An offshoot of al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has declared the territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria a "caliphate," or Islamic state, and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph or leader for Muslims. The group also nailed nine men to a cross in Syria as punishment for rebellion.
"He is the imam and khalifah (Caliph) for the Muslims everywhere," the Sunni group's spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, said in a statement, according to Reuters.
"Accordingly, the 'Iraq and Sham' (Levant) in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration," he said.
"It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to [him] and support him ... The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas."
ISIS is among the major terrorist groups that are fighting government forces in Syria. The group has now made significant military gains also in Iraq. Its fighters took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, without any resistance from Iraqi forces earlier this month.
The group exploited the growing tension between the Sunni minority and Shia-led government in Iraq earlier this year by capturing the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah in west Iraq. It also gained control of many parts of the city of Ramadi and has its fighters in many towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.
Meanwhile, the group crucified nine men to a cross in the main square of his village in Syria, Al-Bab, near the border with Turkey, for rebelling against President Bashar al-Assad and jihadist groups, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. One of the men survived but the other eight died.
The group has also targeted Christians, going on a rampage, looting and burning government buildings, raising its black flag and burning churches throughout Mosul, the capital of Iraq's Nineveh Province.
"Whatever judgments are made in terms of its legitimacy, [the] announcement that it has restored the Caliphate is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11," Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, was quoted as saying. "The impact of this announcement will be global as al Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it."
The group had been aiming to form an Islamic emirate in the Levant, a region also known as the Eastern Mediterranean, through "jihad." It is feared that it might soon become the world's most dangerous jihadist group.
The group claims it has recruited fighters from Europe and the U.S., as well as from the Arab world and the Caucasus.
Before organizing themselves fully, the group initially got support from wealthy individuals in the Arab Gulf States of Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are allies of the United States.
Sometimes the support came with the tacit nod of approval from the regimes in the Arab Gulf States. The group "took advantage of poor money laundering protections in those states … experts, and leaders of the Syrian opposition, which is fighting ISIS as well as the regime," journalist Josh Rogin wrote for U.K.'s Daily Beast.
"Everybody knows the money is going through Kuwait and that it's coming from the Arab Gulf," he quotes Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, as saying. "Kuwait's banking system and its money changers have long been a huge problem because they are a major conduit for money to extremist groups in Syria and now Iraq."