The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced Sunday the establishment of the Muslim caliphate and declared that its leader was Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the current head of the group.
The declaration made official what many observers had expected, a claim that the Islamic State group is itself a nation state that stretches wherever Muslims live and not just an insurgent group battling governments in Iraq and Syria.
The proclamation was freighted with historic significance, coming one day after the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. It was that result that led to the redrawing of borders in the Middle East, including the one between Syria and Iraq that the Islamic State now says no longer exists.
One analyst called the announcement the most significant development for Islamist extremists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The impact of this announcement will be global as al-Qaida affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it,” said Charles Lister, who follows jihadi developments for the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar. “The Islamic State’s announcement made it clear that it would perceive any group that failed to pledge allegiance an enemy of Islam.”
Nearly 12 million people now live under some level of Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq, but the group’s activities in Syria have been denounced by al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the official al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The term caliphate refers to a style of governance put into place by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad after his death in the seventh century and not seen in any form since the Ottomans collapsed in the early 20th century.
In a statement released on the Internet Sunday, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani said its leadership council, known as the shura, made the decision to establish the caliphate.
Adnani said that all national, tribal or ethnic boundaries that currently span the Muslim world had been ruled invalid by Islamic State’s shura and that all the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims were now subject to the new caliphate’s authority.
“Indeed, it is the State,” he said.
In other developments:
The battle for Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit stretched into a third day Sunday with both the Iraqi government and the insurgents reporting heavy losses, as five jet fighters Iraq purchased from Russia arrived.
The fight in Tikrit is the first major effort by Baghdad to reclaim territory lost to the Islamic State. Thousands of Iraqi army fighters, backed by Shiite militias, are now trying to battle up the central highway to enter Tikrit, a city of 200,000 that fell June 11.
With both sides claiming momentum in the fight, the arrival from Russia of five Su-25 jets late Saturday night with two more expected to arrive could provide an important boost to both Iraqi Army morale and firepower. Twelve Russian technical advisers also arrived with the shipment.
Iraqi news media called the arrival of the Russian equipment — American F-16s are not expected until September — a warning to the U.S. over its reluctance to grant an Iraqi government request to begin airstrikes against the insurgents. Iraq has virtually no air force.
Iran and Iraq have also discussed returning as many as 20 aircraft that Hussein’s regime flew to Iran for safety before the 1991 Gulf War. Iran later refused to return the outdated jet fighters.
President Barack Obama acknowledged Sunday that militants fighting in Syria and Iraq pose a direct threat to the United States because many of them have Western passports that enable them to easily enter the country without visas.
“I think we have been under serious threat my entire presidency, and we have been under serious threat predating 9/11 from those who embrace this ideology,” Obama said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.