The Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization whose goal is the establishment and expansion of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the creation of a global Islamist movement.

Key Statistics

1999 First Recorded Activity
2002 First Attack
2019 Profile Last Updated

Profile Contents

Overview

Narrative of the Organization's History

Organization

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations

Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets, and Tactics

Major Attacks

First Attacks, Largest Attacks, Notable Attacks

Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences

Maps

Mapping relationships with other militant groups over time

Contact MMP

Send a message to the Mapping Militants team.

Download Full Profile as PDF

Last updated September 2019

How to Cite

Mapping Militant Organizations. "The Islamic State." Stanford University. Last modified September 2019. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/islamic-state

Organizational Overview

 

Formed: 1999

Disbanded: Group is active.

First Attack: October 28, 2002: Members of Jama'at al-Tawhid wa'l Jihad (which would later become AQI and then ISIS) assassinated U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officer Laurence Foley outside his home in Jordan (1 killed, 0 wounded).[1]

Last Attack: April 21, 2019. Nine suicide bombers simultaneously detonated bombs across Colombo, Sri Lanka. The local terrorist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) carried out the attacks after having pledged allegiance to IS (350+ killed, 500+ wounded).[2]

Excecutive Summary

The Islamic State (IS) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – is a Salafi militant organization whose goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and spread its influence globally. IS is known for its large contingent of foreign fighters, meticulous bureaucratic and financial system, and strong online media presence. IS developed in 1999 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began to train extremist militants in Afghanistan. During the American occupation of Iraq, Zarqawi’s militants became a major participant in the Iraqi insurgency, first under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad (JTJ) and then, after swearing fealty to Al Qaeda, as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The group declined in power until 2011 when the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the onset of the Syrian Civil War created a power vacuum, allowing the group to reemerge. In 2013, the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and captured extensive territory in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, ISIS officially declared the creation of a caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State (IS). On the ground, IS has fought Syrian government forces, Syrian rebel groups, the Iraqi military and militias, and Kurdish peshmerga groups. The U.S. also supported the Iraqi military, certain Syrian rebel groups, and the Kurdish peshmerga with airpower and weapons. These groups slowly retook IS territory beginning in 2015. The last IS territory was seized in Syria in March 2019, and as of August 2019, the group is reorienting to a decentralized, guerilla-style insurgency. IS continues to carry out attacks through sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria and globally through a network of affiliate organizations and “colonies”.

Group Narrative

The Islamic State (IS) – also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization that operates primarily in Syria and Iraq. The group’s goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and eventually spread its influence globally.[3] The foundations of IS were laid in the 1990s and early 2000s, when IS-founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began recruiting Jordanian criminals and training extremist militants at a camp in Herat, Afghanistan.

During the American occupation of Iraq, the group was a major participant in the Iraqi insurgency, first under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad (JTJ) and then, after swearing fealty to Al Qaeda, as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Facing backlash from the community and increased pressure from American and Iraqi forces, the group declined in strength and influence. However, this downward trajectory reversed in 2011. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the onset of the Syrian Civil War created a power vacuum, which AQI stepped in to fill. In 2013, the group changed its name from AQI to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Throughout 2013 and 2014, the group seized territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIS changed its name to the Islamic State and declared the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June 2014.

IS was notable for its public beheadings of Western captives, its large contingent of foreign fighters, and its substantial media presence. On the ground, IS displayed brutal efficiency and violence in battles against the Assad regime and Syrian-allied Shia forces, Syrian opposition groups, the Iraqi military, and the Kurdish peshmerga. The U.S., in conjunction with European and Arab allies, began airstrikes against the group in fall 2014. By 2017, IS lost control of its largest population centers and began to revert to more traditional terrorist tactics, developing sleeper cells and assimilating into the broader population. On March 23, 2019 IS lost its final piece of territory in Baghuz, Syria. Though now without territory, the group remains highly active and continues to launch small- and large-scale terrorist attacks globally.

This profile divides the Islamic State’s history into five periods and follows the group through several name changes. It begins with Zarqawi’s creation of the group through his death in 2006 (which roughly coincides with the group being known as JTJ and becoming AQI) and continues with a period of setbacks from 2006 through 2011 (the period of the AQI’s decline). The next section discusses developments between 2012 and 2014, during which the group expanded and fought in Syria and Iraq, as well as changed its name to ISIS. The fourth section roughly coincides with the group’s rebranding as IS and discusses the global response to IS’s caliphate. The final section discusses the destruction of the caliphate and the groups transition to traditional terrorist strategies.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State, was Jordanian national. He radicalized as a young man while in prison for drug possession and sexual assault. After he was released from prison, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s with the intention of joining the fight against Soviet occupation.[4] After returning to Jordan in 1992, Zarqawi founded a militant group named Bayat al-Imam with his mentor Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi.[5] During the 1990s, Zarqawi adopted a Salafi ideology and was arrested again following a police raid on his home.[6] Zarqawi developed a following of radicalized criminals while in prison and used sympathetic guards and visiting relatives to smuggle his messages out to be published on prominent Salafi websites.[7]

In 1999, Zarqawi was released and traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Osama bin Laden. The two distrusted one another immediately, and key ideological disagreements became apparent. Zarqawi preferred to target “near enemies,” such as Israel and the Jordanian government, whereas the AQ leadership focused on the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States).[8] Zarqawi also had a strong hatred for Shiites that bin Laden did not share.[9] Despite these core ideological disagreements, bin Laden allegedly asked Zarqawi to join AQ.[10] Zarqawi refused. Instead, bin Laden consented to provide Zarqawi with funding to set up a militant training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.[11] By October 2001, Zarqawi had trained between 2,000 and 3,000 Salafi terrorists at the Herat camp.

Following the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, Western intelligence forces began searching for Zarqawi.[12] He and his followers spread throughout Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq to evade American intelligence while establishing new groups and building a network of foreign fighters.[13] The U.S. State Department eventually classified all these groups under the name of the most prominent Zarqawi organization, Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad (JTJ) (also sometimes referred to as Tawhid wal-Jihad, or TwJ).[14] The group had a strong foundation of foreign fighters, particularly from Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kurdish regions while other militants from Ansar al-Islam joined the group as well.[15]

As AQ leadership urged Muslims to move to Iraq to fight the American invaders, Zarqawi became the default leader of Islamist terrorists in Iraq and concentrated his network of foreign fighters in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.[16] JTJ contributed to the insurgency, attempting to expel American and coalition forces and disrupt the governmental transition with its operations. JTJ and Zarqawi grew to be among the most prominent actors in the insurgency.[17] JTJ quickly gained notoriety for its violent tactics and attacks on non-combatants, including aid workers and native Iraqis. JTJ carried out suicide bombings that killed civilians while other insurgent groups used guerilla attacks that targeted American and coalition forces.[18] The group routinely conducted attacks on Shia targets to incite sectarian conflict and complicate the occupation and government transition.[19] JTJ also drew international attention for its assassinations, as well as the gruesome videos of beheadings that it released on the internet.[20]

In October 2004, Zarqawi formally joined Al Qaeda and renamed his organization Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn Zarqawi, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in English.[21] Despite the official pledge of allegiance to Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi and AQ leadership still disagreed on some key tactical issues, such as AQ’s willingness to cooperate with other opposition groups and its focus on the United States and the West rather than “near enemies.” These differences created tensions that lasted for the duration of the affiliate relationship.[22]

Initially, many Sunnis in Iraq were sympathetic to AQI. The group’s goal of driving American and coalition forces from Iraq and preventing a Shia government takeover were appealing to the Sunni population. However, AQI’s extreme tactics alienated potential supporters. Many Iraqis, including Sunnis, took issue with AQI’s use of suicide bombings and other violent attacks, such as assassinations. Additionally, Iraqis disapproved of the group’s willingness to target Iraqis and popular Sunni leaders; its perceived foreign membership and leadership; and its intentional incitement of sectarian violence.[23]

AQI’s increasingly violent attacks prompted Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command at the time, to send Zarqawi a letter urging him to foster better relations with Iraqi leaders.[24] However, Zarqawi often ignored AQ orders and continued to alienate potential supporters with his tactics. The bombing of a hotel in Amman that killed mostly civilians in November 2005 illustrates Zarqawi’s disregard for AQ strategy and guidance.[25] Many Islamist groups also condemned Zarqawi's strategy of killing large numbers of Shiites and destroying Shia religious sites to incite sectarian violence.[26] On February 22, 2006, AQI bombed the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra, also known as the Golden Mosque. The attack prompted at least 27 retaliatory strikes by Shia insurgents against Sunni mosques in Baghdad alone, all of which occurred the same day as the Golden Mosque bombing. As a result of these strikes, violence between Shiites and Sunnis escalated.[27]

Facing local backlash, AQI joined an umbrella organization – Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (MSC) – in an effort to present itself as more of an Iraqi group and demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with other organizations.[28] The MSC was a collective of six jihadi groups in Iraq that sought to expel American and coalition forces from Iraq.[29] MSC, however, exercised little control over the actions of its constituent groups. MSC was a coordination body at most, a media front at worst, and had little to no control over what AQI did.[30]

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

On June 7, 2006, Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike.[31] AQI announced that Zarqawi’s successor would be Abu Ayub al-Masri, an Egyptian bombmaker who had trained in Afghanistan.[32] Despite some intelligence officials’ assumptions that Zarqawi’s death would cripple the organization, Masri initially managed to maintain much of the group’s momentum, especially in carrying out attacks that encouraged sectarian violence.[33]

