ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has long kept a pretty low profile—not surprising given the fate of his predecessors. There have been only two known photographs of the guy. So it was pretty shocking when he made his first major public appearance over the weekend at the Grand Mosque in Mosul clad in black robes and a snazzy wristwatch. (Sure enough, what appeared to be Iraqi government airstrikes shortly followed Baghdadi’s appearance.)
The appearance came shortly after Baghdadi declared himself “caliph” of a new Islamic state last week. Obviously other established nation-states aren’t going to be rushing to recognize Baghdadi’s attempted resurrection of a seventh-century empire, but it should be interesting to see how other al-Qaida inspired militant groups around the world respond. ISIS has been at odds with al-Qaida central for some time now, and the declaration is a major challenge to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama Bin Laden. Zawahiri hasn’t responded to the caliphate announcement yet, but when it comes we can expect it to be pretty scathing.
So far, there hasn’t exactly been a rush of other jihadi groups pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. A number of Islamist groups in Syria, including al-Qaida’s official branch there, al-Nusra, have denounced the announcement.
The caliphate has gotten a few pledges of support from groups in Egypt and Libya as well as a faction of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. But we’ve yet to hear from senior leaders like AQAP’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb under Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.
All in all, considering the power play ISIS just mounted, it hasn’t gotten a particularly impressive show of support from the international movement it purports to now lead. As terrorism analyst J.M. Berger put it, “it’s starting to look like that time ISIS threw a caliphate party and nobody came.”
But as terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer argues, the announcement may have been less of an appeal to the global al-Qaida establishment than “a bid for the youth vote in the jihadi movement.” Thanks to the war in Syria, ISIS has had the highest levels of international recruitment and online outreach of any jihadi group over the past few years. After its gains in Iraq, it has also arguably had the most operational success.
ISIS’s caliphate announcement may not have been much a geopolitical turning point—sooner or later, one would hope, its territorial gains will start to erode given the sheer number of enemies it has picked a fight with—but its value as a publicity stunt may be more significant.