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al baghdadi
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

One of the main strengths (or weaknesses) of the ISIS is its need for a religious legitimization of its war against apostates and miscreants. It is in the name of this legitimization that the ISIS justifies deeds and misdeeds in the piloting of the armed struggle; in the elimination of its enemies; in the proprietary administration of an organization that should be stately; in the social regulations imposed on the conquered territories and peoples, etc.

That is why one of the most important, and most powerful, branches of the ISIS is the Council of the Sharia. The Council runs checks on the activity of the imams; on the religious quality of each rule or law that is imposed on its people; on the content of sermons; on the activity of tribunals (all of which are, of course, religious) and related trials; on the indoctrination of the key military personnel; on the propaganda and the messages in the media; on the teachings and on the administration of the education system; on the running of prisons; on the kind of punishments that are inflicted upon prisoners and hostages. The macabre beheadings and their promotion are also part of this long list and, last but not least, the Council also is in charge of issuing the Fatwa.

In practice, save for the preeminently military aspects on the terrain, everything that involves the social/religious aspects of the would-be Caliphate are within the bounds of the above-mentioned Council's reach. All of the most important decisions are systematically run through it.

The Council of the Sharia is presided by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi himself, and includes two mufti – also designated by Baghdadi; one for Iraq (Sheykh Abu Abdullah al Kurdi) and one for Syria. The other members are religious exponents among the most highly regarded and qualified who come mainly from Iraq and Syria. Underneath the central Council there are other, local, Councils of the Sharia of Wilayat which, in accordance with the decisions of the main Council, decide and exercise control over their territory. Within the Council itself there are various committees that are grouped by subject matter.

In order to give a more profound religious characterization to the Council, its members are/should be officially 6, the same number of councilors present in the days of the Caliph Omar bin Khattab who, on his deathbed, decided to form the Council for the first time with the aim of finding his own successor.

Islam's first Caliph was named Abu Bakr (that's why al Baghdadi chose to adopt the name). Omar bin al Khattab was his successor. Caliph Omar, who is historically considered to be a man of undisputed prestige and influence in the history of Islam, decided that the designation of his successor would occur without resorting to nepotism. He decided that the new Caliph would have to be chosen among the Council's members within three days and that he would have to take oath on the fourth day.

umar ibn al khattab
Califfo Omar bin Khattab
(Umar ibn al Khattab)

In order to understand al Baghdadi's desperate need for pure Islam in the administration of his Islamic state, it is worthy to note that Caliph Abu Bakr (the first Caliph) had designated his successor himself, while Omar bin Khattab (the second Caliph) had preferred to have the Council carry out the task. Caliph Omar had explained his initiative by saying that, when nearing death, Mohammed had not designated a successor. In this respect, al Baghdadi is closer to Caliph Omar's experience – which is perhaps theologically purer, than to that of Abu Bakr.

Religious legitimization is a central problem for the leader of the ISIS, especially since al Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph in the Mosul mosque on July 5, 2014, and assumed a role which has a precise religious connotation in the history of Islam. It was a decision that al Baghdadi took without consulting the Council of the Sharia and which gave way to consequent struggles within the Salafite world. Seen that it decides on theological questions, the Council had become the main interlocutor for all the accusations that have been made on the conduct of al Baghdadi by various muftis, especially the great mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheykh Abdul Aziz al Sheykh (who said that ISIS is Islam's number 1 enemy) and, most prominently, by the great mufti of Egypt Shawqi Allam.

The desperate need for a religious meaning in political/military/social matters is due to the fact that al Baghdadi can justify his actions only if he is operating within a framework of legitimization on the part of the Muslim world which he hopes to lead. In his eyes and in the eyes of those who follow him, the war that they are fighting is a religious struggle where, as Ahmad ibn Taymiyah, one of the most famous theologians of the past (who is also a part of the Salafite tradition), said, the guiding scriptures are supported by the sword.

That is why we see the sword, a symbol, playing a central role in the beheadings. The ISIS is not searching for any old state, they want an Islamic state.