However, many Iraqi Sunnis continued to criticize AQI for its foreign components, its attempts to impose its own radical brand of Islam on Iraqis, and its use of extreme violence. To brand AQI as more Iraqi, Masri convinced several other groups to merge into his when he declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, although the group also continued to be known as AQI).[34] Masri installed an Iraqi, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, as the head of ISI. AQI aimed to unify the resistance against American and coalition forces, gain attention and support from the global jihadi community, and prepare governing structures to take control after foreign militaries withdrew from the country.[35] This move was to be the first step toward creating a caliphate to rule in the Middle East.[36] Although the name and leadership changes were another attempt to rebrand the organization as more Iraqi (“Baghdadi” means “from Baghdad”), some sources questioned whether Baghdadi truly ran the organization or if he was just a figurehead.[37]

The foreign presence in AQI’s leadership and membership continued to alienate local Iraqis. By December 2007, local concerns forced Abu Umar al-Baghdadi to issue a public statement claiming that only 200 foreign fighters were members of AQI. It is true that the membership of AQI was majority Iraqi in 2006, but coalition forces captured records in 2007 that documented 700 foreign nationals joining AQI and its affiliates between August 2006 and August 2007 alone.[38] However, the pace of foreign recruits was slowing, with fewer coming each month than earlier in the insurgency. In any case, Baghdadi’s declaration was not enough to convince many Iraqis.[39]

Local resistance to AQI contributed to the Anbar Awakening, a movement in which Sunni tribes in Anbar province began to cooperate with American forces against the insurgency.[40] The Awakening paved the way for increased U.S. and Iraqi military operations that would diminish AQI’s capacity by the end of 2007. As a result, AQI was unable to provide security or enforce its extreme interpretations of Islamic law in the areas where it operated. Under this pressure, the group struggled to maintain its territory.[41]

By early 2008, coalition and Iraqi security forces had killed 2,400 AQI members and taken 8,800 of them prisoner.[42] By spring 2009, the U.S. was funding around 100,000 local Sunnis to fight AQI.[43] The local fighters assassinated AQI members and warned other militants not to work with the group.[44] By June 2010, AQI had lost its ability to regularly communicate with AQ leadership, and 36 of AQI’s 42 leaders had been killed or captured.[45] Through 2011, coalition forces continued to coordinate efforts with tribal security forces, killing the majority of AQI’s leadership and leaving it in disarray.[46]

Both Masri and Baghdadi were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid on April 18, 2010. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with the deceased, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi) then assumed control.[47] AQI continued to struggle to maintain relevance through 2011. Coalition forces withdrew later that year.[48]

AQI and ISIS expansion under Baghdadi: January 2012-2014

The withdrawal of coalition forces in December 2011 effectively gave new life to AQI. The organization was no longer facing direct pressure from foreign military forces, allowing it room to recover and coordinate operations. Throughout 2012, the number of AQI attacks increased significantly.[49] In 2012 and 2013, Baghdadi led two separate terror campaigns in Iraq. In 2012, the “Breaking Walls” campaign targeted the Maliki government and prioritized freeing AQI members from prison. In 2013, the “Soldier’s Harvest” campaign targeted Iraqi security forces.[50]

The government’s ostracization of Sunni communities and security failures expedited AQI’s return to prominence. In December 2012, Sunnis in Northern Iraq began protesting Maliki’s poor governance in Anbar province. When Iraqi security forces invaded protest camps, Sunni attacks against Shia targets increased. Causalities mounted, and the civilian death toll in 2013 grew to double that of 2012. When Iraqi security forces attempted to clear a protest camp in Ramadi at the end of 2013, a local uprising drove the security forces out of much of Anbar province, paving the way for later AQI expansion.[51] In 2013, AQI expanded throughout the Anbar and Nineveh provinces, recruiting new members and developing alliances with preexisting local Sunni militias, including Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN).[52] JRTN was led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the former vice president of Saddam’s regime and the organization as a whole was largely composed of Ba’athists.[53] The military expertise of these  allies bolstered AQI’s strength.

AQI also exploited the power vacuum created by the ongoing Syrian Civil War. In April 2013, Baghdadi moved into Syria and rapidly seized territory. During this time, Baghdadi changed the group’s name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He also claimed that AQI had created Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra) in Syria and stated that that the two groups had now merged. Both the Al-Nusra leadership and AQ leader Zawahiri disputed the merger.[54] Zawahiri dictated that ISIS should limit its operations to Iraq.[55] On June 14, Baghdadi publicly rejected Zawahiri’s statement, and ISIS continued to operate in Syria, clashing with other Islamist groups and taking additional territory.[56] In January 2014, ISIS captured the strategic Syrian city of Raqqa against the commands of AQ leadership.[57] AQ officially renounced connection with ISIS in February 2014.[58]

After the split with AQ, ISIS continued to expand and carry out military offensives in Syria and Iraq. The group fought against the governments of Iraq and Syria, tribal groups and militias in Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, and various rebel groups in Syria. ISIS’s strength came from its versatility: part terrorist group, part bureaucratic state, part light infantry. The group was able to seize territory quickly, incite global fear and panic, and establish a basic government in captured cities.[59] The group’s strong media presence also allowed it to recruit members easily, and nearly one-third of ISIS’s 30,000-35,000 fighters were foreign jihadis from more than 80 countries.[60]

In the first half of 2014, ISIS made large territorial gains in Iraq. The group seized Fallujah in January and captured Mosul, Tikrit, and Tal Afar in June.[61]  On June 29, 2014, the group again changed its name, this time to the Islamic State (IS). IS also decaled a caliphate with its capital in Raqqa and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, as the caliph. The group called upon all Muslims to declare allegiance to the new caliphate.[62] By August, IS had control over the Ain Zalah and Batma oil fields and the Mosul Dam, which provided the group with additional sources of wealth.[63]

In Syria, IS benefited from the relatively ambivalent response of the Assad regime who used IS’s presence in the north to force rebel groups into a two-front war.[64] In early 2014, IS suffered losses in northern Syria but retained its stronghold around Raqqa. In the second half of 2014, the group began using weaponry captured from victories in Iraq to gain new momentum in Syria.[65] The group retook territory in northern Syria and attacked a Kurdish militia around the border town of Kobane. In addition to Assad’s strategic use of IS to create a war on two fronts, the group benefited from the willingness of the Assad regime to purchase oil from its territories. Turkey, and the Free Syrian Army also acquired oil from IS, implicitly funding the organization.[66]

The IS caliphate peaked in size in late 2014. IS controlled 100,000 square kilometers of territory, which was home to more than 11 million people.[67] The funds seized from occupied territories combined with natural resources sales, taxation of local communities, and criminal activities yielded IS an estimated $2 billion in assets.[68] In September 2014, experts estimated that IS’s oil revenues alone brought in between $1 million and $2 million per day, making IS the richest terrorist organization in the world.[69] For a more detailed description of IS’s finances, see the resources section of this profile.

IS contraction under regional and global pressure: 2014-2018

The Islamic State’s rapid territorial gains in 2013 and 2014 prompted regional and international response. On August 7, 2014, U.S. President Barak Obama authorized limited air strikes to defend American personnel in Erbil and Baghdad. The strikes were also directed to support the Yazidis, a religious minority stranded on a remote mountain and under threat of massacre by IS.[70] Over time an international coalition – including several European and Arab states, the U.S., Turkey, and Iran – formed to support the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga, and Shia militias fighting against IS.[71] Though there were few ideological similarities uniting the coalition, it rallied behind the shared goal of defeating IS.

In October 2014, the Iraqi army defended its positions to maintain control of Anbar province while the Kurdish peshmerga fought to slow IS’s advancement towards Kobani in northern Syria.[72] In Iraq, IS’s territorial gains slowed as it began to encounter non-Sunni towns, whose populations were more likely to resist IS occupation than Sunni-majority towns.[73] In Syria, IS continued to face hostile militant groups, and the group’s formerly neutral relationship with the Assad regime turned hostile following IS’s occupation of Raqqa.[74] After initial IS successes in the battle over the northern city of Kobani in November, Turkey opened its borders for the Iraqi Kurds to join the front in Syria. Additionally, the U.S. conducted airstrikes on IS bases in Kobani and provided weapons and ammunition to Kurdish groups.[75]

In early 2015, Iraqi government forces, Iraqi tribesmen, and Shia militias continued their campaign against IS from the south and east. In the north, IS faced the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Pressures from all sides forced the group into a debilitating multifront war.[76] Despite its strong military capabilities, IS began to weaken in 2015, losing much of its core revenue because of coalition airstrikes on oil fields and the destruction of agricultural commodities during the fighting.[77] The group became increasingly reliant on criminal activities such as extortion, money laundering, and drug smuggling to generate wealth for its war efforts.[78]  However, in May 2015, IS managed a break through amidst the mounting pressure imposed by its enemies. The group seized Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and Palmyra, a historic Syrian city.[79] By late 2015, IS exercised control over a region home to 5 million people. Though this territory was roughly half of its peak size, the group still held several key cities, including Mosul, Raqqa, Ramadi, and Palmyra.[80]

Around this time, IS began expanding beyond its caliphate. The group established “colonies” abroad, developed alliances with other militant groups, and carried out terrorist attacks on a global scale. The group capitalized on domestic instability in Libya to spark a major insurgency in the country, while other Islamist militant groups declared allegiance to IS, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines, and Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in Egypt.[81] These group’s territories are now considered Islamic State provinces. For more details on IS’s international colonies and affiliates, see the relationships with other groups section in this profile. Also see each group’s individual profile on the Mapping Militants website and the Global Islamic State map.

