The declaration of a caliphate is a massive gamble that smacks of hubris and puts many Isis gains at risk, according to terrorism expert JM Berger. But writing for the Daily Beast he says:
If Isis is driven back, Baghdadi risks being seen as the man who grasped for the caliphate, held it in his hands for one brief shining moment, then lost it all.
Such a loss would highlight the hubris of ISIS in making this pronouncement and would also seem to validate the arguments of al-Qaida emir Ayman al Zawahiri that Isis’s methodology was flawed and that the splinter group was putting the cart of an Islamic state ahead of the horse of fighting jihad.
The question now is how confident ISIS is about its ability to hold substantial territory in Iraq (reports suggest it is under heavy pressure in Tikrit already, and the United States has yet to deploy any airpower against the insurgents). If ISIS made sure its partners are the ground would support the pronouncement and if it withheld the pronouncement until it was sure it had consolidated its gains, then it is in a position to reap benefits.
If Isis rushed its timeline or overruled objections from local partners, it may lose its territorial gains quickly and end up condemned for an arrogant and ill-advised power grab. The wording of its pronouncement certainly reeks of arrogance, demanding an oath of loyalty from essentially all Muslims, with dissenters being labelled sinners at best, or apostates at worst.
At best, and in the absence of any surprising new information (which could certainly be coming), ISIS appears to be standing on the edge of a precipice with an adolescent faith in its ability to keep its balance.
It may be able to walk that line, but it’s a stunning and unnecessary risk by a group that could have navigated the next few months with excellent odds of an outcome that ranged from good to very good. Now it has introduced a much higher risk of an outcome that is truly bad for its long-term prospects.
Berger cautions that the gamble could pay off if the US plays into Isis hands by launching air strikes.
Such a strike would bestow on Isis the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim—legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.