In its heyday, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida declared its goal of establishing a caliphate, or single pan-Islamic state, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, but only when the moment was right.
Now the breakaway faction of the group – hitherto known as Isis – has done precisely that, albeit on a more modest geographic scale.
Henceforth, it has declared, the radical Sunni organisation that has cut a mighty and brutal swathe through Syria and Iraq will be known as the Islamic State. Not only does the move signify “a new era of international jihad”, in the words of an IS spokesman.
Its aim is for Muslims to “shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace”, so that a great new empire, in essence a restoration of the original 7th-century caliphate of Mohamed, may rise anew from the chaos and confusion of the Middle East.
Whether Sunday’s proclamation is mere bombast, or a genuine watershed in the crisis will only be determined by events. But in two respects, it cannot be ignored. It is a statement of reality; that the existing colonial-era border between Iraq and Syria has collapsed and, more broadly, that a redrawing of the map of the region may be at hand.
Secondly, it can only exacerbate the sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni that the civil war in Syria, now engulfing Iraq as well, is unleashing.
The declaration of an Islamic state is easy to ridicule. But it will surely electrify many radicals, and probably draw new recruits to the cause from the millions of young Sunni men across the Arab world who live under oppressive secular regimes, with scant prospect of work or a better future.
By the same token however, it will be resisted by rival militant groups, not to mention moderate Sunni who believe that a more modern and democratic Middle East is still within reach. As for Shia Muslims, whose feud with the Sunni dates back to a schism after the death of the Prophet in AD632, they will be more convinced than ever that an uprising of Iraq’s Sunni minority, aimed at overthrowing Shia dominance, is under way.
Last, and perhaps not least, the creation of the Islamic State is a direct challenge to the old al-Qa’ida, led by Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri from the mountain strongholds of the Afghan/Pakistan border, for leadership of the global jihadist movement.
What happens next, in a cauldron of conflict and flux exceptional even by the Middle East’s turbulent standards, is impossible to predict. If the thus far feeble Iraqi army can prevail in the battle to dislodge IS from Tikrit, the infant “caliphate” may simply evaporate. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moreover has an astonishing array of backers, from Shia Iran to the US and Russia, increasingly rivals elsewhere but who have a common aversion to terrorism and who have each sent military advisers (and in the case of Russia warplanes) to help Mr Maliki. The Kurds too, sensing realisation of their dream of an independent Kurdish state may be close, are also aligned against IS.
But direct Western involvement should go no further. It is pointless to argue whether our failure to help moderate Syrian rebels early on, or the blanket withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, are responsible for today’s chaos. The original invasion of Iraq is lesson enough how Western efforts to manipulate the Middle East only make matters worse. The aim now must be clear-eyed and limited: to ensure that IS can never be a launch pad for terrorist strikes against the West like those of the original al-Qa’ida in its heyday.