ISLThe Islamic State (IS)—also commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or alternatively, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—is a predominantly Sunni jihadist group that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on strict Sharia law, starting in Iraq and Syria.
IS first emerged as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI), a major force in the guerrilla insurgency that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched in 2003 to combat coalition forces and their domestic allies in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many former Iraqi soldiers who had served under Saddam subsequently joined AQI, which the U.S. State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in October 2004.
After a U.S. air strike killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006, the Egyptian-born explosives expert Abu Ayyub al-Masri—a former confidant of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—took the reins of AQI. In October 2006, al-Masri renamed his group the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and appointed the jihadist Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its operational leader.
The violent activities of ISI peaked in 2006–07, before plummeting as a result of the U.S. troop surge of 2007, which turned the tide of the war dramatically in America’s favor.
In April 2010, both Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, setting the stage for ISI leadership to fall into the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971, this new ISI leader had been a battlefield commander and tactician for the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency, and had been detained at Camp Bucca—a U.S.-administered prison in southern Iraq—from 2005-09.
After America completed its military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, ISI’s terrorist activities increased dramatically—in particular its attacks on Shiite targets. In 2012 the group adopted the name ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL), to signify its broadened ambition to move also into Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. ISIS generally had strained relations with other jihadist groups in Syria such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra—also known as the al-Nusra Front—and for the most part operated independently of them.
During 2012, there were approximately a dozen days on which ISIS carried out coordinated, multi-city attacks that killed at least 25 Iraqis—including at least 4 separate days when more than 100 Iraqis died.
In March 2013, ISIS seized control of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The following month, al-Baghdadi, against al-Zawahiri’s wishes, declared a merger between his ISIS group and Jabhat al-Nusra. But al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani rejected the measure.
In late 2013, a number of rival Islamist militant groups coalesced to form a Mujahedeen Army intent on forcing ISIS out of Syria. But when ISIS proved to be too powerful to evict, the Free Syrian Army signed a truce with it in September of that year.
In January 2014, ISIS took control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, located in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. ISIS also seized large portions of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and established a presence in numerous towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.
On February 3, 2014, after months of infighting between ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda formally renounced all ties to ISIS.
On June 9, 2014, ISIS freed some 1,000 prisoners from Iraq jails; the next day it overran the Iraqi military in Mosul; on June 12 it took control of Tikrit; and on June 21 it subjugated four more Iraqi towns including Al-Qaim, situated on the border with Syria.
As ISIS continued to expand the breadth of its dominion, especially in northern and western Iraq, it earned a fearsome reputation for unspeakable barbarism as manifested in kidnappings, forced conversions, mass slaughters, the destruction of sites considered holy by Christians and Jews, public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings. In 2014, ISIS jihadists famously videotaped and broadcast the beheadings of two British humanitarian aid workers (David Haines, and Alan Henning), an American aid worker (Peter Kassig), and two American journalists (James Foley and Steven Sotloff).
On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the existence of what it called a new Islamic caliphate that would thenceforth go by the name “Islamic State” (IS) and would recognize no existing national borders. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for his part, declared himself master of all the world’s Muslims and began using the name Al-Khalifah Ibrahim.
By July 2014, IS had overrun every Syrian city between Deir Ezzor and the Iraq border.
On August 8, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized “targeted airstrikes” against IS positions in Iraq and Syria. As of September, the organization was believed to have somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in its ranks. Among these were numerous foreign jihadists from the Arab world, the Caucasus, the U.S., and European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
In December 2014, an IS spokesman ceremoniously announced his group’s genocidal intentions: “We will conquer Europe one day. It is not a question of [whether] we will conquer Europe, just a matter of when that will happen. But it is certain…. For us, there is no such thing as borders. There are only front lines…. Our expansion will be rapid and perpetual. The Europeans need to know that when we come, it will not be in a nice way. It will be with our weapons. Those who do not convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax will be killed—150 million, 200 million or 500 million, it does not matter to us, we will kill them all.”
In January 2015, Jurgen Todenhofer, the first Western reporter to embed (for ten days) with IS fighters and not be killed in the process, discussed his observations of the terror group with Al Jazeera. “I always asked them about the value of mercy in Islam,” he said, but “I didn’t see any mercy in their behavior.” “Something that I don’t understand at all,” Todenhofer added, “is the enthusiasm in their plan of religious cleansing, planning to kill the non-believers…. They also will kill Muslim democrats because they believe that non-ISIL-Muslims put the laws of human beings above the commandments of God…. They were talking about [killing] hundreds of millions. They were enthusiastic about it, and I just cannot understand that.”
As of January 1, 2015, ISIS controlled at least 45 separate cities and towns across northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Perhaps the world’s wealthiest terror group, IS currently possesses some $2 billion in cash and other assets. In its early years (when it was known as AQI), its funding derived mostly from donations by wealthy individuals in Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. More recently, IS has generated much of its income from smuggling, extortion, the sale of antiquities looted from historical sites, the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mosul branch of Iraq’s central bank, and the seizure of large oil fields in eastern Syria.