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Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL)

Insurgency Overview

Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and also the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – after having adopted the name in 2013 post-Syrian expansion – is one of the most violent militant Islamist groups globally. After having expanded into Syria in 2013, it adopted the name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām and this has been translated into various titles due to the association of al-Sham as a region with both the Levant and also Greater Syria (Irshaid, 2015). The group began using the name Islamic State or الدولة الإسلامية (ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah) in June of 2014 in order to express its expansionist ambitions and it has also been known as Daesh or Da’ish (Saxena, 2014). This name especially has been widely used within the Arabic speaking world as a pejorative name for the group and the group considers this a derogatory term as it resembles the Arabic word ‘Daes’, which stands for “one who crushes” and also Dāhis, which stands for ‘one who sows discord’ (US Department of State, 2014). This ‘derogatory’ name (in the eyes of the group) has resulted in the punishment of its usage in the form of 70 lashes within IS controlled territory (Abouzeid, 2014).

As a former state-like entity, the IS controlled vast amounts of territory across large portions of northern and eastern Syria as well as north western Iraq. Founded in 1999 by a Jordanian Salafi Jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it was originally known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and this group underwent several transformations between 2004 and 2014 until it was known as Islamic State (Reuters, 2014). Due to its self-proclaimed leadership of the worldwide caliphate it claims religious, political and military authority of all Muslims worldwide (Mortada, 2014). Its main objectives include the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state (Caliphate) under the control of a caliph. A German journalist who was embedded within the group stated that the ISIL/ISIS fighters expressed a belief that “all religions who agree with democracy have to die” (Withnall, 2014).

History & Foundations

Founded in 1999 under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) by Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it had the stated intention of overthrowing the Kingdom of Jordan which he considered to be an “apostate” regime (Aaron and Zelin, 2014). Following an injury he received to his leg, he was in Baghdad receiving treatment from May until late November 2002 and US intelligence reports state that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had unsuccessfully attempted to locate and capture al-Zarqawi (Select Committee on Intelligence, 2006). Following the US Invasion of Iraq, Jama’at became a decentralised militant network which fought against the US-led coalition and – on the 17th of October 2004 – al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and it became known as Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda in Iraq - AQI) (Pool, 2004). In June of 2006, al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike and the leadership of the group was assumed by Egyptian militant Abu Ayyub al-Masri (BBC News, 2006). On the 13th of October 2006, the Mujahideen Shura Council (an umbrella organisation created to unify Sunni insurgents within Iraq) established the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in which a Mujahideen Shura Council leader stated that “God willing we will set the law of Sharia here and we will fight the Americans” (Karouny, 2007). Al-Masri and ISI leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were both killed in a joint Iraq-US military operation on 18th April 2010 (United States Forces - Iraq, 2010) and they were both succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Suleiman al-Naser, who was later also killed (Yahya, 2011).

The group has also seen overwhelmingly high levels of unpopularity amongst the global Islamic population with the highest amount of ‘favourable’ support coming from Nigeria with only 14% saying that they viewed the group favourably. Lebanon and Israel have the least favourable views of ISIS, standing at 100% unfavourable opinions amongst those surveyed in Lebanon and 98% in Israel (Lipka, 2017). This global unpopularity has significantly contributed to the decline in the group's downfall as a solidified organisation. This is due to the fact that the local populations of the countries which it may infiltrate will not support the group or its offshoots such as ISIS-West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria which is shown in the fact that 68% of the Nigerian population are very concerned about Islamic extremism and are much less likely to support it (Lipka, 2017).

As aforementioned, the group adopted the name d-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām following its expansion into Syria in 2013. This has been translated into various titles due to the association of the word al-Sham as a region within both the Levant and Greater Syria (Irshaid, 2015). The group's name was therefore translated to both ISIS and ISIL (Tharoor, 2014). Post-Syrian expansion, the group made large territorial gains encompassing an area of 110,000 km2 in 2014, roughly the size of England (Jones et al., 2017). However due to the group’s unpopularity and the military action against it, the territory which the group controlled eventually declined by 96% and in 2019 it was only made up of the 4000km2 Syrian Desert pocket (The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, 2019). Following the battle of Baghuz Fawqani in March of 2019 (which was an offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces as a part of Operation Inherent Resolve), the SDF officially declared final victory over the Islamic State and this therefore marked the end of IS-controlled territories in Syria (BBC News Middle East, 2019).

