Monday, June 23, 2014

“ISIL” vs “ISIS”

[Update 16 Nov 2015]  In the wake of the Paris attacks, President Obama (and Secretary Kerry) has taken to calling ISIL  "Dash", spelled Daesh or  (in the French manner) Daech.  For an explanation of this term (and a pronunciation guide), try this essay
(section 4).

[Flash update, 9/11:  For a response to the President's speech, click here: The Islamic State.]
[Latest update, 14 Sept 2014:  On the Psycho-Theatrics of Beheadings.]
[Even more-latest update 23 Sept 2014:  ISIL vs. ISIS:  The pronunciation wars. ]
[Even-more-latest-er update 26 IX 14: French appendix ]

Bottom Line Up Front:  "ISIL" (pronounce EYE-sill), referencing  the “Levant”, rather than "ISIS", referencing “Syria” (in its narrowed,  Lebanonless  contemporary sense) is more accurate -- and indeed, in ways crucial to policy-making -- as a translation of the Arabic term in the group’s (former) official name, al-Shâm.  

[Linguistic note:  The word Levant is pronounced le-VAHNT.  The voweling and the end-stress is an influence of the French word from which our English word is borrowed;  however, it is not actually the French pronunciation of Levant (from the active participle of the verb lever 'to rise'), for there the "t" is silent.
The word literally means 'rising (of the sun)';  as such, it is an exact parallel of the word Orient, derived from a Latin active participle of, likewise, a verb meaning 'to rise (said of the sun)'.  By an accident of history, one word got attached to the Eastern Mediterranean lands, the other to the Far East.]

The Levant

As for why President Obama uses the term ISIL, this is simply because that is the term that has been used by well-informed elements of the USG, from the get-go:  it is the term he learned from his briefers.  It is no more a “tip of the hat” towards the group (in the words of one incredibly ignorant TV talking-head) than is his reference to Fox News as “Fox News”, rather than the more descriptive “Faux News”.

Among ISIL sympathizers, the preferred term is neither the one nor the other, but simply al-Dawlah (literally ‘the State’), rather the way UBL’s buddies referred to his organization as al-Qaeda (which in itself simply means ‘the Base’, without specifying what it is a base of).

The one thing they reportedly don’t like being called, is Dâ`ish, which is what Arabic-language media normally does call them, being based on the acronym (dal, alif, `ayn, shin) of their long name.

Below is the original post  in all its detail.

And here is a brand-new update.

 ~    ~     ~

For various reasons, I seldom write about fine points of Arabic on this site, and hence have not alluded to the confusion concerning the designations ISIL vs. ISIS.  But recent developments make it imperative for non-Arabists to understand the matter, so here we go.

The treatment in Wikipedia,
is, as usual, exemplary.  But I shall add some relevant historical and theological detail.

The Arabic phrase for this group is

الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام

al-dawlah al-islâmiyya fî l-`irâq wa-l-shâm

That is:  The Islamist State in Iraq and ... what?
The final word (morphologically al-Shām, phonetically ash-Shām with anticipatory assimilation), has, like Misr [see below],  more than one level of reference:  

   (1) sensu stricto, referring to Damascus;
   (2) sensu lato, referring to (present-day) Syria; and  -- crucially --
   (3) sensu latiore, referring to ‘Greater Syria’, a.k.a. the Levant.   

The term al-Shām is thus three-ways ambiguous. 

The first two senses have unambiguous Arabic denominations as well, respectively Dimashq and Sûrîya (سوريا‎).  The final, broadest sense  has no traditional, historical, contemporaneously-unambiguous one-word designation, for the very good reason that throughout history, al-Shām has been used in this widest sense -- a geographic rather than strictly political sense, somewhat vague like all terms antedating the introduction of nation-states.  From the standpoint of Mideast history, it is not really that the Levant is ‘Greater Syria’:  it’s that Sûrîya is ‘Lesser al-Shām’.   For present-day Syria, like Lebanon and Palestine, are not well-defined politico-historical nation-state entities (a state of affairs reflected in the earlier expression the Lebanon;  cf. Ukraine vs. the Ukraine).   Rather, they are all of them creations of the Anglo-French colonial arrangements, post-dating World War I.   And neither ISIL nor any other Salafi group has any interest in hewing to those, as such.

