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The Islamic State’s Road to Becoming a Caliphate


Contrary to predictions, the ousting of Saddam Hussein was followed by high levels of instability, a dangerous political vacuum and a fractured country divided along religious lines. This provided a fertile environment for terrorist groups to destabilize not only Iraq but the region as well. A primary tool was the targeting of U.S. forces, allies, the Shia community, the Christian community and other minorities. The most successful terrorist group has been the Islamic State formerly known as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham).[i] This group was formed by a splinter cell of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later separated from AQI due to disputes over authority and power struggles. Through the use of a ruthless strategy and tactics, money, brutal efficiency, as well as alliances with local tribes this group has gained immense power and territory despite a limited number of fighters.[ii] Overall, the Islamic State seeks to become the dominant jihadi group and to establish a caliphate-an Islamic state-to govern the world’s Muslims. In its quest for power and territorial acquisition this group has employed a comprehensive and brutal strategy that has allowed it to capture large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Based on their success levels on June 29, 2014, they announced the creation of a caliphate spanning the borders of Iraq and Syria. As such, the Islamic State now controls or can operate freely vast stretches of territory in both countries. This paper will briefly examine the Islamic State’s background, the establishment of a caliphate, its fighters, and some of the implications on the international community.


The chaos and unrest that ensued after the United States invasion of Iraq provided terrorists a fertile environment to grow and enhance an insurgent movement. More specifically, the power vacuum created by the ousting of Saddam Hussein provided groups with an opportunity to develop a strong foothold and wreak havoc in the volatile environment. One distinct group was al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a Sunni jihadist group with roots in the Sunni dominated western province of Iraq.[iii] Their intent was to plant the seeds of civil unrest in Iraq and the region and then fan its flames to create a substantially unstable environment that they could effectively take advantage of. As part of their strategy, AQI“…embarked on attacks against U.S. forces, the struggling Iraqi authorities, international aid groups and with the most dire consequences, against Iraq’s Shiite community.”[iv] By creating and promoting instability and chaos, AQI was able to exacerbate existing fault lines, enhance sectarian tensions and work towards the establishment of its Caliphate.[v]

A primary tool in AQI’s strategy of chaos, instability and division has been to focus on targeting Shias in order to significantly enhance existing sectarian conflict and use it to its advantage. This was particularly evident in 2005 when AQI declared an “all out war” on the Shia in Iraq.[vi] “A series of atrocities against Shiite civilians and shrines eventually provoked a war in Iraq “…and it quickly created bloody chaos through the country.”[vii] It also dispatched numerous suicide bombers to attack U.S. troops and killed civilians of all faiths in indiscriminate attacks.

When the United States withdrew forces from Iraq in 2011, AQI substantially increased attacks mainly on Shia targets.[viii] Achieving high levels of success and seeking to enhance its position among jihadist groups, in April 2013 AQI changed its name to ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).[ix] The name change was an expression of its broadened ambitions as its fighters had crossed into Syria to challenge the Assad regime, secularists and Islamist opposition groups there, in addition to its challenge of the Iraqi government.[x] Their name was again changed to the Islamic State (IS) to reflect their success and larger ambitions.

The Caliphate

This group’s main goal has been to establish an Islamic State, a caliphate, and then continue to expand its sphere of power, influence and its ability to inflict terror. They believe the world’s Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled by a brutal form of Sharia law. To accomplish this, they sought to link together Syria and Iraq in order to establish their state and then continue expanding. [xi] With stunning speed ISIL has captured large portions of land in both countries, including territory in northern and north eastern Syria and northern Iraq stretching to the Iranian border, as well as some areas in the West such as Rutbah. They were further strengthened by seizing large amounts of U.S. supplied modern weaponry, looting banks[xii] and oil fields.[xiii] As such, they became more emboldened to enhance their rate of operations and heighten their pursuit of establishing a caliphate.

On June 29, 2014, ISIL declared the establishment of a caliphate ignoring the regions borders.[xiv] They also declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their new Caliph, stating “he is the Imam and Caliph for Muslims everywhere.”[xv] Upon declaring their caliphate, ISIL stated they expect Muslims throughout the world to express their allegiance to them. This includes other jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. They also stated that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliphs authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas…Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.” [xvi] Moreover, ISIL declared that its name had changed to the Islamic State. This name change signifies the evolution of the organization and represents “…its new official territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border.”[xvii]


The implications associated with the Islamic State’s activities including their declaration of an Islamic state are vast and highly detrimental to Iraq and Syria, as well as the international community. As they continue their pursuit of power and territorial acquisition, they are ushering in a new era of international jihadism.[xviii] This is associated with numerous factors, including the use of foreign fighters which strengthen its forces in Iraq and Syria, increase the likelihood of terrorist acts in other geographic areas and help the Islamic State foster a stronger network with higher numbers of tentacles across the world, including in the West. Moreover, the announcement of a caliphate has significantly increased the number of foreign fighters joining the group. It is estimated that there has been a 10 to 15 percent increase in the number of foreign fighters since establishing a caliphate.[xix]

