy towards the Sunnis and by his subservience to Iran. Yet another element was the propitiously timed waning of Al-Qaeda, which caused Islamists to expect a new savior.

In sum, the aspirations of the organization's four leaders were identical, but it was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who got the chance to realize this joint vision and had the forceful personality and charisma to carry it off.

[3] The second issue of Dabiq, which is called "The Flood," states on page 5: "It's either [establish] the Islamic State or [be wiped out by] the flood."

[4] It should be noted that in the rare cases where Al-Baghdadi refers to America in his speeches and threatens it, he puts it in the form of a reactive threat, that America should cease and desist from attacking Islam. See his January 2014 speech (, January 19, 2014) and his July 2012 speech where he said the IS would attack the U.S. "right away" (, July 22, 2012). More than two years of inaction have passed since he made that threat.

[5] Dabiq 3, p. 6.

[6] Dabiq 2 states on page 4: "As for the massacres taking place in Gaza against the Muslim men, women and children, the Islamic State will do everything within its means to continue striking down every apostate who stands as an obstacle on its path towards Palestine. It is not the manner of the Islamic State to throw empty, dry and hypocritical words of condemnation and condolences like the Arab tawaghit [tyrants] do in the UN and the Arab League. Rather, its actions speak louder than its words, and it is only a matter of time before it reaches Palestine to fight the barbaric Jews and kill those of them hiding behind the gharqad trees – the trees of the Jews." Note that the magazine emphasized that at this stage, he is fighting the apostates who are keeping him from reaching Palestine (i.e., the Arab regimes, rather than Israel). Moreover, the reference to gharqad trees clearly places the confrontation with the Jews in the era of Judgment Day, according to the well-known hadith that says: "Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. The Jews will hide behind stones and trees, and the stones and trees will call: O Muslim, o servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him - except for the gharqad tree, which is the tree of the Jews."

However, at other times the IS refers to Palestine as part of Al-Sham, to be liberated in the near future.

[7] After conquering Mosul in June 2014, the IS threatened that its next target would be Baghdad. However, it did not in fact advance towards the capital, but expanded instead into further Sunni-dominated regions.

[8] The Islamist State’s slogan is "dawlat al-islam baqiya" ("The State of Islam is Here to Stay"), stressing that it is eternal. This motto was apparently coined in April 17, 2007 by the organization's previous leader, Abu 'Omar Al-Baghdadi, and was adopted by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on June 15, 2013. On August 19, 2013 the latter expanded it to “dawlat al-islam baqiya watatamaddad” ("the Islamic State is Here to Stay and Will Expand"), as a further taunt to the organization's rivals, implying that the IS will spread beyond Iraq and Syria, where it currently operates.

[9] In the seventh century Islamic texts, "Rome" referred to the Christian Byzantine empire. In contemporary Islamist texts, it refers to Christendom in general.

[10] Dabiq 2, p. 44.

[13] Al-I’tisam Twitter account, July 4, 2014. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 4335, “ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi Calls on Muslims to Wage Jihad, Says: Becoming a Caliph Is a Heavy Responsibility”, July 4, 2014.

[14] Al-I’tisam Twitter account, July 1, 2014.

[15] See Dabiq 3, p. 26.

[16] Dabiq 3, p. 5.

[17] Dabiq 3, p. 31.

[18] Dabiq 3, p. 32.

[19] Dabiq 2, p. 3-4.

[20] Dabiq 3, p. 6.

[21] Al-Baghdadi also claims to share the Prophet's lineage when he calls himself Al-Qurayshi, a member of the Quraysh tribe, to which the Prophet belonged.

[22] This is exemplified by the Al-Medina Constitution of 622, which extended rights to the Jews to ensure their political absorption. These rights were subsequently withdrawn when Muhammad was able to expel them from the city in 628. Another example is the 628 Peace of Hudaibiya with the Meccans, which lasted 18 months, until the Prophet was able to realize his most cherished goal of taking over Mecca and the holy Ka'ba.

[23], September 3, 2014. Another historical example of a similar approach is Josef Stalin's doctrine that prioritized "Socialism in One Country" – as opposed to the vision of World Revolution advocated by Trotsky and Zinoviev. Stalin understood that the more he consolidated the Communist model and realized the principles of Socialism, as he understood them, in the territory under his control, the more influence the Soviet Union would gain. During WWII, in order to win the support of his American and British allies for his territorial demands, Stalin even dissolved the Comintern – the International Communist Movement, and also had Trotsky and Zinoviev, his opponents within the party, assassinated and executed respectively. His struggle against them is reminiscent of the internal war to the death being waged by the IS against its opponents within the global jihad movement.

[24] Some might object that the organization's brutal actions, such as the beheadings of journalists, cast doubt on the analysis presented here. If the IS wishes to consolidate its rule before taking on the West, why does it engage in brutal behavior against Westerners at the present stage? However, it should be noted that the two journalists who were recently beheaded were held captive by the IS for two years. Their execution was a response to the American bombings and constituted an attempt to achieve rudimentary deterrence. This clearly emerges from the videos released by the organization. As for the atrocities against Yazidis and the Al-Shaitat tribe, and the persecution of Christians, these conform to ancient Islamic doctrines with regards to idolaters, Christians, and apostates to which the Islamic State is committed – the same doctrines that provide the foundation for the postponement of a clash with the West.

[25] There were even those who hoped that Iran would take part in the effort. However, statements by Iranian officials soon dashed this hope. Addressing the International Conference Muslim Clergy, held September 10, 2014 in Tehran, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, mocked the Sunni states' inability to confront the IS phenomenon, while stressing that Shi'ite Iran must remain uninvolved in this Sunni matter. IRNA (Iran), September 10, 2014.