Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/The Islamic State (IS)

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Islamic State) (IS)

In this article, we shall discuss the origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or as the grown now calls itself, the Islamic State. We shall also address some frequently asked questions that people may have regarding ISIS or the Islamic State which is operating in Iraq and Syria. In another article, we also discuss the Syrian conflict, and the various actors in the conflict.

History of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/The Islamic State (IS)

In order to understand the history of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham/Syria, it is important to examine the history of Iraq, and in particularly the time period during the U.S. led invasion into Iraq in 2003. The militants that make up ISIS or the Islamic State (IS) have been active in Iraq for over a decade; this group was not formed following the civil conflict in Syria, but rather, roughly around the time of the US insurgency in Iraq, although there was clearly a radical presence even before the invasion.

One of the main figures in the early 2000s was an individual names Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, a Jordanian, left the country and went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight with the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. It was here that Zarqawi learned more about Jihadi-Salafism from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Following his involvement in Afghanistan, Zarqawi went back to Jordan. Both he and Maqdisi were arrested and jailed from 1994-1999. Following this, he went to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area where he organized a jihadist training camp (Bunzel, 2015). According to reports, Zarqawi at the time did not have any links to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda (Bunzel, 2015).

During this time in Iraq, he formed an Islamic extremist organization called Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Unity and Jihad) (BBC, 2014). His position at the time seemed to be against Western actions in Iraq and the Middle East, and also against the Muslim Shia community, viewing them as unbelievers. And because of this, among other reasons he had, Zarqawi waged conflict against the Shia in Iraq (Bunzel, 2015).

Furthermore, it was during the US led invasion in Iraq in 2003 that al-Zarqawi not only began fighting against the US, but at this time, he also took the position of being the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As Bunzel (2015) explains, “While Zarqawi and the central al-Qaeda leadership were at odds over the Shi’a, they shared an ambi- tion to found a state in Iraq to serve as the proto-caliphate, a goal that was articulated even before Zarqawi’s relocation to northern Iraq in 2002” (15). 

Throughout the years following this, Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda leaders communicated with one another to discuss the idea of an Islamic State within Iraq. It was in 2004 that he gave his loyalty to Bin Laden (Bunzel, 2015), and in turn, took on the position of the head of Al-Qaeda Iraq.

Then, in 2006, as Al-Qaeda was gaining influence in Iraq, “On January 15, Zarqawi’s group formed the Mujahidin Shura Council, which united al-Qaeda in Iraq with five other jihadi organizations operating in the area.66 The new council, ostensibly headed by an Iraqi, had the stated purpose of closing jihadi ranks in Iraq at a time when al-Qaeda in Iraq was declining in popularity. In April, Zarqawi, showing his face in a video message for the first time, hailed the Mujahidin Shura Council as “the starting point for establishing an Islamic state (Bunzel, 2015: 16).

However, he was killed in 2006 by a US airstrike. According to many, this had a significant effect on jihadist activities (Arang & Schmitt, 2014), as increased US troop presence, along with other Sunni fighters working to end AQI’s influence in the country greatly limited AQI’s influence in the country (BBC, 2014).

Islamic State of Iraq

In 2006 until 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq formed. This group was made up of many jihadists in the country, and, according to reports, while there seemed to be some ties between this group and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the two organizations were different from one another. It was at this time that the Mujahidin Shura Council brought together various jihadist groups, as well as some Sunni tribal authorities together. While the leaders ran the organization until 2010, the leadership were killed by a US and also an Iraqi force strike on April 18th, 2010.  Before and then following this attack, as Bunzel (2015) notes, “the Islamic State had lost any semblance of statehood (22). It seems that the group saw their influence as weak, and even the United States reduced the bounties on leader figures in the group (Bunzel, 2015).

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

While the Islamic State had a presence in Iraq, it was severely weakened leading up to 2011 and 2012. However, it was not until the civil conflict began in Syria that ISIS was able to shift their fighting and activities, and re-establish itself and its objectives. As Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt explain in New York Times report they wrote on August 10th, 2014,

“As more moderate Syrian rebel groups were beaten down by the Syrian security forces and their allies, ISIS increasingly took control of the fight, in part on the strength of weapons and funding from its operations in Iraq and from jihadist supporters in the Arab world.”

These developments actually led to some tension in the White House, with then former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton criticizing US President Barack Obama for taking out all troops in Iraq, and also for not providing additional weaponry and support to moderate Syrian rebel forces who were fighting against the Al-Asad regime in Syria (Arango & Schmitt, 2014). Others have expressed thoughts along these lines. For example, in the same report, Democratic Representative Elliot L. Engel was quoted as saying ““I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if we had committed to empowering the moderate Syrian opposition last year. Would ISIS have grown as it did?”

