BEIRUT: A powerful jihadist group known for its ruthless tactics and systemic abuses in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts announced Sunday the establishment of a "caliphate", or Islamist state.
In an audio recording distributed online, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) declared its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "the caliph" and "leader for Muslims everywhere."
The jihadists said they would impose their caliphate on areas they have conquered in Syria and Iraq.
"The Shura (council) of the Islamic State met and discussed this issue (of the caliphate)... The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims," said ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
"The jihadist preacher Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims," said Adnani, adding that the caliphate will extend "from Aleppo (in northern Syria) to Diyala" in Iraq.
Baghdadi "has accepted this allegiance, and has thus become the leader for Muslims everywhere."
"The words "Iraq" and "Greater Syria" have been removed from the name of the Islamic State in official papers and documents," Adnani said, describing the caliphate as "the dream in all the Muslims" hearts" and "the hope of all jihadists."
Ever since the Prophet Mohammad's death, a caliph was designated "the prince" or emir "of the believers."
After the first four caliphs who succeeded Mohammad, the caliphate lived its golden age in the Omayyad empire from the year 661 to 750, and then under the Abbasids, from 750 to 1517.
It was abolished when the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1924.
In the recording, Adnani demanded that "all Muslims all pledge allegiance to the caliph."
An activist in Raqa, the bastion of ISIS, told AFP via the Internet: "Large convoys of ISIS members arrived in the city just as the declaration was issued, to celebrate their caliphate.
"There was very intense gunfire. ISIS supporters were shooting in the air with joy," Hadi Salameh said.
"I even saw seven ISIS members come into Raqa on horseback."
Another activist, Abu Ibrahim, said via Facebook: "ISIS members in Al-Naim Square (in Raqa) are calling on all residents to pledge their loyalty."
Opposed to ISIS, both Salameh and Abu Ibrahim said they feared the consequences of the declaration.
"More jihadists will be drawn to join ISIS, and they will become stronger. It's crazy," said Abu Ibrahim.
In Syria, ISIS' fighters control large swaths of territory in Deir al-Zor near the Iraq border, Raqa in the north, as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo province.
In Iraq, it has spearheaded a lightning offensive in recent weeks, capturing sizeable territories in the north and west of the conflict-torn country.
Once welcomed in Syria by rebels seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster, ISIS quickly earned the wrath of the Syrian opposition because of its systematic abuses.
On a near-daily basis, reports have emerged of ISIs jihadists summarily executing political and military rivals, as well as average civilians.
It has kidnapped thousands of people, including many rebels seeking Assad's overthrow.
ISIS' announcement was met with intense celebratory gunfire in Raqa in northern Syria, according to an activist in the jihadist-controlled town.