IS has also carried out numerous terrorist attacks globally. In late 2015 and early 2016, IS militants shot down a Russian plane over the Sinai peninsula, detonated bombs throughout Paris in a series of coordinated attacks, and carried out major bombings at a Belgian airport and metro station. [82] IS’s strong media presence (led by its Al Hayat Media Center) has also inspired individuals around the world to adopt the group’s ideology and carry out attacks. Notable examples include an attack by a gunman at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California and another massacre by a gunman at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida (both in 2016).[83] For a larger list of IS attacks, see the major attacks section.

In 2016, the anti-IS coalition achieved important victories in IS-controlled territories, recovering Ramadi in February and Falluja in June.[84] IS consistently surprised coalition forces with its fierce resistance,  brutal urban fighting with high civilian casualties.[85] In Iraq, the Iraqi army and local Shia militias cooperated in an effort to take and hold IS territory. The Iraqi army focused on liberating an IS-controlled city, and local Shia militias held and protected the territory after the Iraqi military victory.[86] This allowed the Iraqi army to move to the next battle without leaving recaptured areas unsecured and vulnerable. The Shia militia presence, however, also led to tensions with the mostly Sunni communities that they now patrolled.[87]

IS faced additional setbacks in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led the fight against IS in Syria, cutting off IS supply routes to the Turkish border and consolidating territory in the northeast.[88] As IS’s defeat became inevitable, the war to defeat IS quickly became a race to dominate previously IS-controlled territory. The Assad regime and its Russian allies seized IS territory in the border region between Syria and Iraq, while Turkish forces targeted SDF bases with airstrikes and attempted to suppress Kurdish autonomy since it could lead to Kurdish uprisings in Turkey.[89]

In late 2016, coalition forces began major offensives against IS’s last large strongholds in Iraq and Syria: Mosul and Raqqa. The siege of Mosul lasted for nine months, culminating in an IS defeat on July 10, 2017.[90] The battle for Raqqa consisted of two phases. On Novermber 6, 2016, SDF forces began seizing major roadways and rural villages to isolate Raqqa. These efforts were followed with a second phase beginning in June 2017, during which SDF surrounded and fought for control of the city. On October 17, 2017 the last IS militants in Raqqa surrendered. IS had lost control of all its major cities and held only a small piece of territory in Abu Kamal District, Syria along the Euphrates river.[91]

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

Despite these losses, CJTF-OIR (US led joint task force against IS) reported that IS fighters seemed unphased by airstrikes and continued to engage in counter offensives.[92] Throughout 2018, IS made up for its declining strength by reverting to more traditional terrorist tactics; the group developed a network of sleeper cells and engaged in guerilla warfare throughout Syria and Iraq.[93] The lack of a stable state presence in the region allows IS to harass local populations and carry out small-scale terrorist attacks. From mid-2018 to March 2019, the group conducted 250 terrorist attacks against civilians.[94] Including its attacks on infrastructure and government forces, the group carried out an average of 127.1 attacks in the per month in 2018.[95]

The Islamic State still retains extensive wealth and a strong media presence, which guarantee that the group will hold a lasting influence and ability to carry out terrorist attacks in the future. In 2017, IS smuggled $400 million out of its territory and began laundering money through front businesses in Turkey to prepare for its eventual defeat.[96] The group also invested $250 million in Iraqi markets, partnering with legitimate businesses throughout the country.[97]

IS lost its final piece of caliphate territory in Baghuz, Syria on March 23, 2019.[98] Remaining families of IS soldiers fled the territory and were taken captive. Anti-IS coalition leaders celebrated the supposed defeat of IS, but experts are wary of a possible resurgence. Foreign policy analysts argue that the group is stronger now than when the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011.[99] The eventual withdrawal of American funding and troops from Iraq (as threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump in December 2018) will increase the chance of an IS resurgence in the coming years.[100]

As of August 2019, governments in Iraq and Syria are struggling to reintegrate the tens of thousands of IS affiliates held in prison and security camps.[101] Many of these are the families of IS militants, specifically women who renounced citizenship in their home countries and children born in Iraq and Syria with only IS birth documents. [102]  The existence of this large stateless population will prolong IS influence in the region.


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[8] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

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[10] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[11] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[12] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3

[13] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

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[15] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. Page 4. 9 Dec. 2014.

[16] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[17] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24, Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[18] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 70. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

[19] "Al Qaeda, Iraq Partners in Terror -- Powell." CNN. 3 Feb. 2003. Web. 24 Nov. 2014; Boucher, Richard. "Foreign Terrorist Organization: Designation of Jama'at Al-Tawhid Wa'al-Jihad and Aliases." Archive. U.S. Department of State, 15 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[20] Jehl, Douglas. "C.I.A. Says Berg's Killer Was Very Probably Zarqawi." The New York Times. 13 May 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[21] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[22] Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

[23] Al-Jabouri, Najim Abed and Sterling Jensen. “The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening.” National Defense University, Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Jul. 2014; Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

[24] “Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al Qaeda from 1989-2006," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

[25] Philips, James, "Zarqawi's Amman bombings: Jordan's 9/11," The Heritage Foundation, 18 Nov. 2005. Web. 26 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jun. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[26] Hunt, Emily, "Zarqawi's 'Total War' on Iraqi Shiites exposes a divide among Sunni Jihadists," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 15 Nov. 2005. Web. 26 Jan. 2010.

[27] Worth, Robert F. “Muslim Clerics Call for an End to Iraqi Rioting.” New York Times, 25 Feb. 2006. 8, Jul. 2014; Worth, Robert F. “Blast at Shiite Shrine Sets Off Sectarian Fury in Iraq.” The New York Times, 23 Feb. 2006. Web. 2 Jul. 2014.

[28] Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

[29] "Terrorist Organization Profile: Mujahideen Shura Council." National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. University of Maryland, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

[30] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web, 12. 22 Dec. 2014.

[31] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

[32] Kaplan, Eben. "Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir, Zarqawi's Mysterious Successor (aka Abu Ayub Al-Masri)." Council on Foreign Relations. 13 June 2006. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

[33] DeYoung, Karen, and Walter Pincus. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq May Not Be Threat Here." Washington Post. 18 Mar. 2007. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

[34] DeYoung, Karen, and Walter Pincus. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq May Not Be Threat Here." Washington Post. 18 Mar. 2007. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

[35] Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qai'da's Foreign Fighters in Iraq. Rep. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 2 Jan. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. 5.

[36] Siegel, Pascal C. "Islamic State of Iraq Commemorates Its Two-Year Anniversary." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. N.p., 15 Oct. 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[37] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.; Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qai'da's Foreign Fighters in Iraq. Rep. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 2 Jan. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

[38] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014; DeYoung, Karen, and Walter Pincus. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq May Not Be Threat Here." Washington Post. 18 Mar. 2007. Web. 29 Nov. 2014; Fishman, Brian, and Joseph Felter. "Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq | Combating Terrorism Center at West Point." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. 2 Jan. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

[39] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[40] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 72. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014; Al-Jabouri, Najim Abed and Sterling Jensen. “The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening.” National Defense University. Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Jul. 2014.

[41] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24, Jan. 2010.

[42] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3-5.

[43] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3-5.

[44] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3-5.

[45] Lewis, Jessica D. “Middle East Security Report 14: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent: The Breaking the Walls Campaign, Part I.” Institute for the Study of War. September 2013.; Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 73.

[46] Lewis, Jessica D. “Middle East Security Report 14: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent: The Breaking the Walls Campaign, Part I.” Institute for the Study of War, September 2013.

[47] “Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) - Terrorist Groups." National Counterterrorism Center Calendar 2014. National Counterterrorism Center, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

[48] “Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) - Terrorist Groups." National Counterterrorism Center Calendar 2014. National Counterterrorism Center, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

[49] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 74. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014; Lewis, Jessica D. “Middle East Security Report 14: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent: The Breaking the Walls Campaign, Part I.” Institute for the Study of War. Instituted for the Study of War, Sep. 2013. Web. 7 Jul. 2014.

[50] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 76. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.; Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 76. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

[51] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

[52] “The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate.” Middle East Policy Council. Accessed September 9, 2019. Hashim, Ahmed. “The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate.” Middle East Policy Council, Volume XXI, Number 4 - Winter 2014..

[53] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 304.

[54] “Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) - Terrorist Groups." National Counterterrorism Center Calendar 2014. National Counterterrorism Center, n.d. Web. 23 June 2014; Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front emerge as rebranded single entity." The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 June 2014.

[55] Atassi, Basma. "Qaeda chief annuls Syrian-Iraqi jihad merger." Al Jazeera America 9 June 2013. Al Jazeera. Web. 24 June 2014.

[56] "Will the jihadists overreach?." The Economist 12 Oct. 2013. The Economist. Web. 23 June 2014; Laub, Zachary and Jonathan Masters. “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The Council on Foreign Relations. The Council on Foreign Relations, 12 Jun. .2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[57] “Syria, Anti-Assad Rebel Infighting Leaves 700 Dead, Including Civilians.” Asia News, January 13, 2014.

[58] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda's general command disowns the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham." The Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 June 2014.

[59] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 304.

[60] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 304.

[61] Semple, Kirk, and Eric Schmitt. "ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate." The New York Times. 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.; Chulov, Martin. “Isis insurgents seize control of Iraqi city of Mosul.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 10 Jun. 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.; “Iraq Conflict: Militants 'Seize' City of Tal Afar.” BBC News. BBC, June 16, 2014.; “Iraq Crisis: Militants 'Seize Tikrit' after Taking Mosul.” BBC News. BBC, June 11, 2014.

[62] Pizzi, Michael. “In declaring a caliphate, Islamic State draws a line in the sand.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 30 Jun. 2014. Web. 3 Jul. 2014.

[63] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 304.

[64] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 303.

[65] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 305.

