A Coup in ISIL-stan?

05/14/2015 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

There are many things in life that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi doesn't like. For starters, he doesn't like to be called "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." His official name is Caliph Ibrahim. "Abu ِBaker al-Baghdadi" was his nom de guerre, used during his underground years in Iraq. Officially he is no longer an outlaw but the head of an unrecognized "state" that encompasses all Muslims, attracting followers as far off as Nigeria, Egypt, and Libya. Referring to him by his old name is like calling Pope Francis by his original name "Jorge Mario Mergoglio." Additionally, the Caliph doesn't like the Arabic acronym for his state, Da'esh. He insists on using "the Islamic State." He doesn't like his men to be called a militia--because technically they no longer are; they are a full-fledged army. And of course, he doesn't like being called a terrorist. In short, he wants recognition as an official head of state; a de facto "president" of all true Sunni Muslims.

By virtue of how far he has come, it's time the world starts taking al-Baghdadi--and his power base--more seriously. They aren't going away anytime soon. Far from it, US-led air strikes are not working. Eight months after military operations started, the Islamic State still holds al-Raqqa and Mosul. Al-Baghdadi himself currently has over 30,000 fighters at his feet and controls territory as large as Great Britain with a population of ten million people ( Officially the caliph is the successor to the Prophet Mohammad, and his subjects swear an oath of allegiance to him and to the institution he represents. He has all the trappings of statehood: a metropolitan capital, an army, a police force, an intelligence service, a school curriculum, a national anthem, a national flag--and coffers oozing with oil money. Soon they will start minting their own money. The Boko Haram terrorists of Nigeria have sworn allegiance to him and so has Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt. When Islamic State criminals chopped off the head of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya, one looked at the camera and said: "We will conquer Rome!" ( He wasn't putting on a show; he wasn't bluffing. This is what he really wants and is walking towards with open eyes. The Caliph's objective after all is reaching deep into Europe, stemming from ancient Muslim ambitions in the Iberian Peninsula, once under the crown of Islam during the years of the Umayyad Dynasty. The Islamic State's logo has been: "Bakiya wa Tatamadad" (Staying and Expanding). So far they have been loyal to it.

Contrary to what people believed last summer, the man's power base is rather impressive and it's only about fear or the money he dishes out to buy off supporters. There is something appealing about him that people like and follow. It's his job title. He really thinks he is the caliph of Islam. Some people apparently really believe him.

The complex issue of the caliphate is repeatedly mentioned in the hadith (compiled talks of the Prophet), referred to twice in the Quran, and respected by every Muslim leader from the Prophet's death in 632. On paper the caliph rules over a sovereign state that encompasses the Muslim community worldwide. The conditions for becoming a caliph are fairly straightforward. The caliph must be a Muslim male. Women are not allowed to assume the rank, because a caliph needs to head prayers for the Muslim community and this cannot be done by a woman. He must be knowledgeable in Islam, just, trustworthy, and with high morals. He also must hail from the Quraysh clan of Mecca and preferably be related directly to the Prophet. That is why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi insists on signing off all his communiqués with al-Qurashi and al-Hassani (descendant of the Prophet's grandson). Western journalists tend to drop both titles for sake of practicality but for the Islamic State and its propaganda machine, they are essential to al-Baghdadi's legitimacy.

His claim was not born out of myth or fantasy. The demand for a caliphate has been deep-rooted in conservative Muslim society for decades. The Muslim Brotherhood for example objected to the caliber of the new caliph, but not to the idea of a caliphate. In 2007, a Gallop poll found that 71% of respondents from four Muslim countries wanted the laws of Islamic Sharia to apply in every Islamic country. Additionally 65% wanted unity of Muslim states under a caliphate (Pankhurst, Reza. The inevitable Caliphate, p.161) When asked what kind of system he would like to live under, Osama Bin Laden famously replied, "All Muslims would like to live under Sharia Law." In 2001 Bin Laden said that it was obligatory for all Muslims to establish "an Islamic State." Shortly after they won the post-Arab Spring elections in Tunisia, Secretary-General of the al-Nahda Party Hamadi al-Jbeli said: "We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing. By sixth he was referring to the four righteous successors (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, Ali) and adding a fifth, being Omar Ibn Abdul-Aziz of the Umayyad Dynasty. In 2006, US President George W. Bush mentioned the caliphate 15 times, four in a single speech. US Vice-President Dick Cheney warned that al-Qaeda wanted to "re-create the old caliphate. Meanwhile, the British Chief of General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt explained that British troops were needed in Afghanistan because the long-term objective of the Islamists was "restoring the historic Islamic Caliphate" In August 2011 US Representative Allen West added, "This so-called Arab Spring is less about a democratic movement than it is about the early phase of the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate." When asked about how compatible life was under a caliphate, Tunisian leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi said that this was the hope and desire of all Muslims. When asked how seven armies were unable to defeat Israel during the war of 1948, veteran Syrian scholar Sati al-Husari replied that this was precisely because they were seven armies. One army was needed, with one caliph running the Islamic state. When not mincing their words before an international audience, many Sunni Muslim clerics argue that a caliph is needed for the Muslim World to rise from its dire state, always pointing to the hadith of the Prophet.

So the problem is with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and not with the Islamic State or the Caliphate. If the conditions were ripe and the caliph was a capable and sane leader, nobody would be complaining about him. Let us imagine what would happen if a coup rips through the Islamic State one day, toppling Abu Bakr. Perhaps the coup leaders would execute the Caliph, on grounds of having strayed from the core principles of Islam, blaming everything on al-Baghdadi. If al-Baghdadi is replaced by a caliph who pledges non-intervention, wears a modern suit and trims his beard; one who doesn't order decapitation of prisoners or the destruction of statues, would more people be willing to come out expressing public support for the Islamic State? And if that happens, would the Westphalia-style Islamic State receive official recognition as a new country in the Middle East--perhaps with demarcated borders, embassies, and a UN seat? History is riddled with states founded by thugs with big swords and brutal tactics. To melt in with the international community and receive recognition, they eventually toned down their rhetoric and practice, but only after securing their borders. They then forced themselves upon everybody as a de facto reality.

If history teaches us anything, it's that nothing can't happen in the Middle East. Who after all would have imagined a powerful and sustainable Islamic State and its Caliph just 10-years ago?
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and ex-Carnegie scholar. He is CEO of the Damascus Foundation for Historical Studies and author of "Syria and the USA" (IB Tauris, 2012)