Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)


Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is also known as the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fil’Araq wa-Sham (Daesh). These names and acronyms are used interchangeably.

Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS is a descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the most brutal insurgent groups in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. After the death of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, it merged with eight other insurgent groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq.

Though under pressure through the US “surge” and the “Anbar Awakening” (sahwa, in which Sunni tribes in Anbar province were co-opted in the fight against the insurgency) from 2007-2011, the Islamic State of Iraq grew in strength after the American withdrawal in 2011.

With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in the same year, the Islamic State of Iraq formed a subsidiary called Jabhat al-Nusra (“The Support Front”). In 2013, when this group was showing signs of independence, the Islamic State of Iraq announced its expansion to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (al-Sham being the Arabic term for Greater Syria, and holding connotations of medieval Caliphates and battles at the end of history). Jabhat al-Nusra was to be reabsorbed into the expanded group, but its leader appealed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, who ruled that Jabhat al-Nusra would remain al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, while ISIS should confine itself to Iraq. This led to a break with al-Qaeda, and an outbreak of fighting in Syria between ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups. It has since expanded its territory in fighting with both rebel groups and government forces in both Iraq and Syria.

In 2014 ISIS declared the founding of a new Caliphate, to be known simply as "the Islamic State", under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or "Caliph Ibrahim", and called on all Muslims to swear allegiance. 

Peter Welby, Centre on Religion and Geopolitics