[66] Shekhani, Helbast. “Islamic State sold oil to Syrian regime and Turkey, commander says.” Kurdistan 24. 02 Jul. 2018.

[67] Jones, Seth G., James Dobbins, Daniel Byman, Christopher S. Chivvis, Ben Connable, Jeffrey Martini, Eric Robinson, and Nathan Chandler, Rolling Back the Islamic State. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1912.html. xi.

[68] Zahiyeh, Ehab. “How ISIL became a major force with only a few thousand fighters.” 19 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[69] "How ISIS Works." The New York Times. 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[70] “President Obama Makes a Statement on the Crisis in Iraq.” National Archives and Records Administration. 7 Aug 2014.; Barnard, Anne. "Opposition in Syria Is Skeptical of U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS." The New York Times. 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[71] " Statement by the President." Office of the Press Secretary. The White House, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

[72] Semple, Kirk, and Eric Schmitt. "ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate." The New York Times. 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[73] Hubbard, Ben. "ISIS Wave of Might Is Turning Into Ripple." The New York Times. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014; Cooper, Helene, and Eric Schmitt. "ISIS Official Killed in U.S. Raid in Syria, Pentagon Says." The New York Times. N.p., 16 May 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.

[74] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. 10 Feb. 2015, 303.

[75] Kakol, Kamil, and Kareem Fahim. "Iraqi Kurds Are Joining Fight to Drive Islamic State From Kobani." The New York Times. 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[76] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 309-310.

[77]“The Financing of the 'Islamic State' in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”  European Parliament, September 2017. 17-18.

[78]“The Financing of the 'Islamic State' in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”  European Parliament, September 2017. 17-18.

[79] Barnard, Anne, and Saad, Hwaida. “ISIS Fighters Seize Control of Syrian City of Palmyra, and Ancient Ruins.” The New York Times, May 20, 2015.; Shoichet, Catherine E. “ISIS Takes Control of Ramadi, a Key Iraqi City.” CNN, May 18, 2015.

[80] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 309.

[81] “Boko Haram in Nigeria | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations, July 29, 2019.; Gomez, Alan. “Islamic State–Sinai Province: What Is the ISIS-Linked Terrorist Group?” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, November 24, 2017.; Beech, Hannah, and Jason Gutierrez. “How ISIS Is Rising in the Philippines as It Dwindles in the Middle East.” The New York Times. The New Times, March 9, 2019.

[82] "Russia Begins Withdrawal of Forces from Syria." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.; "Paris Attacks: Salah Abdeslam 'refused to Blow Himself Up' BBC News." BBC News, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.; “Brussels Attacks: Zaventem and Maelbeek bombs kill many.” BBC. BBC, 22 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017

[83] "FBI Probes Islamic State, Terror Links to San Bernardino Massacre." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.

[84] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[85] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[86] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[87] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[88] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[89] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 118:1, 315-374, February 13, 2018. 316.; Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[90] “Battle for Mosul: Iraq PM Abadi Formally Declares Victory.” BBC News, July 10, 2017.; “How the Battle for Mosul Unfolded.” BBC News, July 10, 2017.

[91]Malsin, Jared. “Raqqa Lies in Ruins as ISIS Near Defeat as Military Force.” Time.

[92] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20-21.

[93] Callimachi, Rukmini, Jin Wu, and Derek Watkins. “ISIS Lost Its Last Territory in Syria. But the Attacks Continue.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[94] Callimachi, Rukmini, Jin Wu, and Derek Watkins. “ISIS Lost Its Last Territory in Syria. But the Attacks Continue.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[95] Knights, Michael. “The Islamic State Inside Iraq: Losing Power or Preserving Strength?” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point: CTC Sentinel 11, no. 11 (December 2018). 2.

[96] Al-Hashimi, Hisham, and Renad Mansour. “ISIS Inc.” Foreign Policy. January 16, 2018.

[97] Lister, Charles. “Trump Says ISIS Is Defeated. Reality Says Otherwise.” Politico Magazine, March 18, 2019.

[98] Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[99] Lister, Charles. “Trump Says ISIS Is Defeated. Reality Says Otherwise.” Politico Magazine, March 18, 2019.

[100] Landler, Mark, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt. “Trump to Withdraw U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS.’” New York Times, December 19, 2019.

[101] Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[102] Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

 

Organizational Structure

Leadership, Name Changes, Size Estimates, Resources, Geographic Locations

    Name Changes
  • Name Changes
  • Size Estimates
  • Geographic Locations
  • Resources
  • Leadership

Name Changes

  • 1999: Jama’at Tawhid wal Jihad (JTJ). The group was formally established following a donation from Osama Bin Laden in 1999.[1] JTJ is the name that the U.S. State Department used to refer to Zarqawi’s network of militants. JTJ was also known as Tawhid wal Jihad (TwJ).[2]
  • October 2004: Al Qaeda in the land of Two Rivers, more popularly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In Arabic, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn. This name change occurred when Zarqawi formally joined Al Qaeda.[3]
  • October 2006: Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). This name change was part of a rebranding attempt, intended to consolidate support, stress the focus on governmental infrastructure, and gain a wider base of followers. Despite this name change, the group also continued to be known as AQI.[4]
  • April 2013: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISI changed its name after the group’s cooperation with AQ Central and al-Nusra broke down and after it began to expand its operations into Syria. ISIS is sometimes translated as “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL).[5] The variation in translation stems from the word al-Sham, which refers to an area spanning Southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt, which can be translated as “Greater Syria” or “the Levant.”[6]
  • June 29, 2014: Islamic State (IS). The group changed its name after it declared the establishment of a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many media sources have continued to refer to the group as ISIS/ISIL.


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

[2] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, Jul. 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. 3

[3] Zelin, Aaron Y. “The War between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Nov. 2013 – Jun. 2014. 1.

[4] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014

[5] The National Counterterrorism Center. “Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).” The National Counterterrorism Center. Retrieved June 23, 2014; Joscelyn, Thomas. “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front emerge as rebranded single entity.” The Long War Journal. 9, Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[6] Tharoor, Ishann. “ISIS or ISIL? The debate over what to call Iraq’s terror group.” The Washington Post. Jun. 2014. Web. 3 Jul. 2014.

 

Size Estimates

  • October 2001: 2,000-3,000 (Center for Strategic and International Studies) This number is the total population of the JTJ training camp in Herat including family members of JTJ soldiers.[1]
  • October 2004: A few hundred in JTJ (BBC)[2]
  • 2005: 1,000+, exact number unknown (U.S. Department of State)[3]
  • 2006: 1,000+ (U.S. Department of State) [4]
  • 2007: 5,000-10,000 (U.S. Department of State)[5]
  • 2011: 1,000-2,000 (U.S. Department of State)[6]
  • 2014: 20,000-31,500 (C.I.A.)[7]
  • 2016: 30,000 (U.S. Military via Council of Foreign Relations)[8]
  • 2018: 20,000-30,000 (United Nations Security Council) Pentagon leaders give these estimates low credibility. [9]
  • March 2019: 29,000 (SDF Officials) This is the number of IS members taken captive after the siege of Baghuz, although more IS members likely fled or assimilated into general population.[10]
  • April 2019: 4,000-5,000 active militants in Northeast Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)[11]
  • June 2019: 14,000-18,000 including both members and fighters (CJTF-OIR). CJTF-OIR defines members as individuals who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State while fighters are individuals who take up arms to actively fight for the organization.[12]


[1] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[2] "Profile: Tawhid and Jihad Group." BBC News. 8 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[3] "Country Reports on Terrorism," United States Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Apr. 2006. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.

[4] Tilghman, Andrew, "The myth of AQI," Washington Monthly, Oct. 2007. Web. 26 Jan. 2010.

[5] Katzman, Kenneth. “Al Qaeda in Iraq: Assessment and Outside Links” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 15 Aug. 2008. 16.

[6] "Country Reports on Terrorism 2011." U.S. Department of State. Published July 31, 2012.

[7] Yeginsu, Ceylan. "ISIS Draws a Steady Stream of Recruits From Turkey." The New York Times. 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[8] Zenko, Micah. "How Many Bombs Did the United States Drop in 2015?" Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[9] United Nations Security Council, UNSC S/2018/705, 7/25/2018.

[10]Rempfer, Kyle. “Low Aim or Intel Failure? ISIS’ Last Stand Shows the Difficulty in Estimating Enemy Manpower.” Military Times, March 27, 2019.

[11] Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir. “Security Forces in Raqqa Bust ISIS Sleeper Cell.” Kurdistan 24, April 8, 2019.

[12] Operation Inherent Resolve - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, April 1, 2019‒June 30, 2019. 15.