In fact, they  have grown to such as level that a large parts of Syria and Iraq are under their control. For example, the Islamic State, “[i]n March 2013, it took over the Syrian city of Raqqa – the first provincial capital to fall under rebel control” (BBC). And in January of 2014, the Islamic State made gains in Iraq, as they took Fallujah. However, while this was shocking to many, they did not stop here. It was  in June of 2014 that the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city (BBC).

Is the Islamic State Supported in Iraq and Syria?

The Islamic State is feared by many of the citizens in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has continued to advanced militarily, and along the way, has carried out numerous crimes against humanity. For example, there are reports of killing many non-Muslims, with the group targeting, capturing and killing members of the Christian faith, as well as the Yazidis in Iraq.  The national government, as well as other political blocks, has tried to halt the Islamic State’s advances. Yet, the number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria is said to be anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000, and is said to be growing.

Some of the members of the Islamic State have come from other jihadist groups in the region. Furthermore, it has been reported that others are former prisoners who were released by the Islamic State when they took over different towns.

Furthermore, the Islamic State is also attempting to recruit younger individuals in Iraq and Syria. In comments to CNN, two Iraqi officials spoke about how many of the recruits are between the ages of 16-25, have no education or wealth, and have little prospects in terms of employment. And thus, the Islamic State attempts to address this. It is reported that they set up informational sites around their strongholds (and sometimes in Mosques) and attempt to recruit people. They often provide new recruits with cars, weapons, and money.

Related to this, some have argued that part of the reason that the Islamic State is supported by some of these individuals is due to the inefficient policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki’s policies against Sunnis have been discriminatory, leaving little room for them to have a shared role in the Iraqi national government. Furthermore, he has worked with violent Shia groups, which has further upset the Sunnis in the state.

In fact, some, such as the International Crisis Group, in their report entitled Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-Box, argue that what was happening was that the United States continued to support Al-Maliki throughout the years, even as he was leaving less and less room for political opposition. Speaking on the issue, the ICG says:

“A widely-shared perception in policymaking circles and the media had been that Iraq was painfully but slowly and surely progressing on the state-building process initiated after the 2003 U.S. invasion and destruction of its institutions. In particular, with President Barack Obama having designated the withdrawal from Iraq one of his signal achievements, the U.S. continued to invest in Maliki as the lynchpin of the country’s fragile stability. That Iraq looked increasingly like an Iran-allied police state wracked by high-level corruption was seen as regrettable, but as long as it remained moderately stable and the oil flowed, few cared to take a closer look, much less to seek to change the situation. When Maliki’s rivals – also his partners in a “national unity” government – tried to oust him through a parliamentary no-confidence vote in 2012, they failed to attract U.S. support, and their move failed” (2).

They go on to say that a major reason for the rise of the ISIS in Iraq was due to Maliki’s hold on power, which “includes the security apparatus, which he has reorganized as a source of patronage, purged of more competent elements in favour of individuals loyal to him, politicised in pursuit of personal adversaries and supplemented with sectarian Shiite militias” (3). He also misused resources, did not build up security as US military leaders wanted, and continued to disregard and upset Sunni voices (ICG, 2014).

However, this is not to say that the current relationship between the United States government and Al-Maliki is great; the current tensions between the United States government and al-Maliki are in fact quiet high. For example, on August 11th, 2014, Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian reported that Secretary of State John Kerry was upset by al-Maliki’s political actions. Al-Maliki said that he would run for a third term as Iraq’s Prime Minister, which has led to a crisis in Iraq (although Iraqi President Fouad Massoum chose Haider al-Ibadi to form a new government, thus bypassing Nouri al-Maliki) . This is all the while that ISIS or IS is continuing their advancements throughout parts of the country. In fact, Kerry was quoted as saying that

“The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr Maliki will not stir those waters…”. He went on to say that “One thing all Iraqis need to know, that there will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitution process that is in place and being worked on now.”

And thus, because of al-Maliki’s policies, some are more willing to align with the Islamic State, which has attempted to speak on the issues worrying Sunnis in Iraq (Vox, 2014).


Who is the leader of ISIS or IS?

The main leader of ISIS or IS is an individual named Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, or as he is known, Bakr al-Baghdadi. There is not much that is confirmed about who this individual is, and up until June 2014, there were are only a couple of known public pictures of him. Yet, this individual is one of the most wanted individuals in the world, with a 10 million dollar US bounty on him (Washington Post, 2014).