بلاد الشام

The linguistically alert historian Bernard Lewis  nicely surveys the onomastic landscape of the states that resulted from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War:

Even their names reveal their artificiality -- Jordan is a river, Lebanon a mountain, Iraq the name of a medieval province, not coinciding with the boundaries of the present state of that name; Syria and Libya are Greek names  borrowed and used for the first time in modern Arabic.  Even Palestine was a name unused since the early middle ages …
-- “Pan-Arabism” (1978), collected in Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans (2004), p. 178

[Update Jan 2015]   Alongside the English-language Dabiq, ISIL has launched a new magazine series in French, called Dâr al-Islâm.    In the first number, celebrating the territorial spread of the Islamic State (mostly via pledges of allegiance from other jihadi groups, rather than actual territorial conquest), ISIL welcomes a Sinai-based radical group into the fold, and footnotes that, while technically part of present-day Egypt, in actual fact  Sinai is “part of al-Shâm” (al-Châm).

The New York Times recently attempted to clarify this, though its effort was not without hiccups:

Incidentally, the Dallas News writer, while twitting the linguistic slip-ups of the NYTimes, perpetuates one himself, saying that the Times erred in saying that Misr (the classical transcription, as against the dialectal-phonetic Masr) refers only to Egypt and not to Cairo.  On the contrary, Egyptians frequently -- within the country -- use Misr this way, exactly the way Mexicans say México to mean Mexico City.  In the Egyptian case, an unambiguous term, al-Qâhirah, is available to specify the capital, just as one can say Ciudad de México  (cf. New York City  vs. New York (state)).  But for Tunisia, Arabic has only one word, تونس, which must do duty both for the capital (which English distinguishes as Tunis) and for the country as a whole.   Likewise for Algeria, English (and French) have words distinguishing this from the capital Algiers, whereas Arabic makes do with الجزائر for both, additional words being added for disambiguation where needed.


And now the point becomes quite important, of interest beyond the boundaries of philology.   Literally, lives depend on it.

As mentioned, the term al-Shām antedates the nation-states, and thus, as a historical term, is not defined as consisting of such-and-such contemporary nation-states; rather, its (somewhat vague) historical area overlaps these nation-states in various ways.   The Wikipedia again tells it well;  here is the Arabic understanding:

بلاد الشام

الشام أو سوريا التاريخية، أو سورية الطبيعية (من اليونانية: Σύρια؛ واللاتينية: Syria؛ نقحرة: سيريا)، هو اسم تاريخي لجزء من المشرق العربي يمتد على الساحل الشرقي للبحر الأبيض المتوسط إلى حدود بلاد الرافدين. تشكّل هذه المنطقة اليوم بالمفهوم الحديث كل من: سورية ولبنان والأردن وفلسطين التاريخية (الضفة الغربية وقطاع غزة والأراضي التي اُنشئت عليها إسرائيل في حرب 1948)، بالإضافة إلى مناطق حدودية مجاورة مثل منطقة الجوف ومنطقة الحدود الشمالية في المملكة العربية السعودية،[1] وتشمل المناطق السورية التي ضُمت إلى تركيا أبّان الانتداب الفرنسي على سورية، وقسمًا من سيناء والموصل، وعند البعض فإن المنطقة تتسع لتشمل قبرص وكامل سيناء والعراق

That is quite a chunk of territory.   Bottom line for our purposes:  It includes Lebanon -- which wasn’t chunked-off from the post-WWI Syria until WWII -- Jordan, and an interesting slice of territory, not large in terms of acreage, but punching well above its weight, traditionally known as Palestine;  or, in terms of the current (and possibly transient) dice-out of nation-states,  Israel.

Do I have your attention?

[Note:  There are good reasons for quoting the Arabic Wiki rather than the English here.
(1) Its treatment is somewhat fuller, and potentially more authoritative.
(2)  It reflects what Arabic-speakers are being told.

(For an English translation, simply plop the text into Google Translate.)
Additionally, although vast areas of Wikipedia are unbiased and authoratative in their treatment (I’m thinking of the math articles in particular), there is an intense propaganda war being fought, over words and everything else, in the area of Western images of Islam, and this has affected -- we might almost say, infected -- certain Wikipedia entries, especially those in English;  we examined the matter in detail in the following essay:

The best-known word of contention is jihad, which certain bien-pensants would have you believe denotes a peaceful, dreamy, inward-looking, brownie-baking sort of reverie;  but it extends to such recherché terms of art as “al-Wala’ wa-l-Bara” (click on the link above for discussion.)

Upshot:  In any sensitive area here, you are better off going with the German Wiki.]


