For Militants, Founding Of Caliphate Is Win In Rhetoric, Not Reality

On the first night of Ramadan, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced it would change its name to, simply, the Islamic State, declaring that the land it had captured in Syria and Iraq constituted a new caliphate. The group's leader is trying to use this new narrative to wrest control of the global jihad from al-Qaida.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The head of a terrorist group controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq has declared himself the leader of a new caliphate, or Muslim state. But does saying it make it so? Counterterrorism officials say they haven't seen much happening on the ground that suggests major political changes. They say the decision to establish a caliphate is more about rhetoric than reality, that it's part of a strategy to help the group seize the mantle of terrorism from al-Qaida. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports now on whether that plan might work.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's decision to try to reestablish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq is not about setting up an Islamic government. It's really about politics - jihadi politics.

MATTHEW LEVITT: There was no groundwork laid for this. I think he really saw this as a way to present himself as an organized challenge to al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Matthew Levitt, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And by groundwork, he means al-Baghdadi apparently did not alert other jihadi groups or important religious leaders that he intended to name himself caliph, the leader of a Muslim state. He just waited until the first day of Ramadan, and he did it.

LEVITT: I think that al-Baghdadi has bitten off more than he can chew here. The idea of a caliphate is all Sunnis are supposed to have a obligation to this caliph. Now, if - if they don't follow suit, then it's empty words, and he demonstrates that he is not as powerful as he thought he would be.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Counterterrorism officials are watching key players outside Syria and Iraq - leaders in the jihadi community, to see whether they accept al-Bagdhadi as their leader, or they don't. And right now, it looks like they don't.

PATRICK JOHNSTON: None of the - the existing militant groups are really biting, except for some small-bit players.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Patrick Johnston, of the Rand Corporation, has been tracking who is lining up for al-Bagdhadi.

JOHNSTON: Not the stronger groups that ideally ISIS would peel away from supporting al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Bagdhadi's list of supporters include locals in Raqqa, Syria, where he has training camps. They tweeted congratulations to him and called on others to pledge allegiance to him. A commander of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, with the Twitter handle @BlackFlagNews, said he'd support al-Bagdhadi as the new caliph. And minor clerics, like a firebrand in the U.K., offered some measured support, which could help boost recruitment for al-Bagdhadi in Britain. But Rand's Patrick Johnston says the big jihadi names have been quiet.

JOHNSTON: I think they're waiting to see whether this will take, and someone has to make a first move.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute agrees.

LEVITT: The big prize for Bagdhadi would be to get actual al-Qaida affiliates to begin siding with him. AQIM, AQAP, the Shabaab - etc. And so far, we haven't seen this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: AQIM is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. AQAP is the group's arm in Yemen. And Shabaab is al-Qaida's affiliate in Somalia. And they have all been noticeably quiet. The Nusra Front, al-Qaida's arm in Syria, greeted al-Bagdhadi's announcement with sarcasm. They said he had succeeded in creating, in the group's words, a Twitter caliphate. The Rand Corporation's Johnston says al-Bagdhadi's definition of a caliphate is in keeping with his tendency to overreach.

JOHNSTON: And it ends up being counterproductive.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And what have we heard from one of the most important players in the struggle for jihadi hearts and minds, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri? Absolutely nothing. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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