BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.
In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.
The move signifies “a new era of international jihad,” said the spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who also declared an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as the group had called itself.
Henceforth, ISIS will simply be known as the Islamic State, in recognition of the breakdown of international borders achieved as a result of the group’s conquests, he said. ISIS’s chief, an Iraqi known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will be the caliph, or leader, of the new caliphate, and all Muslims worldwide will be required to pay allegiance to him.
The proclamation is a powerful challenge to al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also claims supremacy over the global jihadist movement. Zawahiri repudiated Baghdadi early this year after the Iraqi leader rejected repeated al-Qaeda directives to adopt a more inclusive approach toward other jihadist groups, and it is unlikely that he will agree to bow to the authority of the proclaimed new caliph.
“This is a threat to the legitimacy of al-Qaeda as the representative of global jihad, and it lays down the threat big time,” said Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Put simply, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared war on al-Qaeda.”
Some jihadist groups operating in other parts of the region may be tempted to switch allegiance to the new Islamic state; such a state is also a proclaimed goal of al-Qaeda but one that the parent organization has said should be implemented only once conditions are right.
Others, however, may be deterred by the power grab. The audio statement declares Baghdadi to be the “Emir of the Momineen,” or “Prince of the Believers,” a title that effectively endows him with the legacy of the leadership of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
It is not clear, either, whether some of the other Sunni revolutionary movements fighting alongside the militants against the Iraqi government — many of which are fiercely nationalistic — will accept the Islamic State’s explicit rejection of national boundaries, including those of Iraq.
“This could potentially risk the Islamic State’s overall position within the Sunni uprising in Iraq,” Lister said.
The state will cover lands now under Islamic State control, stretching from the northern Syrian province of Aleppo to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, the statement said, adding that eventually it will grow to include the entire Muslim world. The militants have already asserted a de facto Islamic state in those areas, establishing their own courts, schools and services. The effort has received a big boost in the past three weeks from the vast quantities of weaponry the militants have taken from Iraqi army bases and the millions of dollars they have seized from banks in the towns and cities they have overrun.
Coinciding with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the statement will also further encourage militant fighters after their rout of security forces across northern and western Iraq.
On Sunday, the militants said they had repelled an Iraqi government counteroffensive against the city of Tikrit, which fell under Islamic State control more than two weeks ago.
Residents said the insurgents, who have been assisted by local anti-government groups, were still in control of the town center, despite state television claims that the government had cleared Tikrit of militants Saturday.
Government forces pounded the city Sunday with helicopter fire and artillery, residents said. Thousands have fled, while others are trapped in their homes, said Abu Ghaib, a 35-year-old resident who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.
“Some families have nowhere to flee to, and they are quite terrified,” he said.
Also Sunday, Iraq took delivery of a Russian-made Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jet, the first of five expected to arrive in the coming days as the Iraqi military desperately seeks to shore up its feeble air force.