Argument

ISIS Is Dead, Long Live the Islamic State

Will the declaration of a new caliphate unite the world’s jihadists -- or tear them apart?

On the first night of Ramadan, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced a step that he described as "a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer": the re-establishment of the Caliphate. "It is a hope that flutters in the heart of every mujahid [one who does jihad] muwahhid [monotheist]," spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami went on. "It is the caliphate. It is the caliphate -- the abandoned obligation of the era.... We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of the caliphate, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the caliph [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]."

The announcement by the group, which is now calling itself simply the Islamic State (IS), will accelerate the backlash against it in Iraq. The Islamic State has worked with other insurgent factions, such as the ex-Baathists in the JRTN (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order), in its recent offensive in Iraq -- but has no intention of power-sharing in the captured areas. There were already signs that JRTN and IS were beginning to fight one another, and this announcement will likely push things into an open confrontation. The Islamic State, however, views this as a positive development because it will separate those who believe in haqq [truth] from batil [falsehood]. It believes the announcement will also serve as another direct shot at al Qaeda and its official branches.

Adnani's speech

A few key themes dominate Adnani's speech: triumph, legitimacy, duty, and steadfastness. Regarding the first, Adnani projects a positive trajectory for the Islamic State: "The sun of jihad has risen. The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared." He also congratulates the group's followers for their accomplishments: "As for you, oh soldiers of the Islamic State, then congratulations to you. Congratulations on this clear victory, congratulations on this great triumph.... Now the caliphate has returned, humbling the necks of the enemy. Now the caliphate has returned, in spite of its opponents. Now the caliphate has returned; we ask God to make it to be upon the manhaj [methodology] of prophethood. Now hope is being actualized. Now the dream has become a reality." 

In terms of legitimacy, the caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe in Arabia. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State in 2010, he has claimed that he is a descendant of Muhammad and from the Quraysh tribe. Many have questioned whether the claim was legitimate but, for the first time, Adnani describes Baghdadi's lineage and his plan to now use his real name, Ibrahim, in reference to him being caliph, to illustrate his legitimate claim. Beyond the question of the Islamic legitimacy of Baghdadi's leadership, Adnani also preempts criticism of the announcement itself: "If your leaders whisper to you claiming it is not a caliphate, then remember how long they whispered to you claiming that it was not a state but rather a fictional, cardboard entity, until its certain news reached you. It is a state. Its news will continue to reach you showing that it is a caliphate, even if after time."

The creation of the caliphate has created a "with us or against us" mentality within the Islamic State, which is likely to create even more enemies. "So let those leaders [who oppose the announcement] be ruined," said Adnani. "And let that ummah [Islamic nation] they want to unite be ruined -- an ummah of secularists, democrats, and nationalists... an ummah of murjia [a sect that excludes deeds from faith], ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood], and sururiyya [a Muslim Brotherhood-influenced sect claiming to be Salafists]."

Due to these many enemies, Adnani warns the fighters and defenders of the Islamic State that they will need steadfastness in the time ahead. "Oh, soldiers of the Islamic State, you will be facing malahim [fierce battles] that cause the children's hair to become gray," he said. "You will be facing fitan [tribulations] and hardships of many different colors. You will be facing tests and quakes. No one will survive them except he whom God grants mercy."

Finally, Adnani outlines the duties and responsibilities for Muslims in general and those who live within the Islamic State's current borders, now that the caliphate has been established. For all intents and purposes, according to the Islamic State, there is no other authority but them: "We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of the caliphate, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim and support him," said Adnani. "The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas."

Historical resonance and relevance

The Islamic State's announcement of the re-establishment of the caliphate has been a long time coming. It has also been a hope and dream for many Muslims over the decades, even if most do not necessarily agree with the Islamic State's ideological leanings. The contemporary run-up to this announcement dates to Oct. 15, 2006, when the Islamic State of Iraq was first created and the movement for the first time attempted to establish institutions and governing structures. More recently, on March 25, 2014, the Islamic State and its key influencers online floated a trial balloon hashtag in Arabic, #We_Demand_Shaykh_al-Baghdadi_Declare_The_Caliphate, to get feedback on how individuals would react to such a declaration. Of course those who supported ISIS at the time were thrilled with the possibility, while those who opposed the group took issue.

The announcement of the caliphate's creation on the first day of Ramadan, which is the holiest month of the year for Muslims, was no doubt meant to invoke the religious significance of the event. But the Gregorian date has significance as well: The June 29 announcement came one day after the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, which marked the beginning of World War I. While many historians point to Ataturk's abolishment of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, as the end of the last line of caliphs, Islamic State followers see this as just the logical conclusion of a process that started a decade earlier with WWI, which led to the partition of the Middle Eastern states -- a narrative that resonates for many in the region. Therefore, the June 29, 2014, announcement has been framed as an end to a century-long calamity, and as marking the return of dignity and honor to the Islamic umma.