Well-informed parts of the USG have long referred to this extraordinarily violent takfiri group as ISIL;  the President still does, in his radio broadcasts.   Likewise in French (EIL, not *EIS), and so forth.  But a chance semi-mistranslation of the Arabic phrase in American media  has firmly implanted itself, probably because many more people are familiar with the word Syria than with the word Levant.  Indeed, a friend just sent me this:

Here are some Google stats (note: the "-" means NOT containing this word):
isis iraq syria -isil   About  64,700,000 results
isil iraq syria -isis   About   5,020,000 results

The problem is, this lets Americans imagine that the stakes are lower than they really are.

Thus, this evening, the NPR anchor was talking with the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad about what they both referred to as ISIS, and mentioned -- with a certain bemusement, as though this were an odd thing for ISIS to do -- that the group had seized a crossing on the Iraqi border with Jordan;  in subsequent discussion, they dismissed this as an ‘outpost’.   But no:  It is an inpost.  It is a gateway.

At the time that the former ISI  (in the Iraqi, not the Pakistani sense of this acronym) re-named itself ISIL, it was a power-grab in the face of the AQ-affiliated al-Nusrah Front, as well as various indigenous Syrian opposition groups.  At that time and in that sense, the ‘Syria’ aspect of their self-declared AOR  was indeed to the forefront.  But since then, events have moved apace, in a way that nobody (least of al al-Qaeda) seems to have anticipated. 
This very ambitious, ultraviolent takfiri group  named itself al-Dawlat al-Islāmīyah fī il-ʻIrāq wa-ash-Shām -- and not … fī il-ʻIrāq wa-as-Sûrîya.  I assure you:  This strategically-oriented, maximalist group  did not intend by “al-Shām  to refer to any latterday French-carved rump state:  they meant, and they mean, the whole deal.

[Update 13 Sept 2014]  Le Figaro makes the same point:

En 2010, Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi prend la tête du groupe, et l'année suivante, il envoie en Syrie des hommes prendre part à la guerre civile. Cette nouvelle entitée prend le nom de Front al-Nosra. En 2013, al-Baghdadi en revendique la paternité et annonce la fusion des deux groupes qui deviennent «l'État islamique en Irak et au Levant» (EIIL). Cette dernière appellation a pour avantage d'inclure la notion de «Levant», qui, bien plus large que la seule Syrie, représente tout le Moyen-Orient, révélant ainsi les ambition régionales du groupe.

And now, with le califat, we have an ambition globale.


For long, the USG, for reasons best known to itself (though easily guessable by the well-informed) has treated Hizballah as a huge threat to the United States.   It never was;  it reacts defensively when we occupy their country and shell their positions (as happened under Reagan, until he turned tail and ran), but otherwise its charter, its agenda, is largely Lebanese;  it has, shall we say, no territorial ambitions in Texas or California.  (There are other entities that do.)  It is not even quite clear that it is, ab origo, an existential/irredentist threat to Israel, for Palestine has never been Shiite territory.   By contrast, for ISIL,  Israel is -- like Lebanon and Jordan -- part of  Arabia irredenta. 
Indeed, if the ISIL were to invade Lebanon (to go after Hizballah, as they have publically threatened -- Hizballah and ISIL are already at war in Syria) and Palestine (which is Sunni already, in the relevant portions), Israel might find itself in a quite unaccustomed alliance with Hizballah  against the common threat …

Note:  Not making this up.  Cf.

[Footnote]  The AP is on the side of the angels here (or perhaps the jinn):

The lead article in last week’s New Yorker had an elegant solution:  keep using "ISIS", but understand the last “S” as short, not for Syria, but al-Shâm. 

In similar fashion, English journalism has adapted itself to Arabic so far as to say al-Nusrah Front (ANF; and not ‘the Support Front’, which its literal translation), al-Qaeda (and not ‘the Base’), etc.

Other well-clued-in sources:

Another widespread but bogus objection to “ISIL” is that the word Levant is “obsolete”.  
There are two quite independent refutations of this tack:

(1) ‘Obsolete’ means that a word, once common, has grown rare.  But in borrowing terms like jihad, al-Qaeda, takfiri, we are using terms that were until then  not merely rare, but nonexistent in English.   If you need a term, you use it, whether or not  it was previously common or even extant.

(2)  Terms of animal husbandry like:  bullock, springer, freemarten, stirk;  gelding, filly; cob, pen (hint: think swans), might not be in your personal vocabulary.  But the test of whether they are ‘obsolete’, is determined by the use of folks involved with the relevant animals, not by laymen.
And among Arabists, the term Levant is by no means obsolete or even obsolescent.   Indeed, the term Levantine, for the dialect broadly shared by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine (Arabic:  al-lahja al-shaamiyya), has no synonym.  (“Syriac” is something entirely different, not even Arabic.)

