Few could have predicted in 2006 al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq (AQI), led by the street-thug-turned-Jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, would evolve into the modern day Islamic State, but it was exactly what President George W. Bush feared would happen if Islamic radicalism was allowed to expand.
Bush began warning of the rise of a potential radical Islamic empire as early as 2006, eventually using the term “caliphate” in the same year. At the time, he was pilloried for what his critics saw as another example of supposed histrionics along the likes of “Axis of Evil.” An article by Matthew Phillips in Newsweek went as far as to say Bush and his advisers clearly did not understand what the word meant. Phillips cited Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Chairman Parvez Ahmed, who felt using the term “caliphate” mirrored Bush’s employment of “crusade.”
“There’s a fundamental misunderstanding with the president and his advisers on core Islamic issues,” Ahmed told Phillips. “He’s getting bad advice, they’re misinformed on Islamic terminology.”
Ironically, it appears it is Bush’s critics who did not understand the ideology of al-Zarqawi and the evolution of AQI.
Establishment of a radical Islamic caliphate was a key priority for AQI, one that was clear to those who were listening. It was Al-Zarqawi’s obsession to create a caliphate in Iraq, and his employment of abhorrent violence toward that goal, that led to his fallout with al-Qaida leadership. But of course, acknowledging al-Zarqawi had a motive aside from simply taking advantage of a bad situation in Iraq did not match the narrative that all the atrocities witnessed in the country were America’s fault, and, mind you, America’s fault alone.
Prior to Bush’s “caliphate” prediction in 2006 was a meeting between al-Zarqawi and the leaders of five other terrorist groups operating in Iraq. Technically speaking, AQI was under the lordship of al-Qaida, but that would begin to change in the coming years. The result of the January meeting was the creation of the Mujahideen Shura Council, which al-Zarqawi said in a now infamous video proclamation was “the starting point for establishing an Islamic state.”
“We hope to God that within three months from now the environment will be favorable for us to announce an Islamic emirate,” said al-Zarqawi in an uncut version of the video found by U.S. forces in May, 2006.
The groundwork for what would become Islamic State had been laid, and even though al-Zarqawi would be killed in a drone strike in June of that year, his idea for an Islamic caliphate would live on. Bush would begin to employ the term “caliphate” in his speeches thereafter.
“They hope to establish a violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call caliphate, where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology,” Bush said of al-Qaida in a September, 2006, speech. “This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.”
As of the writing of this article, ISIS currently claims provinces, known as “wilayat,” in Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, the Egyptian Sinai, Nigeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and the north Caucasus region. The group claims fealty from around 43 terrorist groups that spread from Algeria to the Philippines. ISIS operatives, and those inspired by the group, have taken part in terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
Unsurprisingly, there have been some who do not acknowledge the evolution of ISIS as an organization and its connection to al-Qaida. An article by Alexandrea Boguhn published by Media Matters in 2015 claims Bush was incorrect because he predicted it would be al-Qaida that would create a caliphate in Iraq should the U.S. withdraw, not ISIS. She pointed to a July, 2007, speech on the Iraq conflict to prove her point.
“But the 2007 speech … repeatedly touted as evidence that Bush predicted the rise of the Islamic State was a speech specifically about fighting al-Qaeda, not the Islamic State,” wrote Boguhn.
Of course, in 2007, AQI was still operational and in the midst of reforming as Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) under the new leadership of Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Though ISI would be more or less a failure, the terrorist group would evolve into the entity known as ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi six years later, beginning its rise from 2013 to 2014.
Al-Qaida itself has always had the eventual goal of establishing a radical Islamic caliphate, just not the way AQI and Zarqawi went about it. The disagreement on tactics and strategy was exactly why AQI would splinter off, but for all intents and purposes, it was fair to say in 2006 it was still at least by name under the al-Qaida umbrella and shared al-Qaida’s general ideology.
“While Zarqawi and the central al-Qaeda leadership were at odds over the Shi’a, they shared an ambition to found a state in Iraq to serve as the protocaliphate, a goal that was articulated even before Zarqawi’s relocation to northern Iraq in 2002,” wrote Cole Bunzel in an analytical paper for The Brookings Project On U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
Bush may have been incorrect as to which branch of al-Qaida would go on to form an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, but he was spot on that followers of the group’s radical Islamic ideology would form one should the U.S. withdraw.
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