The Islamic State can and will argue that it is the heir of past caliphates, especially the original Rashidun Caliphate (632-661). The Islamic State will also claim that it has been able to achieve what no other Islamist movement, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, has been able to do in the past century: fill the void left by the abolition of the caliphate and create a Muslim renaissance. It can now also argue that -- unlike the past failed attempts to resurrect the caliphate by the Khilafat Movement in British India and the stillborn Sharifian Caliphate in what is today Saudi Arabia -- the Islamic State was actually able to deliver a success for Muslims, and provide them with hope and strength once more.

The war with al Qaeda

In addition to the chorus of Muslims worldwide rejecting -- and some even mocking -- the Islamic State's announcement, those in the leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates are in a precarious position. On the one hand, they are happy with the Islamic State's recent advances in Iraq and do not in theory have an issue with a caliphate -- though they may publicly argue it is too soon, or they may have privately hoped they would be the ones leading its reinstitution. On the other hand, Adnani's proclamation could severely debilitate al Qaeda, which has been hit hard by the group's advances in the past 15 months. Most notably, the Islamic State is eclipsing the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, gaining a military edge with foreign fighters and with defections of some members of other al Qaeda branches in Afghanistan, North Africa, and Yemen.

The Islamic State hopes to put al Qaeda and its branches in the unenviable position of having to reconcile with the reality of the new caliphate, or oppose it and therefore be viewed by global jihadis as hindering the caliphate project and showing its true nature as a sectarian organization that is not working for the best interests of Muslims. That strategy, however, is a gamble: It could open the Islamic State up for an even bigger fall if it does not follow through on its promise to fight enemies on all fronts, and if it fails in governing newly captured areas. There is already insurgent and noncombatant resistance to the Islamic State's gains in both Syria and Iraq, so the group therefore has a thin needle to thread.

Jihadists' reactions to the Islamic State's re-establishment of the caliphate have so far been mixed. There are signs that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula foot soldiers are excited about the alleged caliphate coming to fruition, while many within the Nusra Front are condemning it and sarcastically making fun of it, calling it a Twitter Caliphate. Maldivian jihadists in Syria under the banner of Bilad al-Sham Media have released a rebuke, arguing that the announcement strays from the true Islamic way of establishing a caliphate, and noting that it needs to have broader support. Most importantly, a number of top jihadist sheikhs, such as Hamid bin Ali and Hani al-Siba'i, have rebuked the announcement. The key Syrian Islamist rebel groups and Islamic bodies also rejected the Islamic State's reestablishment of the caliphate.

In contrast, a small jihadist faction fighting in Syria, Jaysh al-Sahaba in Bilad al-Sham, which was previously sympathetic to the Nusra Front, as well as the Lebanon-based and ISIS-sympathetic media outlet Aisha Media Center, have both now officially pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State. With the Islamic State also recently gaining new loyalty oaths from tribal members in Syria and Iraq, as well as members who have defected from the Nusra Front and Ansar al-Islam, momentum continues to be on its side. In the near term, whether jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, and North Africa officially pledge their loyalty to the Islamic State could be a sign of whether or not its latest decision enjoys support beyond words of sympathy.

The announcement to reestablish the caliphate could be another success for the Islamic State, which it will take as confirmation that "God's will" is truly on its side. Or it may mark the beginning of the end of the Islamic State's second attempt at ruling territory in less than a decade.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

A Little Hit and a Big Miss

Don't be fooled by a minor success. America's interceptor missile-defense system is still a failed $40 billion boondoggle.

President Barack Obama is about to walk into a trap of his own making. His administration said last year that if a key missile defense test hit its target, the Pentagon would expand the Alaska- and California-based system. Well, that test, conducted on June 22, was apparently a success.

Administration officials now say Obama will follow through with his plan to add 14 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) to the 30 already deployed. If he does, three things would happen, all of them bad: Obama would effectively take primary ownership of a system that is widely seen as deeply flawed; it would become harder for the administration to argue against deployment of a similar system on the East Coast; and Obama's goal to further reduce global nuclear stockpiles would become a more distant prospect.

The trap may be closing, but it is not too late for the White House to find a way out.

The Obama administration inherited the current GBI system from President George W. Bush and has kept it at arm's length. Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 criticized Bush's "haste to deploy missile defenses," continued to fund the system -- as canceling it would have led to a huge political fight and doomed chances to ratify New START -- but he hardly embraced it. Now, however, Obama is poised to become the system's champion.

The Bush administration began fielding the system in 2004, after withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and today the system is composed of 30 interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, intended to counter a possible long-range missile attack from North Korea or Iran. Ten years later, it is all too clear that the prototype system was rushed into production before the technology was ready, to address a hyped threat that has advanced but still has not materialized.

The American taxpayer is now stuck with a $40 billion "defense" on which no commander in- chief can depend -- it has a dismal test record that is actually getting worse with time. Before the June 22 hit, the system had failed in its last three intercept tests and had not hit a target since 2008.