Al-Baghdadi was actually detained by United States military forces in Iraq in 2004. At the time, there was little known about al-Baghdadi. The New York Times quoted a US official who said

“”He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.” Thus, the US military did not know the level of influence and power that al-Baghdadi would rise to within the violent Islamist movements in the region.

Much of his actions seemed to be motivated by the US led invasion in Iraq beginning in 2003. However, during this earlier time with Al Qaeda, al-Baghdadi was a religious figure with the group, and did not seem to partake in military actions against the United States.

However, the United States intel has had a difficult time in finding out just exactly who al-Baghdadi is. He is believed to be born in 1971 in Samarra.

As the August 10th, 2014 New York Times report states, “Mr. Baghdadi is said to have a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad, and was a mosque preacher in his hometown, Samarra. He also has an attractive pedigree, claiming to trace his ancestry to the Quraysh Tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. Beyond that, almost every biographical point about Mr. Baghdadi is occluded by some confusion or another.”

For example, there are questions about how long the US military held al-Baghdadi in 2004. According to the US government, he was let go shortly after because he was not seen as a key or important figure in Al-Qaeda. However, some such as

“Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who has researched Mr. Baghdadi’s life, sometimes on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, said that Mr. Baghdadi had spent five years in an American detention facility where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalized” (Arango & Schmitt, 2014) and potentially was working with Al-Qaeda (Washington Post, 2014).

According to al-Hishami, Baghdadi seemed to move toward radicalization in the 1990s. He was then drawn to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later led the Iraqi Al-Qaeda group.

There is also debate amongst the intelligence circles as to whether he was involved in the wars in Iraq. It seems to be agreed upon that he has spent much of his time in Iraq and Syria, although whether he was in Afghanistan is less clear. There are also disagreements as to just how close and important he was to al-Zarqawi (Arango & Schmitt, 2014).


When did al-Baghdadi Become the Top Figure in ISIS (or IS)?

According to reports, it seems that al-Baghdadi was announced as the top individual of the ISIS group in 2010. At the time, little was still known about him. What many believe is the the US led invasion seemed to motivate him to engage in fighting. Furthermore, after the killing of Saddam Hussein, he was able to more openly espouse his radical views (Arango & Schmitt, 2014).

In addition, as Arango & Schmitt (2014) explain,

“…even before the civil war in Syria presented him with a growth opportunity, Mr. Baghdadi had been taking steps in Iraq — something akin to a corporate restructuring — that laid the foundation for the group’s resurgence, just as the Americans were leaving. He picked off rivals through assassinations, orchestrated prison breaks to replenish his ranks of fighters and diversified his sources of funding through extortion, to wean the group off outside funding from Al Qaeda’s central authorities.” In fact, he was said to shift his organization away form its Al-Qaeda ties, which he did when he relabeled his organization from the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (BBC, 2014). According to reports, it also seems as if Al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups, as well as the anti-Asad rebel fighters also moved away from al-Baghdadi and his organization during the fighting in Syria, as many did not like the way that he was carrying out his attacks (BBC, 2014).

In terms of leadership, following his appointment to the head of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), he approached this position different from that of al-Zarqawi. For example, “In contrast to Mr. Zarqawi, who increasingly looked outside Iraq for leadership help, Mr. Baghdadi has surrounded himself by a tight clique of former Baath Party military and intelligence officers from the Hussein regime who know how to fight.”

“Analysts and Iraqi intelligence officers believe that after Mr. Baghdadi took over the organization he appointed a Hussein-era officer, a man known as Hajji Bakr, as his military commander, overseeing operations and a military council that included three other officers of the former regime’s security forces.” Now, his approach here was not without its critics within the jihadist circles, but his ability to increase his power seems to have placated any opponents of his strategy to work with former government figures. Furthermore, he is attempting to win over Iraqis through social services, such as the building of schools, along with providing social services such as providing food to those in need during religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr (Arango & Schmitt, 2014).

 However, as mentioned in reports, it seems that al-Baghdadi has little interest in carrying Al-Qaeda’s flag. He has gained enough international support amongst jihadists to lead his own organization. According to reports, he is actually pulling jihadists from other groups towards his own. Richard Barrett, who was a counterterrorism chief for the British government, a June 204 Washington Post article was quoted explained his rising influence amongst jihadists, particularly when compared to Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri, when he said that

““For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn’t really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos,” ““Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount — he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people…”.