 

Geographic Locations

Disclaimer: This is a partial list of where the militant organization has bases and where it operates. This does not include information on where the group conducts major attacks or has external influences.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

JTJ’s original training camp was based in Herat, Afghanistan but the group fled the country following US invasion in 2001.[1] JTJ operated in Jordan from 2002 until 2005 and has operated in Iraq continually since 2003.[2]

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

By late 2010, AQI was primarily located in northern Iraq but remained capable of conducting attacks across the entire country.[3]

AQI and ISIS expansion under Baghdadi: January 2012-2014

AQI captured territory in Northern Iraq after the U.S. withdrew from the country in 2011. In 2013, the group expanded into Syria. By 2014, ISIS had control of strategic cities in both northern Syria and western Iraq, including Raqqa, Fallujah, and Mosul.[4] The group’s strongest Syrian base was in Raqqa.[5] ISIS also took control of nearly all official border crossings between Iraq and Syria and the only border crossing between Iraq and Jordan.[6]

IS contraction under regional and global pressure: 2014-2018

In 2015, offensive efforts by Kurdish forces combined with air strikes from the American-led coalition retook territory from IS in northern Syria. However, the group was still able to gain control of Palmyra, a historic and strategic city in Syria, and Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province in Iraq.[7] During the first nine months of 2016, IS lost 28% of its territory in Syria and Iraq, including its stronghold in Fallujah, which it lost in June 2016.[8] In Iraq, Iraqi armed forces began a campaign to retake Mosul in October 2016. In Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces began a campaign to retake Raqqa in November 2016.[9]

In 2015, IS established a stronghold in Libya. The IS Libya colony carried out terrorist attacks at Western hotels, beheaded Coptic Egyptians, and seized territory.[10] In February 2016, the Pentagon estimated that the number of IS fighters in Libya had doubled to 5,000.[11] Despite losing its stronghold in Sirte to Libyan pro-government forces in December 2016, IS fighters still threatened the nation’s oil reserves and gained access to neighboring states, such as Tunisia.[12]

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

IS officially lost its last territory in Iraq in December 2017.[13] By 2018, IS had lost all of its major strongholds in Syria and Iraq, only retaining a small piece of land along the Euphrates river. On March 23, 2019, anti-IS forces retook the group’s final piece of territory in Baghuz, Syria, bringing an end to the caliphate’s existence. [14] Though IS no longer holds territory, the group continues to operate sleeper cells in Iraq and retains a global network of jihadists. [15]

In addition to its presence in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, IS claims to conduct operations in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, East Asia (specifically the Philippines), Somalia, and West Africa (specifically Nigeria).[16] IS also has a branch based in the Khorasan region, which covers areas of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries. [17] Additionally, IS has recently claimed affiliation with militant groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[18]


[1] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[2] U.S. Department of State. "Iraq" Country Reports on Terrorism. UN Refugee Organization. 2010. Web. 12 Jul. 2012.

[3] Bahney, Benjamin, Howard Shatz, Carroll Gainer, Renny McPherson, and Barbara Sude. An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Rep. RAND Corporation, 2010. Web, 15. 22 Dec. 2014.

[4] Almukhtar, Sarah, Natasha Perkel, Archie Tse, and Karen Yourish. “Where ISIS is Gaining Control in Iraq and Syria.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[5] Caris, Charles, and Samuel Reynolds. ISIS Governance in Syria. Middle East Security Report 22: 4. Institute for the Study of War, July 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[6] Arango, Tim and Michael R. Gordon. “Iraqi Insurgents Secure Control of Border Posts.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Jun. 2014. Web. 25 Jun. 2014.

[7] Pecanha, Sergio, and Derek Watkins. "ISIS’ Territory Shrank in Syria and Iraq This Year." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[8] Mortimer, Caroline. “Isis loses a third of its territory in Syria and Iraq, analysts say.” The Independent. The Independent, 9 Oct. 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017; McKirdy, Euan and Alkhshali Hamdi. “Iraqi general: ‘The battle for Falluja is over.’” CNN. CNN, 26 Jun. 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[9] Torpey, Paul et al. “The battle for Mosul in map.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017; “US in ‘close contact’ with Turkey over Raqqa assault.” Al Arabiya English. Al Arabiya, 6 Nov. 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017

[10] Robins-Early, Nick. "What We Know About ISIS In Libya." The World Post. Huffington Post. 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017

"ISIS Video Claims Beheadings of Egyptian Christians." CNN. Cable News Network. Web. 28 Feb. 2016; Stephen, Chris. "Egyptian Air Strikes in Libya Kill Dozens of Isis Militants." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[11] Robins-Early, Nick. "What We Know About ISIS In Libya." The World Post. Huffington Post. 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017

[12] Withnall, Adam. “Isis ‘loses control of Sirte’ as Libyan pro-government forces say battle is over.” The Independent. The Independent, 5 Dec. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017; Robins-Early, Nick. "What We Know About ISIS In Libya." The World Post. Huffington Post. 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017

[13] Knights, Michael. “The Islamic State Inside Iraq: Losing Power or Preserving Strength?” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point: CTC Sentinel 11, no. 11, December 2018. 1.

[14] Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[15] Callimachi, Rukmini, Jin Wu, and Derek Watkins. “ISIS Lost Its Last Territory in Syria. But the Attacks Continue.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[16] Al-Lami, Mina. “Where is the Islamic State Group Still Active in the World.” BBC News. 27 Mar. 2019.

[17] Al-Lami, Mina. “Where is the Islamic State Group Still Active in the World.” BBC News. 27 Mar. 2019.; “Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K).” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Last updated November 9, 2018.

[18] Wembi, Steve, and Joseph Goldstein. “ISIS Claims First Attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” New York Times, April 19, 2019.

 

Resources

The Islamic State is one the world’s richest terrorist organizations, financing itself through the sale of natural resources, the taxation of local communities in its territory, and criminal activities. In late 2015, the Islamic State’s assets (including oil and gas reserves, cash, minerals, and land) were valued at $2.2 billion.[1]

IS’s sources of revenue have changed throughout its history. Initially, it received funding from wealthy individuals in the Gulf region and foreign fighters joining the group.[2] During the American invasion of Iraq, the theft and smuggling of oil also composed a large part of the group’s income. This trend continued through the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, during which IS sold oil to many actors in the conflict.[3] Coalition airstrikes targeting oil refineries damaged the oil industry in the area, reducing the group’s ability to profit from oil sales. However, IS made up for this loss by increasing its taxation of local communities and agricultural commodities, which grew to be the largest source of revenue for the group. As IS began to lose territory and power in 2016, the group turned to criminal activities to fund its operations, such as extortion, kidnappings, and theft.[4]

In March 2019, IS lost its final piece of territory in Syria. Despite the end of its caliphate, IS has already laundered millions of dollars of its savings into international banks to finance future attacks. Below is a more detailed description of the different sources of IS revenue throughout its history.

Foreign Donors

Foreign donations were crucial in the initial development of the group although they now constitute a negligible part of the group’s overall assets. Zarqawi’s original training camp in Herat was funded by Osama bin Laden in 1999.[5] In 2002, AQI relied on weapons and fighters smuggled across the border from supporters based in Syria and received logistical assistance from supporters throughout the Arabian Gulf.[6] Foreign fighters also provided significant funding for AQI’s initial operations. Of the foreign fighter donors, Saudi Arabians provided the largest sums.[7]

Prior to the group’s rapid territorial gains and the creation of the caliphate, IS relied on monetary support from individual donors in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.[8] The group received an estimated $40 million from these donors between 2013 and 2014.[9]

Oil

The Islamic State has financed itself through oil sales since the American invasion of Iraq, first stealing oil products to sell and then operating oil refineries that it had seized. In 2007, between $1 and $2 billion of oil products had disappeared from the Bayji oil refinery and been sold on the black market. IS was known to engage in both the theft and the smuggling of oil.[10]

During the expansion of IS’s caliphate, oil sales were thought of as the group’s main source of revenue. In September 2014, experts estimated that IS’s oil revenues alone brought in between $1 million and $2 million per day.[11] Data from the U.S. Department of Treasury also claimed that IS’s illicit oil sales accounted for 2/3 of its annual revenue stream in 2015.[12] However, new information challenges these claims. In October 2014, the Congressional Research Service reported that the U.S. and its allies had destroyed about half of the group’s refineries with air strikes. Additionally, skilled engineers and technicians that worked on refineries were killed or fled the area.[13] As more IS territory was seized by coalition forces, criminal activities and taxation of local communities constituted a much greater portion of revenue.

Criminal Activities and Taxation

After its split from AQ Central in 2013, IS funded itself by taxing the population in its territory and by committing criminal activities, such as kidnapping, extortion of local businesses, robberies, and smuggling.[14]

IS extracted considerable wealth from the 12 million people who lived in its caliphate. According to Reuters, IS extortion and taxes generated as much as $360 million per year.[15]  Another 2015 report argues that taxation of local communities accounted for the majority of the group’s revenue, dwarfing oil sales by a ratio of 6:1.[16] Recently uncovered documents from recaptured IS territory suggest that the caliphate taxed every transaction and kept meticulous financial records. This evidence corroborates the claims that extortion and taxation of local communities formed the bulk of IS’s income.[17]

Existing evidence suggests that IS bureaucrats levied immense taxes on local residents, especially minorities such as Christians who were forced to pay a special tax to avoid being crucified.[18] IS also seized property of Shias and non-Muslims before selling it to Sunni families at discounted prices.[19] IS also taxed up to 50% of government employees salaries.[20] The group justified its taxes on income and personal wealth as a form of zakat (Islamic charity), but the rate of taxation was far higher than traditionally was normal. IS also used the revenue for the army as opposed to funding social and public goods.[21]

Additionally, IS seized assets from areas under its control to finance its operations. For example, when the group captured Mosul, it stole the money of the Mosul Central bank. The Washington Post estimated that IS took around $425 million from the bank, while the New York Times estimated that IS stole somewhere between $65 million and $400 million.[22]

Coalition airstrikes and efforts to retake IS-held territory reduced the group’s ability to exact revenue from oil and agriculture. Instead, IS began to rely more heavily on criminal activities to finance its operations.[23] Money from taxation, extortion, kidnappings, and theft constituted the majority of IS’s income after 2014.[24] The group also engaged in other criminal activities, such as trafficking migrants from Libya into Europe, smuggling drugs throughout the Middle East, and illegally selling antiquities from archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria.[25]

Agricultural commodities

The Islamic State inherited a robust agricultural economy. At its peak in 2015, IS territory included the majority of the “upper Mesopotamian region,” the primary grain-producing area in Syria and Iraq.[26] The territory under IS control had historically accounted for 2/3 of Syria’s grain production and 1/3 of Iraq’s grain production.[27] IS generated revenue by taxing agricultural activities, including land renting and the sale of crops. In 2015, researchers estimated that IS made $56 million from its taxation of wheat and barley crops as they were distributed across domestic markets in Iraq and Syria.[28]

Recently discovered documents detail how IS taxed every step of the agricultural process and profited immensely during its time in power. The group generated $800 million each year in the taxation of civilians, most of which was from taxes on agriculture.[29] IS relied on crops grown in its territories to sustain local populations without trading with surrounding communities or regions. The group also reportedly generated revenue by smuggling of a portion of its wheat, barley, and cotton into neighboring countries. Although this activity has not been confirmed, researchers using satellite imagery to map IS food production suspect it to be true.[30]


[1] Bindner, Laurence, and Gabriel Poirot. “ISIS Financing.” Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. May 2016.