Objectives & Ideology

Due to the several iterations and titles that the group has gone under, its goals have shifted ever so slightly. Its original conception under the name of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) was concerned mainly with the overthrowing of the ‘apostate’ Kingdom of Jordan which they had considered to be un-Islamic (Aaron and Zelin, 2014). Its targets included Shi’ite mosques and civilians as well as Iraqi government institutions and the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq (Coalition Forces). The then-leader of JTJ, Al-Zarqawi, had an extreme interpretation of Islamic takfir, which is the process of excommunication of one muslim from Islam by another, and this had reportedly caused friction between him and Osama Bin Laden (Aaron and Zelin, 2014), with whom in his first meeting with he exclaimed that “Shiites should be executed” (Weaver, 2006).

In 2005, the group (under the name al-Qaeda in Iraq) had several stated goals, such as the removal of the US and allied coalition forces from Iraq, the conversion of Iraq into a Sunni Islamic state or caliphate, and the extension of this caliphate into other neighbouring countries and the wider Islamic world. These goals continued to be the goals of IS when AQI became the Islamic State of Iraq (Londoño, 2009). Ideologically, the IS is/was a theocratic proto-state and a salafi jihadist group and its ideology has been described as a hybrid blend of Takfirism (as aforementioned), Salafism and Sunni Islamist Fundamentalism (Manne, 2017). Due to its self-representation as the reincarnation of the caliphate of early Islam, the IS utilises the black battle flag of Muhammad with the associated seal and the phrase “there is no god but Allah” above it (the shahada). This symbolises the group's belief that it represents the aforementioned restoration of the caliphate and this brings in all the associated political and religious ramifications that this association would imply (Speckhard, 2014).

Military & Political Abilities

The group has extensive military abilities and this ranges from large numbers of fighters, both foreign and domestic (Syrian/Iraqi) to also an extensive armoury and range of tactics which the group employs. Estimates of the number of combatants who fought on behalf of ISIS ranged from tens of thousands (Top Channel, 2015) to over 200,000 militants with claims by Kurdish military leaders that the number has been severely underestimated by Western intelligence (Cockburn, 2014). Due to ISIS’ widespread propaganda machine and its effective usage of the internet in order to attract foreign recruits, they have large numbers of foreign fighters which range into the tens of thousands. In fact, a United Nations report from 2014 estimated that there were over 20,000 foreign recruits within the organisation (Ackerman, 2014) and in September 2015, the CIA estimated that over 30,000 foreign fighters had joined ISIS (Iraqinews, 2015).

ISIS also has an extensive armoury consisting of both conventional and non-conventional weaponry. Major sources of conventional weapons such as AK-47s and hand grenades, as well as other small arms, come from various sources including Saddam Hussein's stockpiles from the 2003-2011 Iraqi insurgency (Ismay, 2013). These weapons and equipment have also come from other sources, including the weaponry from surrendered or captured government forces, or even opposition forces who were provided with weapons by the US who sold them or surrendered them following the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq (Cohen, 2015). The group is also reported to have captured US-made TOW anti-tank missiles supplied to the Free Syrian Army by both the USA and Saudi Arabia and they have used these extremely effective anti-tank weapons against their opponents forces (Weiss, 2015). It is estimated that up to 90% of the group's small arms are reported to have originated in China, Russia or Eastern Europe (Ex-Soviet Union army equipment) (Crawford, 2017). The group has also used non-conventional weapons such as IEDs (improvised explosive devices) as well as car bombs and more infamously, suicide bombers. Moreover, they are reported to have captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in 2014, although it is believed that they lack the expertise or the equipment to convert them into usable weapons grade materials (Cowell, 2014).

Approach to Resistance

ISIS as an entity is extremely violent and uses heavy repression methods, along both ethnic/racial and religious lines in order to enforce its own laws on the populations it controls. The group was responsible for the genocide of Yazidis in the Sinjar area of Northern Iraq from 2014 to 2017 which resulted in over 9,900 men, women and children being killed or captured and sold into sex slavery (Taylor, 2017). Due to a Yazidi religious belief in a benevolent peacock-angel, ISIL/ISIS has viewed the population as worshippers of Lucifer or Shaitan, and they henceforth consider Yazidis ‘devil worshippers’. Consequently, Yazidi women and children have often been subjected to widespread rape and slavery by IS forces (Callimachi, 2015). ISIS is also responsible for widespread mass murder, rape and discrimination against Christians in the territories which it had controlled with the persecution of Christian minorities in these areas being recognised as genocide by the United States, the European Union and also Great Britain in 2016 (Stone, 2016). During conflict the group has been known to use suicide bombers as young as 12 in order to inflict damage, both physical and psychological, upon its opponent forces (Chulov, 2015).

The group has also conducted extensive terror campaigns abroad using several tactics such as bombings, suicide bombings and also gun and knife attacks. The group carried out several infamous attacks globally which have only reinforced its image as a terror organisation. This includes the Metrojet Flight 9268 bombing which killed all 224 on board (Gadher and Amoore, 2015), as well as the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter celebration bombings which killed 269 people and injured over 500 (BBC Asia, 2020). These attacks are amongst many which the group has conducted all over the globe and have been repeatedly backed up by even further extreme attacks in the regions which they inhabit.