However, according to reports, Zawahiri not only wanted al-Baghdadi to stay within Al-Qaeda, but he also did not want Baghdadi to take such a primary role in Syria. Instead, he wanted to leave the Syria fighting to the Al Nusri group, which is lead by Mohammad al-Golani. Thus, he saw the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant dissolving. However, Baghdadi did not want to fall under Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda, and did not want to follow Zawahiri’s ideas about Golani in Syria, and Bahdadi in Iraq. However, Baghdadi responded publicly to Zawahiri, in a letter which he stated that he would follow “… the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter…” (Associated Press, in Washington Post, 2014). In his response, he also spoke about an alliance with Al Nusra. Al-Golani has continued to dismiss ideas of Baghdadi’s control over the group in Syria, and there is belief by some that they are acting separately form one another (Associated Press, in Washington Post, 2014).

Where does ISIS or IS Receive its Funding?

According to reports, ISIS or IS is said to bring in 12 million dollars per month through extortion (Arango & Schmitt, 2014), and has over 2 billion dollars (BBC, 2014), which has some to think that they are “the most cash-rich militant group in the world” (BBC).

And because of this,

“The United Nations Security Council is considering new measures aimed at crippling the group’s finances, according to Reuters, by threatening sanctions on supporters. Such action is likely to have little effect because, by now, the group is almost entirely self-financing, through its seizing oil fields, extortion and tax collection in the territories it controls. As it gains territory in Iraq, it has found new ways to generate revenue. For instance, recently in Hawija, a village near Kirkuk, the group demanded that all former soldiers or police officers pay an $850 “repentance fine” (Arango & Schmitt, 2014).

Interestingly, before they were able to capture the various oil fields, they were receiving support from those who had a strategic geo-political interest against al-Assad. After the oil fields, they have been able to sell this to outside buyers, as well as to Bashar al-Assad and his government. They also stole from Mosul’s central bank. But along with the oil, and stealing from banks as mentioned above, the Islamic State is also said to carry out extortions. Moreover, are also concerns that they are stealing antiquities from Iraqi and Syrian museums and historical locations, then selling them in the underground art market (BBC).

In 2016, according to reports, the Islamic State’s losses in Iraq and Syria have greatly impacted their income streams. As Rasheed (2016) writes: “The Islamic State, pushed off more than half the Iraqi territory it seized in 2014, has suffered a near collapse in revenue from oil smuggling, officials say, forcing it to cut fighters’ pay, levy new taxes, and raise fines for breaking its religious code. The jihadist group has lost control of a series of oil fields and is having to sell its remaining production at steep discounts to persuade truck drivers to collect it and run the gauntlet of US-led airstrikes.” 

While oil is not the only source of revenue, it is a central one, and because of this, anti-ISIS forces are continuing to fight to take over the various oil fields in Iraq and also Syria.

What has been the International Reaction to ISIS?

The vast majority of the world has strongly condemned the Islamic State and their actions. This has included states in the Global South and Global North, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim states. There have also been strong condemnation throughout the Muslim communities in the West. Politically, the United States, as well as many of their allies from the Middle East and Europe have not only condemned IS/ISIS, but have also began carrying out airstrikes against IS targets in Syria. In fact, US President Barack Obama made the argument that a reason for military action is because of the strength of IS, agreeing with statements made by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who said the US “underestimated” IS, along with “”overestimating” the capabilities of the Iraqi military” (in NBC, 2014). It is for this reason that some have suggested a renewed commitment to the Iraqi military, possibly in the formation of an Iraqi National Guard (Khatib, 2015).

How to Stop the Islamic State

As mentioned above, one of the ways to stop the Islamic State is militarily. However, it is imperative that there is a serious international effort to stop the group, and also that all of the actors are working together to coordinate an effective response. Sadly, this has been part of the challenges thus far. Different actors have their own interests in the conflict, and thus, as a result, might be less focused on fighting the Islamic State, compared to ensuring their primary goals. For example, while countries like Iran and Russia don’t like the Islamic State, one could argue that they are much more concerned about ensuring that Bashar al-Assad stays in power. In addition, other countries such as Turkey, who some suggest should have more involvement in fighting ISIS (Khatib, 2015), seems to be more concerned about the Kurdish forces in the northern part of the country. 

Scholars have posed several other ways in which the Islamic State can be challenged and defeated. One of the important developments that can be used to fight the Islamic State is to expose the internal divisions that exist in the group. Scholars such as Khatib argued that “The Islamic State faces significant internal challenges, including grievances about its brutality and unpredictable ruling behavior, a limited governance capacity, and tensions between foreigners and locals within its ranks[,]” and thus, by being able to destabilize the group, this could result in further fractionalization, and an overall weakening of the terror group.



Bunzel, C. (2015). From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Analysis Paper, No. 19, March 2015. 

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