If Abu Bakr al Baghdadi were to be killed in the future (his recent wounding and attempted murder have made this possibility less remote, seen the early demise of his predecessors) there will already be someone ready to take his place. It is a choice that will have to be based on a criteria of religious competence and not just military experience.

abu ali al anbari
Abu Ali Al Anbari

And here is where another body of the ISIS comes into play. Like the Council of the Sharia, this next Council will play a central role in the designation of the next Caliph: the Council of the Shura (or “consultative council”). The Council of the Shura is a body that is heard, among other instances, on occasion of the designation or destitution of a Caliph. Once again, the Islamic tradition is prevalent, since the need for a consultative council is referred to in the Koran and in the writings of Mohammed.

The Council of the Shura is comprised of less than ten members, some of which are designated directly by al Baghdadi. The two top members of the Council of the Shura are the two military leaders of the ISIS: the one in charge of Iraq (originally Abu Muslim al Turkmani aka Fadil Ahmad Abdullah al Hiyali, who was killed in December 2014, and whose replacement's name was not rendered public) and the one in charge of Syria (Abu Ali Al Anbari, also Turkmen like Hiyali and also a former official of Saddam Hussein).

Their presence in the Council of the Shura proves that there is a merging, at the helm of the ISIS, of theology with the armed struggle. Both the Council of the Sharia and the Council of the Shura are in charge of supervising the affairs of state and of all issues military (among other tasks, they express their opinion on the designation of the members of the Military Council). Of course, the Councils are not just used for consultation. They are leading bodies of the ISIS and as such maintain an intricate web of contacts with the various governors – also designated by the Councils (initially the Wilayat were 8 in Iraq and 8 in Syria; now, with the latest military conquests, they have become 24). These governors provide the Councils with thorough analyses of the various local situations within the Caliphate.

At the central level of the ISIS' State there are other, important, bodies such as the Military Council, the Council of Security (which is in charge of the activity of intelligence), the Commission of the Mass Media (which stands out for its role in propaganda but also manages the preachers), the Commission of the Sharia (which presides the tribunals on the central, district and civil level), and the Cabinet (similar to a government). All of these bodies have precise roles, but are not as important as the Council of the Sharia and that of the Shura, which make up the real head of the ISIS.

When al Baghdadi was wounded in a US air raid, he was temporarily replaced by Abu Ala al Afri (battle name of Abdul Rahman Mustafa al Qaduli). It is still not clear whether this former Iraqi teacher, friend of Osama bin Laden, member of al Qaida who fought in Afghanistan is still alive (the Iraqi authorities had divulged news of his death without showing proof on the past 13th of March). Notwithstanding, it must be noted that, given the short life of their leaders, the ISIS has been provided with a revolving-door system in case one of them were to be killed.

In this respect, al Baghdadi has behaved differently from his predecessors (especially al Zarqawi) by coupling the organization's centrality with a system of decentralization of power which allows for independence in decisions even at the more peripheral level.

There are two reasons for this: Al Baghdadi sees his role within a messianic design which neither begins nor ends with himself (he must thus create the conditions for his project's survival in time); also, there is the problem of controlling a vast territory (with a population of roughly 8/10 million people over 200.000 square kilometers of land) in a state of war, which cannot be administered centrally.

And since this is, after all, a war of religion, the Koran and the Hadith are the sole source of interpretation for the actions of the ISIS. Every time that al Baghdadi, surrounded and supported by central and local imams, fights and wins, it is in the just cause of Allah. His fights, within the framework of a religion that refutes free will in favor of predestination, are supposed to push forth the design of Allah. Martyrdom is thus part of this logic. A war from which there is no turning back. And since al Baghdadi knows that its either victory or death, he has prepared the ground for his own demise. In other words, the story of the ISIS will not end with the killing of the self-proclaimed Caliph. Lately, during a speech at the Pentagon on July 6, even US President Barack Obama admitted it when he defined the war against the ISIS a “long term campaign”.

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