In the following objection to rendering al-Sham as 'the Levant', the New York Times was deeply confused:

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

Well of course, ISIL did not call itself ".... the Levant": that is an English word, and the ISIL's name is Arabic.  The associations of Levant in English, and al-Sham in Arabic, are quite distinct.
Furthermore, Salafi groups (as their name implies) positively relish  old terms that, to the culturally unclued editorialists at the New York Times, might have an 'antique whiff'.  AQ-inspired jihadis refer to the AQSL area of AfPak as 'Khorasan':  a very 'antique' word indeed.  (And not even especially  historically accurate;  its very antiqueness -- its pre-Westernness -- is what gives it its appeal.)


So -- Why does all this matter ?  It is more than a matter of style-book nicety, like whether to allow contact as a verb or what have you.  And it is more than a matter of Iraqi politics:  indeed, to the extent that Iraqi meshugaas can be contained within Iraq, it need not affect the rest of the world that much at all, just as we ignore years and decades of turmoil in many trouble-spots of the world.   It’s not like having underestimated Ghana’s chances for winning the World Cup:  If they do (and I wish them well), that won’t portend much of anything, even for the World Cup four years from now, let alone for Ghana’s economic pre-eminence in Africa or what have you.  Sort of a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” kind of thing.
The problem is that, unlike the Chechens or the Tibetans or the Uighurs or any state of sub-Saharan Africa, the ISIL has a world-historical agenda:  the restoration of the Caliphate.  And the Caliphate would ideally extend, at the very least, to all lands formerly ruled by Islam, such as Spain -- excuse me, al-Andalus.

To get a glimpse of the venom, witness the following reader’s-comment, one item among thousands, which I stumbled upon just a moment ago while searching for something else:

According to "History of Sistan", the islamic armies killed so many iranians that iranians thought that Ahriman (the devil) had appeared. However, they were puzzled as to why the killing machine of the devil continued throughout the day while Ahriman was believed to disappear under the bright rays of the sun.
According to History of Sistan (edited by late Bahar), islamic Caliphs forced hefty taxes on sistan when they finally conquered the land. Sistanites were unable to pay the heavy taxes so instead they were forces to send 1000 virgin girls and 1000 castrated young boys each year to Mecca and Medina to accommodate sexual appetite of islamic governors and caliphs. That is where the arabic word "hoor" comes from. It was used by pre-islamic arabs to refer to iranian young girls and crept into islamic reward system post-islam.

(That, with no reference to Iraq.)

Now, the problem with all this, for the rest of us, is that such deep-rooted antagonisms  have a way of spilling over -- non-linear effects.  Thus, according unconfirmed reports, Nasrallah has threatened a truly game-changing action, were ISIL  further to attack Shiite shrines.  (And no, the target would not be Israel, or any place the layman is likely to think of.)   But ISIL is a loose cannon.
Re-bottling genies is hard.

For a more generous collection of morphosemantic remarks, check out this:

[Late-breaking update!   For the first time in years, a copy of this collector's-item is available for less than a deuce of fitty-bones !! =  ]

Various views of ISIL:

Frankensteins Dschihadisten
ISIS wirkt wie eine Armee von Zombies: düster, brutal, endlos reproduzierbar. Ist die Terrorgruppe ein Geschöpf des von der Lage profitierenden Assad-Regimes? Kein Geheimdienst dieser Welt kann ISIS erfunden haben. Jedenfalls keiner allein.

[Sponsored content]
Clothiers to gentlemen since 1917

If you’ve read this far, you’re a glutton for punishment.  So to feed your hunger (“Please, sir, may I have another?”), here is this, by a diligent observer, the well-informed Mr Gideon Lichfield:

To some news outlets—including the big news agencies Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, as well as al-Jazeera—it’s the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL. To others—among them the New York Times—it’s the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (or in some cases “Greater Syria”), or ISIS. Quite a few places write “…the Levant,” but then bizarrely abbreviate it to ISIS (we’re looking at you, Financial Times and Guardian).
Nor is the confusion restricted to English-language media. In French the reigning phrase appears to be l’Etat Islamique en Irak et au Levant (EIIL). But in Spain, El Pais has chosen El Estado Islámico en Irak y el Levante (EIIL), while its rival newspaper El Mundo has gone with Estado Islámico de Irak y Siria, and uses the English acronym ISIS. In Germany, Deutsche Welle uses ISIS in both its English and German versions, but writes out “…the Levant” on its English site and “…und Syrien” on its German one; meanwhile, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine have gone with ISIS while Die Welt plumps for ISIL. The BBC Russian service, like much of the Russian media, uses the Russian equivalent of ISIL—whereas the BBC in English spells out “Levant” but then uses ISIS.


