Self-Appointed ‘Caliph’ Makes First Public Appearance

Patrick Goodenough | July 6, 2014 | 8:08pm EDT
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A man purporting to be ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears in a video clip giving a sermon in Mosul, Iraq, on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Image: YouTube)

( – The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) -- recently shortened to "Islamic State" -- has released an online video purportedly showing its leader delivering a sermon in its Iraqi stronghold, as Sunni Islamists battle online over ISIS’ recently-proclaimed caliphate.

The man identified as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, who has now taken to calling himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or “Caliph Ibrahim," spoke for more than 20 minutes from Mosul’s Great Mosque on Friday.

The speaker demanded obedience from Muslims, extolled the significance of the restoration of the caliphate, and spoke of the double blessing of Allah on those who wage jihad during Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month which began a week ago.

Assuming the speaker is Baghdadi, it would be the first public appearance of an Islamic radical who has been so secretive only two known photographs of him have been previously known to exist.

ISIS’ recent declaration of a caliphate in areas it claims to control in Syria and Iraq was essentially a claim to lead the world’s Sunni Muslims – it views Shi’ites as heretics – and included a demand that all pledge allegiance to Baghdadi.

On Sunday it was reported that ISIS, which now calls itself simply Islamic State, has started to print and issue passports. According to Al-Arabiya, a photo of the document shows the words “State of the Islamic Caliphate” at the top of the cover, and at the bottom a warning that if the holder of the passport is harmed, “we will deploy armies for his service.”

The announcement of a caliphate, 90 years after the last one was abolished by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, sparked a debate on social media and other websites among prominent Sunni figures and organizations, one which far the terrorist group seems so far to be losing.

Since ISIS named the Muslim Brotherhood among its foes, not surprisingly the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, the Qatar-based cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, gave it the thumbs down on Saturday, saying the caliphate declaration violates Islamic law (shari’a.)

The title of caliph, he said, could only be bestowed by the entire Muslim nation, not by an individual group.

Qaradawi said Muslims look forward to the restoration of the caliphate, but the ISIS declaration was “void under shari’a and has dangerous consequences for the Sunnis in Iraq and for the revolt in Syria.”

The grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, a body established in the 10th century and widely regarded as the top seat of learning in Sunni Islam, has also given the ISIS caliphate short shrift, with a spokesman quoted as saying that “all those who are today speaking of an Islamic state are terrorists.”

Another Sunni body to deliver a negative verdict was the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, which said in a statement posted online that announcing a caliphate or emirate under current conditions “is not in the interest of Iraq and its unity now, and will be taken as a pretext to divide the country and harming people.”

Leading Sunni figure and shari’a specialist, Ahmed al-Risouni, called the ISIS announcement a “mirage” and “pipe dream,” in terms both of legitimacy and of actual facts on the ground.

Most of these Islamic figures are supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria, which has been plagued by infighting among different nationalist and jihadist factions including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front.

Last week nine leading rebel groups in Syria posted online a joint statement last week rejecting the caliphate declaration, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.

The groups, which included Al-Nusra, called the ISIS initiative an attempt to “abort the blessed revolutions in Syria and Iraq.”

The ISIS-al-Nusra split arose after Baghdadi made a bid for leadership of all al-Qaeda elements among the rebels, under the name ISIS. Al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leader Ayman al-Zawahiri rejected the move, instructed ISIS to focus its campaign on Iraq and declared the al-Nusra Front to be the only official al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria.

Al-Zawahiri himself has not yet spoken publicly on the ISIS caliphate bid.

Aaron Reese of the Institute of the Study of War said Baghdadi’s sermon in Mosul was an indication that “ISIS control in northern Iraq is uncontested,” and presented “a major challenge” to al-Zawahiri.

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