The beheading of prisoners has also been used by ISIS to instil fear and to also recruit followers into their organisations. The execution of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff was carried out by ISIS in 2014 in response to the bombings carried out by America weeks prior and to stop the US air campaign in the Middle East entirely (Beauchamp, 2018). The beheading videos are also used by ISIS (and other groups) to recruit more members into their organisations either through fear or inspiration (Mosendz, 2014). The atrocities committed by this group have highlighted just how far reaching they are and this has been reflected in the response to ISIS by militaries of varying countries. Directly after the aforementioned beheading of James Foley for example US opinions actually supported further actions against the group and paved the way for then-President Barack Obama to utilise the American military to carry out further attacks (Beauchamp, 2018).

International Relations & Potential Alliances

The group has received widespread amounts of support from varying Islamist terrorist organisations and groups all over the globe (Mohammed, 2014). These groups include Abu Sayyaf and also the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, amongst many others. Foreign fighters have made up large amounts of the support that the group has received with numbers of these foreign fighters, with a UN report from May 2015 showing that 25,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” from 100 countries had joined ISIS or allied Islamist groups (Burke, 2015). Multiple countries, including the United Kingdom and also the Netherlands, have instituted laws which strip their citizenship from people who have travelled to fight for ISIS (Press Association, 2017) (The Straits Times, 2016).

There have been allegations of cooperation or outright support by Turkey and its armed forces with ISIS (Guiton, 2014). According to an intelligence advisor, a “highly classified assessment” carried out by the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2013 concluded that Turkey had effectively transformed and subverted secret US arms programs in support of rebel organisations in Syria which no longer existed, in order to supply technical and logistical support to ISIL and another Islamist terror organisation known as al-Nusra Front (Hersh, 2016). Qatar has also been accused of acting as a support conduit for money which has flowed through the country into ISIS accounts. Despite the lack of outright evidence that the Qatari government has been involved in this transfer of funds, they have been frequently criticised for not doing enough to stem the flow of funds and money sent by private donors (Boghardt, “Qatar and ISIS Funding: The U.S. Approach”, 2014) and – according to US officials – the largest portion of private donations linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda groups comes from Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia (Boghardt, “Qatar Is a U.S. Ally. They Also Knowingly Abet Terrorism. What’s Going On?”, 2014).

Works Cited (MLA-style)

Aaron, and Y. Zelin. The War between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement. 2014, p. 2,

---. The War between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement. 2014, p. 1,

Abouzeid, Rania. “Syria’s Uprising within an Uprising – European Council on Foreign Relations.” ECFR, 16 Jan. 2014,

Ackerman, Spencer. “Foreign Jihadists Flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘Unprecedented Scale’ – UN.” The Guardian, 30 Oct. 2014,

BBC Asia. “Sri Lanka Marks Easter Sunday Attack Anniversary.” BBC News, 21 Apr. 2020,

BBC News. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Names New Head.”, 12 June 2006,

BBC News Middle East. “Islamic State Group Defeated as Final Territory Lost, US-Backed Forces Say.” BBC News, 23 Mar. 2019,

Beauchamp, Zack. “ISIS Captured and Executed James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Two American Journalists.” Vox, Vox, 20 Nov. 2018,

Boghardt, Lori Plotkin. “Qatar and ISIS Funding: The U.S. Approach.” The Washington Institute, 31 Aug. 2014,

---. “Qatar Is a U.S. Ally. They Also Knowingly Abet Terrorism. What’s Going On?” The New Republic, 6 Oct. 2014,

Burke, Jason. “Islamist Fighters Drawn from Half the World’s Countries, Says UN.” The Guardian, 26 May 2015,

Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2015,

Chulov, Martin. “Isis Deploys Child Suicide Bombers as Iraqi Army Advances.” The Guardian, 11 Nov. 2016,

Cockburn, Patrick. “Isis Have Army of 200,000, Claims Kurdish Leader.” The Independent, 16 Nov. 2014,

Cohen, Zachary. “Amnesty Report: ISIS Armed with U.S. Weapons - CNNPolitics.” CNN, 9 Dec. 2015,

Cowell, Alan. “‘Low-Grade’ Nuclear Material Is Seized by Rebels in Iraq, U.N. Says.” The New York Times, 10 July 2014,

Crawford, Jamie. “Report Details Where ISIS Gets Its Weapons | CNN Politics.” CNN, 14 Dec. 2017,