There has been a certain amount of ignorant criticism by the Obama-haters (e.g. wondering darkly why “President Obama began using the term” ISIL, and concocting all sorts of baroque Benghazi-flavored theories to account for it.
Here is a simpler explanation.   He did not just recently "begin" using the term.  It is what he has been hearing in his PDBs for years;  it is the official acronym of the USG; and moreover, he is an intelligent man who, reviewing the arguments, would be quite capable of reaching the conclusion that he need not ditch the term (which already has been used in hundreds of government reports, long before the likes of CNN had their attention briefly snatched away from celebrity diets to notice what is going on in the Middle East).


Well, it’s getting late.   The pageviews have not exactly been flooding in;  and the red wine by now is mingling   with the red blood in the veins.   So, time for some fun and farewell.   The latest on ISIL activity in Iraq:

Additionally,  Abu-Evil ibn-Fulan al-Fulani (some local loser) has been been "put in charge of the cyanide hole”.

Over and out;  good night.

~     ~     ~

[Update 25 June 2014]  On NPR this evening, they reported that ISIL had circumspectly refrained from pressing on to Baghdad at this time, and instead seized all the border crossings with Syria.   The reporter alertly added, that the action can be seen as a way of showing that the two countries are one, and that the group’s name “ISIS” is thus “more than just a name”.
But as we observed above, the same logic applies to the crossing with Jordan  seized earlier.  ISIL.

Another linguistically and theologically thorny point in the Arabic name for the group  is the first word, Dawlah.  As this matter has not received significant comment in the general press, herewith a note.

Nowadays, the word is always translated as ‘state’, and (in general) accurately so;  thus likewise in French, état, yielding EIIL for ISIL.  In everyday use, the word also means ‘government’ (a translation not included in Hans Wehr).  But Muslims in general, and Salafis like al-Qaeda in particular, are quite history-minded;  so let us go back a bit in history.
By the root, the word just means ‘turn’:  as in, rotation, and as in, taking a turn.  Later, in post-classical use, the term was used to mean ‘dynasty’ -- a sort of ‘turn-taking’ in governance.  The word is not really used in this sense today;  thus, the “Saudi dynasty” is not called a dawlah, but an \l (lit. ‘family, kin’).  At no point prior to modern times, did the word dawlah refer to nation-states, for the simple and sufficient reason that there were none, in the Islamic world.  You might have a caliphate (the Omayyads, the `Abbasids), or an empire, or various fledgling, failing, fleeting entities;  but never a nation-state.

So now it means ‘nation-state’ in normal journalistic use; but that likely is not what ISIL means by it. 
Just why they chose that term dawlah, is somewhat puzzling, actually. ...

(1)  In terms of its current everyday use, as ‘government’, the dawlah will be about as welcome to the average jihadi  as the revenooer to the moonshiner.
(2)  In terms of Islamic history, the term dawlah entered the scene in a political sense, with the fall of the Damascus-centered Umayyad dynasty, and the ascension of the Abbasids, centered in Baghdad:

The `Abbâsid government called itself dawlah, ‘new era’, and a new era it was.  The `Irâqis felt themselves freed from Syrian tutelate.  The Shî`ites felt themselves avenged.
-- Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs (1937, 51951), p. 286

All very well for the historical memories of the Shiites -- but the Zarqawi-takfiri ISIL hates the Shiites with unparalleled venom.   And if your aim is to unite Syria and Iraq under your stewardship, the `Abbasids are the wrong dynasty to evoke: 

The Syrians awoke too late to the realization that the centre of gravity in Islam had left their land and shifted eastward … At last they set their hopes on … a sort of Messiah, to come and deliver them from the yoke of their `Irâqi oppressors.
-- Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs (1937, 51951), p. 286

Indeed, the then-ISI, led by al-Baghdadi, when it initially muscled in on the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria, were seen as carpetbaggers by the al-Nusrah Front  and other more indigenous rebel groups. 

And as for historical memories of the center of mass rolling eastwards, these must have been symbolically re-invoked yesterday, when a top ANF commander whose surname means ‘the Egyptian’ (al-Masri) pledged allegiance to an ISIL commander whose surname means ‘the Chechen’ (al-Shîshâni).