Another implication stems from their establishment of a caliphate. This announcement will likely exacerbate existing conflict between terror groups in the region. It will also likely intensify their fierce competition in securing loyalty of affiliates and offshoots across the Middle East and North Africa. This is particularly true in relation to the existing competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “The two groups are now in an open war for supremacy of the global jihadist movement.”[xx] The Islamic State’s caliphate poses a direct challenge to the global leadership of al-Qaeda, which has disowned it.[xxi] Furthermore, it will lead to the creation of an even more dangerous environment in which terrorist groups may try to one up each other in order to appear as the most effective organization. This will likely attract more fighters, enhance notoriety, as well as increase their power and influence.

Islamic State Fighters

The Islamic State has amassed a large number of local and foreign fighters[xxii] that are highly motivated and ruthless. Despite their success their numbers are lower than one might expect. While the exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, some analysts estimate that the group has about 6,000 to 10,000 fighters operating in Iraq and Syria…”[xxiii] others estimate between 5,000 and 11,000.[xxiv] To consistently increase its numbers, the Islamic State has developed an effective strategy to “…attract, recruit, train and use foreign fighters…”[xxv]

Foreign fighters are an important component of the Islamic State’s strategy. Their impact on success levels has been immense. They “… have superior fighting skills and are therefore force multipliers on the battlefield and in training new recruits.”[xxvi] This has allowed them to successfully depend on the ability of relatively few fighters to be able to out fight larger numbers of soldiers and militias. As the Islamic State continues its brutal rampage and achieves success it will continue to attract foreign fighters.

Foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State from across the globe from at least 81 countries[xxvii] with the majority joining from the Middle East and North Africa.[xxviii] Many have also joined from other parts of the world including the United States,[xxix] the European Union,[xxx] Russia[xxxi] and Australia.[xxxii] Moreover, a significant number of foreign fighters joining from non-Muslim majority countries are recent converts to Islam.[xxxiii] The arrest of a Colorado woman, Conley, in the United States, who is a recent convert, illustrates this alarming trend. After her arrest, Conley stated that she planned to fly to the Middle East to join the Islamic State to wage jihad. She further stated that she believes Islam requires, “…participation in violent jihad against any non-believers.”[xxxiv] Non-believers include secularists, Shia Muslims, Christians and other minorities, as well as anyone who simply does not share the Islamic State’s extremist beliefs.


As the Islamic State’s activities rages on, the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to work with the group continues. Moreover, with the establishment of a Caliphate and continued success it will continue to attract larger numbers of jihadi fighters. “For budding jihadists worldwide, the continued battlefield victories registered by the Islamic State and the perception that the “will of God” is on its side against numerically superior enemies will only enhance the prestige of joining the group and furthering its goals.”[xxxv] This not only strengthens their capacity to fight and terrorize the region, but it also has a severe detrimental impact on the home countries of foreign fighters. According to the Souhan Group, this group is serving as an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.[xxxvi] It is widely believed that after their time fighting in the Middle East these terrorists are then likely to take their skills and knowledge back home to engage in terrorism.

As foreigners continue to pour into Iraq and Syria they will undergo a radicalization process and gain military training. This experience coupled with the skills attained of fighting in a war zone[xxxvii] will enhance their willingness to commit acts of terrorism in their homeland and elsewhere.[xxxviii] More specifically, “the grinding brutality of the conflict will lead to yet more traumatized young men becoming accustomed to violence and ready to carry their binary worldview back home or to a new front.”[xxxix] The result is not only dangerous for the Middle East, but for the international community as a whole.

Given their insider connection, experience and ability to understand the culture of their home country and that of a jihadi, foreign fighters have the ability to return home and effectively recruit fighters for the Islamic State. Not only are these individuals more likely to commit acts of terrorism, their connection to a well established network is also dangerous.[xl] They are able to develop dangerous recruiting networks to effectively recruit individuals to fight for the Islamic State in the Middle East and to act on its behalf in other capacities globally. This pattern is evident in the recruitment of foreign fighters, particularly in the West. For example, “over the past few months, as many as 15 young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities have traveled to Syria…”[xli] and in Spain eight men have been arrested for recruiting militants for ISIL.[xlii] As the British Prime Minister has keenly warned, the Islamic State is not only targeting countries in the Middle East but those in the West as well, including the United Kingdom and the United States and their core methods are its foreign fighters.[xliii]


By making major advances in Iraq and Syria the Islamic State has lifted itself from obscurity to become the world’s most infamous terrorist group. Its activities have changed the security and geopolitical landscapes of the region and the global community. Their savagery, control of Syrian and Iraqi territory and the establishment of a so called caliphate has and will continue to have widespread ramifications far into the future. The strategies developed towards the Islamic State and their impact will significantly influence how this group and other similar groups will evolve in the coming months and years.


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