Gadher, Dipesh, and Miles Amoore. “Plane Bombing Mastermind Unmasked as Egyptian Cleric | the Sunday Times.”, 17 Nov. 2015,

Guiton, Barney. “‘ISIS Sees Turkey as Its Ally’: Former Islamic State Member Reveals Turkish Army Cooperation.” Newsweek, 7 Nov. 2014,

Hersh, Seymour M. “Military to Military.” London Review of Books, vol. 38, no. 01, Jan. 2016,

Iraqinews. “CIA: 30,000 Foreign Fighters Have Traveled to Syria and Iraq to Join ISIS.” IRAQI NEWS, 28 Sept. 2015,

Irshaid, Faisal. “Isis, Isil, IS or Daesh? One Group, Many Names.” BBC News, 2 Dec. 2015,

Ismay, John. “Insight into How Insurgents Fought in Iraq.” At War Blog, 17 Oct. 2013,

Jones, Seth G., et al. “Rolling Back the Islamic State.”, Apr. 2017,

Karouny, Mariam. “Gunmen in Iraq’s Ramadi Announce Sunni Emirate.” Reuters, 18 Jan. 2007,

Lipka, Michael. “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.S. And around the World.” Pew Research Center, 9 Aug. 2017,

Londoño, Ernesto. “Resurgent Al-Qaeda in Iraq Seeks to Undermine Government.” Washington Post, Nov. 22AD,

Manne, Robert. The Mind of the Islamic State : ISIS and the Ideology of the Caliphate. Prometheus Books, 2017.

Mohammed, Riyadh. “ISIS Beheads Another American as 60 New Terror Groups Join.” The Fiscal Times, 16 Nov. 2014,

Mortada, Radwan. “What Does ISIS’ Declaration of a Caliphate Mean? | al Akhbar English.”, 30 June 2014,

Mosendz, Polly. “Beheadings as Terror Marketing.” The Atlantic, 2 Oct. 2014,

Pool, Jeffrey. “ZARQAWI’S PLEDGE of ALLEGIANCE to AL-QAEDA: FROM MU’ASKER AL-BATTAR, ISSUE 21.” Jamestown, 16 Dec. 2004,

Press Association. “UK ‘Has Stripped 150 Jihadists and Criminals of Citizenship.’” The Guardian, 30 July 2017,

Reuters. “ISIS Declares Islamic ‘Caliphate’ and Calls on Groups to Pledge Allegiance.” HuffPost, 29 June 2014,

Saxena, Vivek. “ISIS vs ISIL – Which One Is It?” The Inquisitr, 18 June 2014,

Select Committee on Intelligence. “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Postwar Findings about Iraq’s WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How They Compare with Prewar Assessments.”, 8 Sept. 2006,

Speckhard, Anne. “End Times Brewing: An Apocalyptic View on Al-Baghdadi’s Declaration of a Caliphate in Iraq and the Flow of Foreign Fighters Coming from the West.” HuffPost UK, 30 June 2014,

Stone, Jon. “Isis Is Committing Genocide against Yazidis and Chrisitans, British MPs Unanimously Declare.” The Independent, 21 Apr. 2016,

Taylor, Lin. “Nearly 10,000 Yazidis Killed, Kidnapped by Islamic State in 2014, Study Finds.” Reuters, 9 May 2017,

Tharoor, Ishaan. “ISIS or ISIL? The Debate over What to Call Iraq’s Terror Group.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 18 June 2014,

The Straits Times. “Dutch MPs Vote to Strip Islamic Militants of Dual Nationality | the Straits Times.”, 25 May 2016,

The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights. “Although They Have Been Besieged by Russia, Iran, and the Regime for Two Years, Thousands of ISIS Members Are Still within an Area of 4000 Km2 without Any Intention to Launch a Military Operation against Them • the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 20 Feb. 2019,

Top Channel. “Sa Është Numri I Xhihadistëve Të ISIS-It? / What Is the Number of ISIS Jihadists?”, 21 Feb. 2015,

United States Forces - Iraq. “United States Forces - Iraq.” Http://, 19 Apr. 2010,

US Department of State. “Terrorist Designations of Groups Operating in Syria.” U.S. Department of State, 14 May 2014,

Weaver, Mary Anne. “The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.” The Atlantic, 1 July 2006,

Weiss, Caleb. “ISIS Used US-Made Anti-Tank Missiles near Palmyra.” Business Insider, 9 June 2015,

Withnall, Adam. “The First Western Journalist Ever given Access to the ‘Islamic State’ Describes What He Found.” The Independent, 21 Dec. 2014,

Yahya, Mazin. “Iraqi Forces Kill Al-Qaida ‘War Minister’ in Raid.”, 25 Feb. 2011,

Additional Resources


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