Next is the orthoëpic question:  How do you pronounce these acronyms?
For ISIS, it’s clear:  EYE-siss, like the Egyptian goddess.
But now, as ever happens when a story  moves to the fore, and expert versions come to enter public consciousness, the pop media have to grapple with “ISIL”.   A longish segment on this evening’s “All Things Considered”, showed this matter  very much in flux.
The NPR anchor said: “EYE-siss, or as it is also called, EYE-sill.”
The interviewed expert said, initially:  “ISS-ill” (which sounds very lame), but thereafter had recourse to “EYE - ESS - EYE  - ELL”, which is the way I have been saying it myself.
The anchor then came back with “EYE-siss, or EYE-sill as you call it” -- which, by that point, he actually had not done.  But then, perhaps under her influence, he said (once) “EYE-sill”, before lapsing back into the purely letter-by-letter acronymic pronunciation.

Here we witness language practice, as it emerges from the birth-canal of History ...


The Islamic oecumene, as viewed by ISIL

You will notice that none of these named regions  corresponds to any modern nation-state (though “Iraq” comes close).
Cognates:   Andalus / Andalucia [though here including the whole Iberian Peninsula]
Orobpa / Europe [only the portions once penetrated by the Ottomans]
Qoqaz / Caucusus

Additionally, Kinana comes from the name of an ancient tribe of Egypt;  Habasha refers more narrowly to Ethiopia.

It turns out that ISIL is well aware of a certain well-established practice of Islamic history, which has not been carried out officially anywhere for around a century, but which they have now revived in Mosul:

A Christian father who watched his wife and daughter get brutally raped by members of the militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) because he couldn't pay them a poll tax in Mosul, Iraq, killed himself under the weight of the trauma this past weekend.

The poll-tax (jizya, جزية) on non-Muslim ‘People of the Book’,  is perfectly orthodox in Islam, and hallowed by well over a millennium of tradition.  You seldom if ever heard the term mention in the mainstream English-language press in recent years:  only now has it entered the headlines, and not in the most widely-read sources;  one honorable exception is here:

[Update 29 June 2014]  More on the linguistics of the Sunni-Shiite fratricide:

For Akheel Ahmed, a Sunni Arab who fled his home in the central Iraq town of Balad, fear and uncertainty were accompanied by familiarity. He arrived in this mountain village along the Iranian border a few days ago with his three sons, the second time in recent years that he has become a refugee in his own country.
Using hand gestures, he described the battlefield that his hometown had become.
“Here is ISIS,” he said, referring to the Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, “and here are the Shiite militias. We are in between.”
“I have an Omar, an Othman and an Asha,” he said, all recognizable as Sunni names, making them targets for the Shiite militias now working alongside the Iraqi Army. “They will slaughter them.”

Omar and Othman [or, in narrower transcription, `Umar and `Uthmân;  the first name is accented on the first syllable, the second on the second]  were the names of the second and third caliphs (successors to the Prophet at the head of  the Umma -- the Community of Islam).  That these names should be a red flag to Shiites is somewhat puzzling, given that they are generally considered as the ‘Righly-guided’ caliphs,
الخلفاء الراشدون
moreover, they preceded `Ali (cynosure of the Shiites) and can scarely be blamed for the subsequent mess. -- “Asha” is undoubtedly a typo for Aishah (or more carefully transcribed, `Â’ishah, pronounced `AH-‘ee-shah in classical Arabic; or Ayesha, reflecting the pronunciation in dialect).   The prototype and eponym of all Ayesha’s was ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr, one of the wives of the Prophet;  and she is a bugbear for Shiites, for obvious reasons, having been one of the principal opponents of `Ali.
(Peace be upon all of them, b.t.w.   Not taking sides here.)

[Update, evening of 29 VI]  OK, now all that “S vs. L” business is moot:  they indeed meant the entire Levant, but now they mean everything.  They have dropped the geographic limitation from their name;  they intend to be a caliphate.  From al-Jazeerah:

أعلن تنظيم الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام الخلافة على المناطق الواقعة تحت سيطرته، وبايع عبد الله الإبراهيم عواد السامرائي الملقب بـأبو بكر البغدادي خليفة للمسلمين.

Nonetheless, they continue to call themselves a “Dawlah” rather than an “Imârah” or a “Khilâfah”:

وأضاف المتحدث باسم التنظيم أن اسم تنظيم الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام سيلغى ليحل بدلا منه الدولة الإسلامية فقط.

