Al Qaeda: the caliphate cometh? In northern Syria and western Iraq Al Qaeda forces are gaining ground with the declared aim of establishing an Islamist caliphate in the heart of the Arab world, a miniature replication of the Muslim empire that once stretched from Spain to Indonesia, and a potential launching pad for jihad across the region.

Author:Blanche, Ed
Position:Current Affairs/AL QAEDA

IT'S CALLED THE "DA'ASH EMIRATE" AND IT RUNS through Iraq's western provinces of Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala, which are solidly Sunni. There, Al Qaeda units of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) control a growing swathe of territory and are taking on Baghdad's Shi'ite-dominated security forces for full control of the region that, they hope, will be the embryo of the reborn Islamic caliphate they seek to establish in Iraq and neighbouring northern Syria.

The ISIL emerged from the Al Qaeda organisation in Iraq that the Americans decimated before their military withdrawal in December 2011, leaving it a much-reduced force from its peak in 2005-2008.

Now it is resurgent, reinforced by new recruits among Iraq's marginalised Sunnis, a seemingly endless supply of foreign fighters, prison breakouts that freed dozens of experienced commanders and fighters, and in particular by the highly sectarian civil war in Syria that erupted in March 2011 that proved a strong recruiting factor.

Al Qaeda's swelling forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as those in an outer ring that includes Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and even the Nile Delta of late, now constitutes the greatest conglomeration of Jihadist forces ever assembled, greater even than Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The organisation's territorial ambitions are boldly spelled out in a slogan it uses on social media: "From Diyala to Beirut"--a threat given some substance by the 30 December capture and subsequent death in Beirut of the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut on 19 November.

Jihadist operations in North Africa, and in Yemen and Somalia, underline how the jihadist threat has moved eastward from its former core in Afghanistan during the 1990s and now appears to be coalescing in a putative jihadist caliphate centred on western Iraq and northern Syria, an Al Qaeda state in the heart of the Arab world.

New breed

This generation of jihadists has little to do with the Pakistan-based Al Qaeda Central, headed by Osama bin Laden's successor, veteran Egyptian Islamist Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Now dispersed in independent organisations across the Middle East, they are proliferating at an alarming rate, largely funded by wealthy donors in the Gulf, these groups like the ISIL and its Salafist competitor in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra, constitute what Arab analyst Hussein Ibish calls "the monster that, for the past decade, simply will not die."

Iraq's western desert in Anbar province, a vast region that occupies one third of Iraqi territory and runs along the porous border with Syria south of the Kirkuk-based "Da'ash Emirate" (the Arabic acronym for ISIL), is already known as the "Jazeera Emirate".

The militants envision these as the foundations of a broad jihadist enclave in a region where civilisation began, bordering the oil-rich Gulf and Shi'ite Iran, the jihadists' sworn enemy which they are now engaging in Syria, and more discreetly in Iraq, in what some observers fear are the...

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