There have been some leaks about an alleged voice recording of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri giving his opinion about the announcement of the caliphate in light of Sharia and jurisprudence.
Regardless of whether this is true or false, the announcement of the caliphate is starting to leave its mark on the jihadist body around the world.
During the past few days, following the announcement of the creation of the Islamic caliphate and the appointment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “caliph of the Muslims,” the media reported on all the pledges of allegiance to Baghdadi from different factions in different countries.
Do all these pledges of allegiance indicate a real expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a new chance for it to move to countries other than Syria and Iraq? Or is it simply a publicity campaign that aims to amplify the announcement and double its effects?
There is no doubt that ISIS had a wide network of relations with different jihadist factions in plenty of Islamic countries. Despite the fact that these relations went through a radical phase caused by the dispute between ISIS and the worldwide organization of al-Qaeda, they did not end completely.
ISIS leaders took advantage of the bonds that were still strong between them and some leaders of jihadist organizations to convince them to join their group or their caliphate. ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed Adnani issued a call asking all al-Qaeda branches around the world for their opinion concerning the group and the dispute with al-Qaeda. This call was met with silence from top-tier leaders in these factions, except for the Caucasus Emirate, which did not fear stating its support for Jabhat al-Nusra.
Thus, it was not very odd that the statement made by a group from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), led by Abu Abdullah Othman al-Assimi, condemned the silence of the leaders of their organization. This pushed the group to film a video, in which it declared its support for ISIS and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph of the Muslims.
Despite the fact that AQIM leaders did not answer Adnani’s call, they took a stand that might have repercussions on their relations with ISIS in the future. ISIS took advantage of the recent events in Iraq and the progress made on the ground by the jihadists, to take the initiative of reconciliation and the settlement of disputes. The group asked “the jihadists, especially the ISIS jihadists, to seize these chances, this wind of victory, for affinity, gathering, letting go of the past clashes and conflicts and opening a new page with their brothers,” calling for “communication between them and religious scholars, symbols of the jihad movement, because the nation is only reconciled with the reconciliation of the scholars and the emirs.”
He also asked “all the honest jihadist groups in al-Sham to stop the fight and reconcile.” This means that the progress ISIS made on the field in Iraq and is still making in eastern Syria, especially in Aahal village (a stronghold of Jabhat al-Nusra) to confront their components, is starting to change the way some al-Qaeda branches look at the group and prompting them to make sure they stay on good terms with it. Perhaps this advance stand taken by Assimi’s group from AQIM, pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, helped with this situation.
This is not the only pledge of allegiance that ISIS got after announcing the caliphate, since there was quasi-verified news of Ansar al-Bayt al-Maqdis pledging allegiance as well. Sheikh Mamoun Hatem’s group, leader in Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, known for supporting ISIS even before the caliphate, also pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. The pledge of allegiance also came from a group from the Taliban of Pakistan in Kharasan, led by Sheikh Abu Yazeed Abdul Qahir al-Khurasani, in a statement published on social media websites.
Most Ansar al-Sharia branches, both in Tunisia and Libya, lean toward strong relations with ISIS, even though they have not recently pledged allegiance to the group. However, it is well known that leaders from Ansar al-Sharia, specifically in Tunisia, went to Syria and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. First was Sheikh Kamal Razouk and Bilal al-Shawashi, an emir from Jabhat al-Nusra before organizing the independent Katibat al-Iqab.
Such pledges of allegiance do not seem influential or capable of changing the power balance between ISIS and al-Qaeda. This realization pushed some to underestimate the announcement.
Despite the accuracy of this characterization, the course of events in the region is complicated, making it hard to tell who’s with or against whom. This pushes many to be careful and not underestimate the news of ISIS expanding from one country to another, even though it’s through small groups or sleeper cells. These people give the example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, how when he first came to Iraq in 2003, he only had 13 followers and yet he still succeeded in building what is now the strongest organization in the region.
Some cannot fail to point out that fighting is not the only thing ISIS needs. The distance between the groups pledging allegiance to ISIS does not stop them from offering the organization great services. Through their cells and groups, they could play a role in gathering financial donations, coordinating among those who wish to fight jihad or helping convince local religious scholars of ISIS's perspectives.
They could also play a security role in the interest of ISIS, gathering information about its opponents for use when the time is right, especially since the security apparatus of the Islamic State is considered the strongest and the most accurate compared to similar factions.