[Update 30 June] A pleasant phantasy:  al-Baghdadi meets Omar Khayyam:

[Late-breaking update]  An even pleasanter phantasy -- Late-breaking news from the Eastern Seaboard:
       Dr Justice Declares a Caliphate

[Latest Update, 3 July]  With their declaration of a caliphate, the earlier Syria/Levant opposition is aufgehoben -- its validity preserved on the higher plane, but OBE in its original form.  In the words of one of their spokesmen,

"Como pueden ver, estoy en la frontera de Irak y Sham (así es como llama a Siria). Ésta es la llamada 'frontera de Sykes-Picot', la cual nunca reconocimos y nunca reconoceremos", advierte Safiyya en el comienzo del video, asumiendo el rol de presentador de las máximas geopolíticas del grupo al que pertenece.
"Ésta no es la primera frontera que rompemos, vamos a romper muchas otras también, pero vamos a empezar con esta", señala.

That “the Caliph Ibrahîm” (pron. ib-ra-HEEM) was self-appointed, that the whole thing is a publicity stunt, is evident.  But understand just how dramatic a claim it really is.  It is not like declaring an independent nation or a new political party or anything remotely like that.  A caliph (Arabic khalîfah, pron. kha-LEE-fah), is literally the successor to the Prophet as leader of the whole Muslim world; as such, there can only legitimately be one at any given time.   The position is comparable in some ways to that of Pope -- back before the Church split -- but more powerful, since it has always had political/military implications as well.  And nowadays, in Christendom (to the extent that that concept even exists any longer), nobody occupies such a role: the different Christian denominations have gone their separate ways: partially, as regards doctrine;  and utterly, as regards governance. 
But as “caliph” Ibrahîm emphasizes again and again: ex officio, he requires the allegiance of every Muslim, throughout the world, regardless of sectarian affiliation.  The only person who could demand the same thing of every Christian of every denomination, would be … Christ himself, in the parousia.   It is, thus, an extraordinary claim.

The questions are:
(a)  Why did he do it?
(b)  What does the move portend?

a:  Clearly, some idiopathic psychological currents may be in play.  On these we won’t comment, since we know nothing about the man nor his handlers.  But taking a best-case interpretation -- giving credit to such logic as the move may have:  al-Baghdadi had already picked, so to speak, the low-hanging fruit (and even that hung rather high).  A great many forces are massing against him now, both state players (now strange bedfellows) and in-country actors.  He needed to do something dramatic.  Also, the general sense of stagnation and disorder in the Muslim/Arab world at present, means that, just beneath the surface, there is widespread longing for a real leader to emerge, to bring everyone back into line.

b:  I never really know what anything portends, as history unfolds, especially in a situation as fluid as this.  Nobody predicted the twists and turnings of the “Arabic spring”, beginning not long ago (though it feels like an age) in Tunisia.  Only in special circumstances does one have a prayer of predicting anything, and that only in the short term.  But the short term is exactly what concerns me;  by a certain internal logic, there might be quite dramatic and quite violent developments, not so much within Iraq and Syria, as cross-border:  and that, mayhap, within the week.

Al-Baghdadi (the Ted Cruz of jihad) has crossed the Rubicon.  He has upped the ante to go-for-broke.  Unless he now does something spectacular, he will soon look like a fool -- as AQAP did when it (accidentally, actually) declared ‘emirates’ in the towns of Ja`âr and Zinjibâr in Abyan (Yemen), only to make a mess of things and be unceremoniously booted out.
Further, his ‘logical’, play-by-the-rules military options are at present few.  If he tries to take Baghdad, he will run smack dab into the Mahdi army -- street toughs who will not throw away their guns the way the Iraqi regular army did.  Even a single such setback could break his mojo, roll back the Big Mo.
What to do?  Well, you call a hail-mary.
Now, in football, the worse that can happy in that case is that your far-fetched attempt does not get you that touchdown after all, so you lose the game -- but then, you were about to lose it anyway, and your loss now is in no way materially worse.  But for al-Baghdadi, the odds are much better.   For if he “goes long” militarily, and suffers crushing retaliation -- well, that’s just fine, since now
(i) he dies a martyr (and hops on the Firdaus Express)
(ii) he goes out in a blaze of glory, in a manner befitting a caliph.
The early caliphs, after all, took on the Persian empire, and the Byzantine empire, stuff like that.  They did not settle for controlling, say, half of Baghdad, with their enemies in control of the rest (like Beirut).
And indeed, contrary to what most people were expecting, the ISIL did not immediately press on to Beirut.  What they did do was to seize the border crossing into Jordan.
So far, Jordan has been largely left alone.  It is heavily identified with the West, in a way that Iraq and Syria have never been.  If he invades -- even if he is crushed in the attempt -- it will be spectacular.  Caliphal.
There seems to have been very little media commentary on this possibility (particularly, as an imminent, publicity-driven possibility).  Here is one exception:

22 juin 2014. Après s'être emparés de Rutba, située à une soixantaine de kilomètres de la Jordanie, les combattants de l'Etat islamique en Irak et au Levant (EIIL, Isis, Dae'ch) se seraient rendus maîtres du poste de frontière de Tarbil, point de passage entre l'Irak et la Jordanie. Des renforts militaires jordaniens ont été déployés sur les 180 km de frontière, qui sépare les deux pays.