[2] "ISIS: Portrait of a Jihadi Terrorist Organization." The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. November 2014.151-52.

[3] Shekhani, Helbast. “Islamic State sold oil to Syrian regime and Turkey, commander says.” Kurdistan 24. July 2, 2018.

[4] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 311.

[5] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 3. 24 Nov. 2014.

[6] Londoño, Ernesto, "Al-Qaeda in Iraq gaining in strength," Washington Post Foreign Service, 22 Nov. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2010.

[7] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, Jul. 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[8] BBC. “Profile: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). BBC. BBC, 6 Jun. 2014. Web. 23, Jun. 2014

[9] "How the Islamic State Makes Its Money." Washington Post. The Washington Post. Web. 28 Feb. 2016; Dickinson, Elizabeth. "Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria's Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home." The Brookings Institution. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[10] Bahney, Benjamin, Howard Shatz, Carroll Gainer, Renny McPherson, and Barbara Sude. An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Rep. RAND Corporation, 2010. Web. 15. 22 Dec. 2014.

[11] "How ISIS Works." The New York Times. 16 Sep. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[12] McCarthy, N. “How Does ISIS Fund Itself?” Statista. December 7th, 2015.

[13] "How the Islamic State Makes Its Money." Washington Post. The Washington Post. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[14] Nordland, Rod and Alissa J. Rubin. “Iraq Insurgents Reaping Wealth as They Advance.” June 20, 2014, retrieved June 23, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/world/middleeast/isis-iraq-insurgents-... Laub, Zachary and Jonathan Masters. “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The Council on Foreign Relations. June 12, 2014, retrieved June 23, 2014 from http://www.cfr.org/iraq/islamic-state-iraq-greater-syria/p14811.

[15] Brisard, Jean-Charles, and Damien Martinez. "ISLAMIC STATE: THE ECONOMY-BASED TERRORIST FUNDING." Thomas Reuters Accelus. Web.

[16] Almukhtar, Sarah. “ISIS Finances Are Strong.” New York Times, May 19, 2015.

[17] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[18] Nordland, Rod, and Alissa J. Rubin. “Iraq Insurgents Reaping Wealth as They Advance.” New York Times, June 20, 2014.

[19] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[20] Almukhtar, Sarah. “ISIS Finances Are Strong.” New York Times, May 19, 2015.

[21] Blannin, Patrick. “Islamic State’s Financing: Sources, Methods and Utilisation.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 9, no. 5 (2017): 13-22.

[22] McCoy, Terrence. “ISIS just stole $425 million, Iraqi governor says, and becomes ‘world’s richest terrorist group.’” The Washington Post.  The Washington Post, 12 Jun. 2014, Web. 23 Jun. 2014.; Nordland, Rod and Alissa J. Rubin. “Iraq Insurgents Reaping Wealth as They Advance.” New York Times. New York Times, 20 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[23] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 311.

[24] Almukhtar, Sarah. “ISIS Finances Are Strong.” New York Times, May 19, 2015.

[25] Blannin, Patrick. “Islamic State’s Financing: Sources, Methods and Utilisation.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 9, no. 5 (2017): 13-22.; Clarke, Colin "ISIS Is So Desperate It's Turning to the Drug Trade." RAND Corporation. July 25, 2017.

[26]Jaafar, Hadi H., and Eckart H. Woertz. “Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and Remote Sensing Analysis.” Food Policy 64, September 14, 2016. 14–25. 16.

[27]Jaafar, Hadi H., and Eckart H. Woertz. “Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and Remote Sensing Analysis.” Food Policy 64, September 14, 2016. 14–25. 17.

[28]Jaafar, Hadi H., and Eckart H. Woertz. “Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and Remote Sensing Analysis.” Food Policy 64, September 14, 2016. 14–25. 23.

[29] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[30]Jaafar, Hadi H., and Eckart H. Woertz. “Agriculture as a Funding Source of ISIS: A GIS and Remote Sensing Analysis.” Food Policy 64, September 14, 2016. 14–25.

 

Leadership

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (1999 to June 7, 2006): Zarqawi founded JTJ and served as its first leader. In October 2004, Zarqawi led JTJ to formally join Al Qaeda (AQ) and renamed it Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).[1] Under Zarqawi, AQI targeted civilians in its attacks. Both AQ leadership and the local Iraqi population grew frustrated with Zarqawi and AQI over its victimization of civilians. [2] Zarqawi largely ignored pressures from AQ to change his tactics and proceeded to use extremist violence. In 2006, Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike. He was a major figurehead in the Iraqi insurgency and became America’s most wanted man in Iraq.[3]

Abu Ayub al-Masri (October 2006 to April 18, 2010): Masri, also known as Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Hamza, became AQI's top commander after Zarqawi's death. A former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Masri had close ties to AQ leadership, particularly EIJ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. After the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Masri handed over the leadership to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi in an attempt to re-brand the group as more Iraqi.[4] Some reports indicate the leadership change was purely nominal and that Masri maintained control even after Baghdadi became the face of the organization.[5] Masri was killed during a joint raid by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in April 2010, several years after he had turned over power to Baghdadi.

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (October 2006 to April 18, 2010): Baghdadi took over the leadership in 2006 as part of an effort to rebrand the group as more Iraqi.[6] However, some sources reported that Baghdadi was not actually the true leader of AQI and that the leadership change was purely for show.[7] Baghdadi was killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (2010 to Present): Baghdadi, also known as Abu Du’a, took control of AQI in 2010 and led its expansion into Syria. During this time, Baghdadi changed the group’s name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Baghdadi is a secretive figure; he did not appear in any videos until a July 2014 sermon.[8] In April 2019, Baghdadi appeared in video again to acknowledge a defeat at Baghuz, announce new global allies, and threaten future attacks.[9] His current whereabouts are disputed. Intelligence from Iraqi government officials and the Popular Mobilization Forces (Shia militias) offer differing claims that Baghdadi is in either Syria, Libya, or Iraq.[10] The most detailed claim from the Popular Mobilization Forces argues he is hiding in a tunnel in the Rutbah district of Iraq.[11]


[1] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 5.

[2] Al-Jabouri, Najim Abed and Sterling Jensen. “The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening.” National Defense University, Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Jul. 2014; Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2014; “Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al Qaeda from 1989-2006," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010.

[3] Knickmeyer, Ellen, and Jonathan Finer. "Insurgent Leader Al-Zarqawi Killed in Iraq." Washington Post. N.p., 08 June 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

[4] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 5.

[5] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.; Philips , James, "Zarqawi's Amman bombings: Jordan's 9/11," The Heritage Foundation, 18, Nov. 2005. Web. 26, Jan. 2010.

[6] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 5.

[7] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jun. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[8] "Profile: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi." BBC News. N.p., 5 Jul. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014; Hunt, Emily, "Zarqawi's 'Total War' on Iraqi Shiites exposes a divide among Sunni Jihadists," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 15 Nov. 2005. 26 Jan. 2010.

[9] “Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi: IS Leader Appears in First Video in Five Years.” BBC News, April 30, 2019.

[10] “ISIS Leader Baghdadi Now Hiding in Libya: Ex-Iraqi Minister.” Al Masdar News, July 16, 2019.

[11] “ISIS Leader Baghdadi Now Hiding in Libya: Ex-Iraqi Minister.” Al Masdar News, July 16, 2019.

 

Strategy

Ideology, Aims, Political Activities, Targets, and Tactics

    Ideology and Goals
  • Ideology and Goals
  • Political Activities
  • Targets and Tactics

Ideology and Goals

The Islamic State’s ideology is rooted in Salafism – a fundamentalist movement within Sunni Islam – and Jihadism – a modern interpretation of the Islamic concept of struggle, often used in the context of defensive warfare. Salafis believe the most pure, virtuous form of Islam was practiced by the early generation of Muslims (known as Salaf) who lived around the lifetime of the prophet Muhammed.[1] While other conservative Islamist movements espouse similar ideas, Salafism separates itself by trying to recreate the actual lifestyle and behavior of these early Muslims instead of simply adhering to the same religious beliefs.[2]

Interpretations of Salafi philosophy differ widely, and the movement is not inherently violent. Scholars generally distinguish between three types of Salafism: (1) quietist Salafism that emphasizes conservative a lifestyle but lacks ambitions to change the trends of broader society; (2) political Salafism that seeks to replace secular regimes with conservative ones; and (3) jihadist Salafism that advocates violence to defend against the dangers of secularism.[3] Jihadism is a modern interpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad, which is broadly used to justify defensive warfare against oppression in extreme circumstances.[4] Modern jihadi groups have molded this philosophy to justify their terrorist activities as defense against attack by Western countries.[5] Salafi jihadists emphasize the military history of early Muslims communities and view their actions as divinely justified continuations of this legacy.[6] The Islamic State is considered a Salafi jihadist group.