Overall, out of 17 highly scripted intercept attempts from 1999 to 2014, the system hit its target nine times, a 53 percent success rate. For the first eight tests, the system had five hits, or 63 percent. But in the last nine tests, the system has hit only four times: a depressing 44 percent success rate. These numbers attest that, despite the recent hit, this is still a prototype technology that should not have been put into production.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) said on June 11 that the "design, engineering, and reliability problems … were largely caused by the rush to field this system without properly testing [it]. We are now paying dearly for some of those decisions." Correcting these problems will cost more than $1.3 billion, according to the government's nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

As for the threat it is intended to counter, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in May that neither North Korea nor Iran "yet has a mature [intercontinental-range ballistic missile] capability, and both nations know they would face an overwhelming U.S. response to any attack." As Winnefeld implies, it is not missile defense that would stop a missile attack from North Korea or Iran (if those countries were to achieve that capability). It is deterrence -- that neither regime wants to invite upon itself a devastating U.S. response.

There are important lessons here. Don't rush a complex weapon system into production while it is still a prototype. Don't base plans on exaggerated threat assessments. And above all, don't do both at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is on the verge of repeating the same mistakes. After just one successful test of the newest interceptor, the CE-II, the Pentagon wants to double down on this troubled system and expand it. This roughly 50 percent increase in the number of interceptors will cost about $1 billion. This makes no more sense than Bush's decision to prematurely field the system in 2004. "The idea of deploying 14 more of the existing … interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska, as proposed by the Obama administration last year, would be throwing good money after bad," Philip Coyle, former director of weapons testing for the Defense Department, told the Anchorage Daily News. "We need to make sure we have a system that works, not expand a system we know to be deeply flawed."

Even its proponents don't believe in its efficacy. Current and former Pentagon officials say the system needs more tests before they can have confidence in it. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told Reuters on June 24: "It's got to work several times. We've got to demonstrate it under various conditions before we'd have … full confidence in the system," he said. "That is the ultimate accountability."

Meanwhile, missile defense supporters in Congress have been beating the drum to build another interceptor site near the U.S. East Coast. This would cost another $10 billion or more, and the Pentagon is studying four possible locations, without committing to a new site. So far, the administration has persuasively argued that there is no military requirement for an eastern site, because the site in Alaska can cover both coasts and the potential Iranian long-range missile threat is further out in the future than North Korea's, which despite recent tests has not arrived yet, either.

An additional argument against building an East Coast system now is that the West Coast system is simply not reliable or effective and that regardless of the threat it would make no sense to deploy the same flawed technology at a new location. Once the administration deploys more of the same flawed technology in Alaska, missile defense boosters will likely say that what is good enough for the West Coast is good enough for the East. The administration would then be playing a weaker hand.

Another danger of expanding missile defense is the negative impact it may have on U.S. plans for arms control with Russia and China. The United States has said for years that the GBI system is intended to counter limited, long-range missile threats from North Korea and Iran, if such missiles should appear, but is not intended to counter much larger missile forces in Russia and China. As Admiral Winnefeld said in May, "We've told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence of Russia because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try. Even though Russians have a hard time believing us on this, it has the very great virtue of actually being true." The same applies to China.

The problem is that Russia and China do not believe it. The more Washington deploys real missile interceptors to counter potential missile threats in Pyongyang and Tehran, the more Moscow and Beijing will resist reducing their nuclear forces. This will put an inevitable brake on how far the United States can lead the world to reduce nuclear weapons. Both countries are also concerned about U.S. regional missile defenses, such as U.S. plans to put medium-range interceptors in Europe and to work with Japan and South Korea.

As China's Foreign Ministry warned in May, the U.S. plan to expand missile defense cooperation with South Korea would "not help maintain stability and strategic balance in this region." Read between the lines, and it's clear that expansion would do the opposite.

Given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations and the situation in Ukraine, Obama's plan for another round of nuclear arms control with Moscow after the 2010 New START agreement is on hold in any case. But, at some point, Russian President Vladimir Putin may realize that he would like to spend his rubles on things other than nuclear weapons. If U.S. missile defenses increase, the job of bringing Russian forces down may become that much harder.

Obama should stick with his 2008 statement that missile defenses "must be proven to work" before adding to a system that has thus far failed -- even in highly scripted tests. Rather than expand the system, he could prioritize improving it through more rigorous testing.

For guidance, Obama should not look to Bush, but to Clinton. When President Bill Clinton was considering missile defense deployment in 2000, he based his decision on four criteria: the readiness of the technology, the impact on arms control, the cost of the system, and the threat. Ultimately, Clinton rightly decided that he did not yet have "enough confidence in the technology and the operational effectiveness … to move forward to deployment." He noted that there were unresolved questions about countermeasures, or efforts to "confuse the missile defense into thinking it is hitting a target when it is not."

Clinton's conclusions still hold true today, and Obama would be wise to consider them. Obama has a choice: His legacy can be like Clinton's, the president who held the line on missile defense; or he can be remembered like Bush, as the president who made a costly mistake for which we are still paying the price.

Photo via Ballistic Missile Defense Organization/Getty Images