30 juin 2014. L'EIIL a proclamé son «califat», concept qui suppose la fin des frontières nées de la guerre de 14-18 et qui remet aussi bien en cause les limites de l'Irak, de la Syrie mais aussi celles de la Jordanie, du Liban et de la Palestine (mandataire). 

La Jordanie visée 
Même si la frontière semble calme, la menace sur Amman est claire.
«Seuls ceux qui ne sont pas au courant ou qui sont dans le déni penseraient que l'EIIL n'a pas de partisans en Jordanie. Comment expliquent-ils la présence de 2000 djihadistes jordaniens en Syrie et en Irak?», questionne Oraib Rantawi, directeur du Centre al-Quds pour les études politiques.

Thus, IS(IL) already has a fifth column within Jordan.

The other, even more spectacular move, would be to attack Israel in a significant way.  No-one has dared do this in decades.
Hamas periodically shoots off one of its pitiful homemade rockets -- “I shot an arrow into the air;  it fell to earth, I know not where” -- landing sometimes in an open field, sometimes back on Gaza itself, sometimes managing to kill an Israeli dog or cat, at which point Israel retaliates by killing a couple dozen Palestinians. 
Hizbollah has better missiles, but has a keen survival instinct, and a real commitment to its Lebanese home-territory.  Its sparring with Israel, accordingly, is mostly defensive, measure, tit-for-tat.
Al-Baghdadi knows no such constraints.  Already ISIL has boasted of its war-crimes on videos.
Whether the “caliphate” possesses armaments capable of a real strike, is uncertain.  Here is a skeptical view:

And here as well:

But all they really have to do is to out-Hamas Hamas, and go all-out against Israel.  After all, unlike Hamas, they are not cooped up in Gaza, they can scatter all over the world.  Indeed, many of their fighters are Europeans, who could make their way back to their home countries.  What could Israel do then -- bomb London?  And they would have shown up AQSL as relatively moderate do-nothings over the past decade.

Anyhow, um -- Have a safe Fourth of July weekend, everyone.  Be safe with fireworks; don’t drink and drive;  and watch that barbecue.  Meanwhile …

[Update]  A very good historical survey, by Renaud Girard:

[Update 5 July 2014]  Here is a video of Caliph Ibrahim, given the Friday sermon (the principal one of the Muslim week) in the grand mosque in Mosul.  He speaks at length without notes, in perfect classical Arabic, lilting and inflected with the notes of Koranic tajwîd, in a voice both resonant and confident:

As an audio production, it is very impressive.

Consider too the group's long video Salîl al-Sawârim ‘The Clash of Swords”.  In the following episode, they document the raid on Hadîthah (al-Anbar province, Iraq).  Their fondness for the Râshidûn caliphs  is reflected in the names of the individual brigades, each named for one of the four.
[Note: Aiman al-Zawahiri, in a public address from Jan 2014, called for "al-xilaafah al-raašidah”, using the same root.]

صليل الصوارم

The pace and production are compelling.   But -- Trigger warning!  This is literally a snuff film.  These guys do not take prisoners.   And they are quite happy to film themselves capturing Iraqis in a barracks, cuffing them, and then summarily executing them, with silenced weapons.

[Note] There are, as you might expect, various tendentiously misleading videos out there, e.g.
This attempts to portray AAZ has having acknowledged “ISIS” and “al-Baghdadi” as leaders of the Muslim faith community.  But although posted just recently, the video dates from years ago, before ISIS even existed; the reference is to the ISI, in context quite different.  And the “al-Baghdadi” is not Abu-Bakr of that monicker (now “Caliph Ibrahim”), but his late predecessor, Abu-Umar.  Thus, disinformation.
(Similarly, both Hitler and Mussolini, in their early careers, portrayed themselves as Socialists.  An assessment of these figures at that time, by no means carries over to their later careers.)

[Update 4 August 2014]    Alright OK, so now they've seized a town in Lebanon.
Lebanon is Levant; "Sham" is not just Syria.
As indicated.

[Update 10 Aug 2014]  For the latest developments, click here:

[March 2017]  For the very latest developments, here:

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