Related to these beliefs is the Islamic concept of takfir – excommunicating another Muslim and declaring them a non-believer.[7] IS applies takfir to Shias, secular Middle Eastern governments, governments partnered with the West, and Sunni communities that reject IS’s extreme views and strict interpretation of Shariah law. Under takfir, these groups are now potentially enemies, and IS’s use of defensive jihad against them is justified.[8]

Since its inception, the Islamic State has sought to establish an Islamic caliphate based on its Salafi philosophy and fundamentalist interpretation of Shariah law.[9] Below is a chronological explanation of how the group’s goals and ideology changed throughout its existence. In its earlier iterations as JTJ and AQI, the group focused on achieving more concrete goals, such as driving foreign forces from Iraq. As the organization grew, it put more emphasis on the establishment of a caliphate and the creation of a global Salafi jihadist movement.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, JTJ sought to drive foreign forces out of the country and prevent Shia Muslims from taking over the Iraqi government.[10] This goal was shared by a number of nationalist, Ba’athist, and other Islamist forces in Iraq.[11] JTJ also sought to impose its extreme interpretation of Shariah and eventually found an Islamic state.[12]

In October 2004, Zarqawi formally joined Al Qaeda and renamed his organization Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).[13] In March 2005, the group released an explanation of its ideology which largely deviated from the beliefs of AQ leadership. AQI regarded secularism, nationalism, tribalism, Baathism, and other beliefs and doctrines as violations of Islam. It believed that all Sunni Muslims made up a single nation and considered Shias to be apostates. AQI committed itself to spreading its own extreme interpretation of Islam and ultimately eliminating other belief systems from the world.[14]

There were serval points of disagreement between AQI and AQ. The two groups targeted different enemies with their terrorist attacks and warfare. Bin Laden and leaders of AQ directed their attacks against the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States and the West), while AQI leader Zarqawi preferred to fight the “near enemy” (i.e., secular regimes in the Middle East and Muslims who opposed the group’s views).[15] Zarqawi did not have any reservations about targeting Muslims; he specifically disdained Shias, a hatred that was not shared by AQ leadership.[16] Bin Laden and AQ also criticized Zarqawi for his indiscriminate use of violence and extreme brutality. Bombings that deliberately targeted civilians and other Muslims made AQI extremely unpopular throughout the Middle East and damaged the image of Al Qaeda.[17] These ideological differences introduced a growing tension in the AQ-AQI relationship.

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

After Zarqawi’s death, AQI still sought to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. Additionally, AQI opposed Shia control of Iraq and aimed to undermine the transitional government. However, the group was weakened by a surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and waning support from its traditional areas of influence in the Sunni triangle.

After American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, IS capitalized on the exclusion of Sunni communities by the Maliki government and began regaining power in Northern Iraq. Its ultimate goal became the establishment of a caliphate within Iraq and the destruction of the secular, Shia-led government.

AQI and ISIS expansion under Baghdadi: January 2012-2014

Although AQI continued to oppose Iraqi security forces, the group failed to prevent a Shia government; after Nouri al-Maliki won the 2010 election and was re-elected as Iraq’s prime minister, he concentrated government power with other Shia Muslims.[18] Aiming to collapse the Maliki government, AQI began attacking government targets more aggressively as part of Baghdadi’s 2012 “Breaking Walls” campaign.[19]

In 2013, Baghdadi announced AQI operations in Syria and emphasized the goal of establishing a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim state in Iraq and Greater Syria.[20] After finding some success, the group focused on capturing territory. It enforced its interpretation of Shariah law in areas under its control and changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[21] In June 2014, Baghdadi formally declared a caliphate and altered the group’s name again to the Islamic State (IS). Baghdadi also demanded that Muslims and other jihadist groups declare allegiance to IS.

IS contraction under regional and global pressure: 2014-2018

IS activities within its caliphate mirrored its ideology and goals. IS implemented religious codes to emulate the lifestyle of Muhammed and his early followers. The group promoted adherence to its codes by paying local children to patrol IS territory and monitor behavior. Violations of IS laws warranted immediate action, often in the form of public beatings or, in extreme cases, execution.[22]

As IS accumulated more territory, the creation of a bureaucracy and establishment of a functioning state became a central goal of the organization. IS created a complex taxation system to fund government programs and military campaigns, and the group used the threat of violence to ensure these state services functioned efficiently.[23] For a more specific explanation of IS’s bureaucracy and taxation system, please see the Resources and the Targets & Tactics sections of this profile.

After 2014, IS began developing a global jihad network with affiliates and colonies outside of the Middle East.[24] Inspiring terrorist attacks in these new regions became a central goal of IS. For more information on Islamic State affiliates and colonies, please see the Geographic Locations and Relationships with Other Groups sections of this profile.

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

By 2018, it was clear that IS had been defeated by the global coalition. Weakened militarily and without territory under its control, the group reverted to a rural insurgency in Iraq and Syria.[25] In an April 2019 video, Baghdadi appeared for the first time in five years and addressed the recent destruction of the caliphate.[26] He explained that the defeat of the caliphate was temporary and that the Islamic State would return to the region again.[27] Baghdadi also accepted new alliances with groups in Mali and Burkina Faso, and he acknowledged IS’s role in the April 21, 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka.[28] The speech reaffirmed the centrality of IS’s goal to lead a global jihad movement and build a caliphate under its control.


[1] Hamid, Shadi, and Rashid Dar. “Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer.” Brookings Institution. July 15, 2016.

[2] Wood, Graeme. "What ISIS Really Wants." The Atlantic. March 2015.

[3] Erasmus. "How to Understand Salafism in America." The Economist. October 24, 2018.

[4] Lahoud, Nelly. “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology.” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 3, no. 10, October 2010.

[5] Lahoud, Nelly. “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology.” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 3, no. 10, October 2010.

[6] Hamid, Shadi, and Rashid Dar. “Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer.” Brookings Institution. July 15, 2016.

[7] Lahoud, Nelly. “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology.” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 3, no. 10, October 2010.

[8] Hamid, Shadi, and Rashid Dar. “Islamism, Salafism, and jihadism: A primer.” Brookings Institution. July 15, 2016.

[9] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014; Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4, 2014. 70.

[10] Jehl, Douglas. "C.I.A. Says Berg's Killer Was Very Probably Zarqawi." The New York Times. 13 May Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[11] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[12] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.; Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 70. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

[13] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Jan. 2010; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. https://www.csis.org/analysis/al-qaeda-iraq.

[14] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 71. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

[15] Byman, Daniel. “Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different Goals, Different Targets.” Brookings Institution. April 29, 2015.

[16] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[17] Byman, Daniel. “Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different Goals, Different Targets.” Brookings Institution. April 29, 2015.

[18] Profile: Nouri Maliki." BBC News. 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

[19] Lewis, Jessica D. “Middle East Security Report 14: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent: The Breaking the Walls Campaign, Part I.” Institute for the Study of War. Sep. 2013. Web.  7Jul. 2014.

[20] BBC. “Profile: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The BBC. 6 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 June. 2014; Laub, Zachary and Jonathan Masters. “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The Council on Foreign Relations. The Council on Foreign Relations, 12 Jun. 2014. 23 Jun. 2014

[21] BBC. “Profile: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The BBC. 6 Jun. 2014. Web.  23 June.  2014.

[22] “Islamist Extremist Strategy: Executions.” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, September 13, 2018.

[23] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[24] Lister et al. "ISIS goes global: 143 attacks in 29 countries have killed 2,043." CNN. February 12, 2018.

[25] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20.

[26] Clarke, Colin. “What the Baghdadi Video Means.” RAND Corporation. April 30, 2019.

[27] Clarke, Colin. “What the Baghdadi Video Means.” RAND Corporation. April 30, 2019.

[28] Clarke, Colin. “What the Baghdadi Video Means.” RAND Corporation. April 30, 2019.

 

Political Activities

The group never engaged in legal politics. Instead, it has sought to establish its own state in territories under its control. After it seized territory in Iraq and Syria, IS created a system of government and provided public services in the areas under its control. After losing control of its territory to the international coalition, IS governmental structures largely dissolved. The development of the IS state is described chronologically below.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

The group never established a state under Zarqawi, but it did begin formulating its goals to establish a future caliphate. A letter intercepted in 2005 from Zawahiri (AQ leader) to Zarqawi indicated detailed plans for the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq.[1] Public pronouncements from Zarqawi, including his 2004 pledge of loyalty to Osama Bin Laden, reveal his acceptance of AQ’s goals and plan to create an Islamic homeland in Iraq.[2]

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

After October 2006, AQI focused on the creation of institutional infrastructure for a religious state. It formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and attempted to rebrand itself as more Iraqi. (Despite the name change, the group largely continued to be known as AQI. For this reason, the profile will refer to the group as AQI during this time period.) Though AQI tried to impose order in the regions it controlled, it was failed to establish an effective state structure and was becoming weaker due to Sunni resistance and increased American troop presence.[3] By 2007, AQI was too weak to provide security or enforce its extreme interpretation of Sharia law.[4]

Despite having little real power, AQI had developed a sophisticated organizational structure by 2009, which laid the groundwork for future expansion following the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. In Mosul, AQI had both a provincial emir and a deputy emir, as well as five emirs for each of the group’s pillars: security, sharia law, military, administration, and media. Five more emirs served under each of the pillar emirs to oversee a specific section of Mosul relating to their pillar (e.g., South East Mosul – Military).[5] This organizational structure was mimicked by the Islamic State’s caliphate in 2014.

AQI and ISIS expansion, IS contraction: January 2012-2018

After expanding throughout Iraq and Syria, ISIS established a semi-federal government.[6] Baghdadi stood at the top of ISIS hierarchy as Caliph.[7] Alongside Baghdadi operated the Shura council, a group of advisors who oversaw the appointment of other government officials and checked the authority of Baghdadi.[8]

Below the Shura council and Baghdadi were 14 central government departments, known as diwans. The diwans managed the following 14 areas: education, public services, precious resources (i.e., oil and antiquities), Da’wah activity and mosques, health, tribal outreach, public security, finances and currency, public morality (Islamic police), Islamic court (i.e., marriages and judicial matters), public relations, agriculture/environment, fatwas/recruitment, and military/defense.[9] These government departments were replicated on a regional level where local authorities maintained some decision-making power.[10]

ISIS also established ground level control in new areas it conquered. After capturing a city, ISIS held outreach events and distributes reading material to introduce civilians to its religious interpretations and organization structure.[11] After securing the region, it makes the laws stricter, brings in religious police, and takes over the education system. These local religious police report back to central IS commanders who keep meticulous records of interactions with local populations and infringements on ISIS laws.[12]

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

The destruction of the caliphate resulted in the dismantlement of IS’s government institutions. The group now operates as a rural insurgency through sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria.[13] Globally, IS central command exerts some degree of control over its international provinces; however, the extent of communication between the center and these peripheral elements is unclear.[14] In April 2019, Baghdadi pledged to continue its global jihad movement.[15]


[1] Bunzel, Cole. “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.” Brookings, March 9, 2015. 15

[2] Bunzel, Cole. “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.” Brookings, March 9, 2015. 15

[3] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 5.

[4] Felter, Joseph, and Fishman, Brian, "Al Qaeda's foreign fighters in Iraq: A first look at the Sinjar records," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 24, Jan. 2010.

[5]Shatz, Howard J. and Erin-Elizabeth Johnson. “The Islamic State We Knew: Insights Before the Resurgence and Their Implications.” RAND Corporation. 2015.

[6] Jefferis, Jennifer. “ISIS Administrative and Territorial Organization.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Security and Politics. 2016. 3

[7] Hashim, Ahmed. “The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate.” Middle East Policy Council, Volume XXI, Number 4 - Winter 2014.

[8] Hashim, Ahmed. “The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate.” Middle East Policy Council, Volume XXI, Number 4 - Winter 2014.

[9]Al-Tamimi, Aymenn. “The Evolution in the Islamic State Administration The Documentary Evidence.” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, No. 4, Special Issue on the Islamic State. August 2015. 124.

[10] Jefferis, Jennifer. “ISIS Administrative and Territorial Organization.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Security and Politics. 2016. 3

[11] Jefferis, Jennifer. “ISIS Administrative and Territorial Organization.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Security and Politics. 2016. 3

[12] Jefferis, Jennifer. “ISIS Administrative and Territorial Organization.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Security and Politics. 2016. 3

[13] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20.

[14] Wright, Robin, et al. “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Beyond.” US Institute of Peace and Wilson Center. December 12, 2016. 16-17.; Al-Tamimi, Aymenn. "Islamic State Shifts From Provinces and Governance to Global Insurgency." IPI Global Observatory. September 26, 2018.

[15] Wright, Robin. "Baghdadi Is Back—and Vows That ISIS Will Be, Too." The New Yorker. April 29, 2019.

 

Targets and Tactics

IS’s targets have shifted throughout its existence. During the Iraq War, the Islamic State (then known as AQI) primarily targeted American and coalition forces, as well as Shia civilians, Shia militias, and Sunni militias who resisted AQI’s presence. In opposition to the commands of Al Qaeda leadership, AQI frequently targeted civilians and other Muslims in brutal suicide bombings and attacks.[1] As U.S. and coalition forces withdrew from Iraq, the group began targeting the Maliki government and local Shia militias.[2] IS expanded throughout northern Iraq in 2013 and began targeting rebel groups and local militias in Syria.[3] The group eventually joined the broader civil war in Syria, targeting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish government.[4] Additionally, IS fought other rebel groups and the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).[5] In the territory under its control, IS instituted oppressive laws against local communities. More specifically, the group persecuted non-Sunni religious groups – including Shias, Yazidis, and Christians – as well as homosexuals and secular leaders.[6]

IS’s tactics are multifaceted, reflecting the versatile nature of the group. IS functioned simultaneously as a state, an insurgency, and a terrorist organization. The group’s strategy involved a complicated bureaucratic system to fund its war effort; a light, organized military; and a strong media presence to recruit new members and inspire attacks abroad.[7] After the caliphate’s defeat in 2019, IS has transitioned to a more traditional terrorist organization, developing a network of sleeper cells and maintaining its online presence.[8] More detailed information regarding IS’s targets and tactics is outlined below.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, JTJ moved to Iraq and targeted American forces and interests. The group attacked oil companies, the United States and its coalition partners, the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi National Guard, Iraqi politicians, and civilian and humanitarian aid workers.[9] These attacks aimed to deter Iraqis and foreigners from aiding the American occupation and supporting the U.S. transition plan for Iraq. A number of these targets were also shared by nationalist and Ba’athist forces that participated in the insurgency. In addition to these attacks, JTJ attacked Shiite targets to provoke Shia-Sunni sectarian violence that would make it more difficult for the U.S. to carry out its mission.[10]

JTJ gained notoriety for its consistent use of suicide bombings, while other insurgent groups continued to use guerilla tactics that targeted the U.S. and coalition forces.[11] JTJ also carried out a number of assassinations, beginning with the death of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official Laurence Foley in Jordan in 2002. The group targeted Iraqi officials participating in the transitional government, including Izzedin Salim, the chairman of the Governing Council of Iraq.[12]

JTJ also abducted and executed foreign civilians.[13] The first videotaped beheading – that of the American Nicholas Berg in 2004 – drew global publicity and condemnation. AQI leader Zarqawi claimed to be the executioner in the video, which was later verified by the CIA.[14]

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

AQI continued to target coalition forces, as well as their allies and supporters. The group also attacked Iraqi government officials and forces, Shiite civilians and religious sites, and popular Sunni leaders who opposed them. AQI regularly used suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to destroy targets.[15] AQI began to compete with other Sunni groups for leadership of the insurgency in Iraq. In 2007, the group started to use chlorine gas in conjunction with conventional explosives to target civilians and other Sunni militants.[16] However, such tactics were criticized, and reports of chlorine attacks stopped around May 2007.[17]

Tensions arose between AQI and the central Al Qaeda leadership over the targeting of civilians. Both groups shared an ideological opposition to non-Sunnis, but Al Qaeda urged Zarqawi to focus his efforts on the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States and other Western countries) and minimize Muslim casualties.[18] Zarqawi insisted that AQI should target “near enemies” who opposed AQI’s presence, regardless of their religion and nationality.[19] This rift continued to grow and was a major factor leading to the split between AQ and IS in 2014.

AQI and ISIS expansion, IS contraction, and death of the IS caliphate: January 2012-Present

IS strategy since 2012 can be broken down into four main categories: military, bureaucracy, terrorism, and media.

Military

After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, AQI military goals centered around the expansion of territory in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi began a new era of IS tactics in July 2012, announcing a campaign of “Breaking Walls” to free AQI militants from prison in an effort to provide IS with soldiers.[20] This endeavor helped create a large fighting force for the group and give them momentum to seize territory in northern Iraq. In July 2013, the group targeted Iraqi security forces in a campaign called “Soldier’s Harvest.”[21]

These initial campaigns relied on guerilla tactics, including bombings, assassinations, and small-scale attacks. As ISIS expanded into a legitimate military force, it developed a “blitzkrieg” style strategy designed to strike fear into opposing armies and quickly seize territory.[22] IS siege operations began with mortar strikes against enemy fortifications, followed by the rapid advancement of columns of pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and heavy weaponry.[23] Small groups of infantry would then close in on urban areas and use the atmosphere of panic and surprise to overrun the town.[24] Iraqi army troops often deserted and fled cities before ISIS even arrived.[25] The group transitioned to more complex military strategies as it captured larger swaths of territory, developing a mortar production initiative and a drone program.[26]

ISIS fighters mounted intense resistance against the coalition forces, using knowledge of local landscapes to identify weak points in enemy forces and delay coalition advancement with deadly counterattacks.[27] The group also made extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to defend its positions.[28] Coalition leaders noted the effectiveness of ISIS strategies, specifically the group’s ability to out-maneuver enemy forces and resist coalition airstrikes and intelligence campaigns.[29]

ISIS obtained most of its weapons from Iraqi army and the Syrian conflict zone. Early victories in northern Iraq provided the group with weaponry from Iraqi military bases.[30] Firearms and ammunition were also illegally obtained in Syria. Most of these weapons were donated to moderate Syrian rebels by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia but were later stolen by ISIS militants.[31] Evidence from the Conflict Armament Research group’s investigation in Iraq also indicates that ISIS militants produced their own weaponry and ammunition as well, using materials smuggled across the Turkish border.[32] The group’s “Central Organization for Standardization and Quality Control” (COSQC) developed specific procedures for the manufacture of weaponry, nearly identical to those of conventional state militaries.[33] ISIS’s supply chains were robust, and the group’s quality control methods were nearly identical to those of conventional state militaries.

ISIS’s primary enemy during the expansion and defense of its caliphate was the coalition composed of American forces, Kurdish rebel groups, Shia militias backed by Iran, and the Iraqi government. ISIS initially enjoyed a neutral relationship with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that utilized IS’s presence to force opposition groups into a two-front war; however, after ISIS captured Raqqa in 2014, the Assad regime began directly fighting against ISIS.[34]

Bureaucracy

The group’s bureaucratic strategy relied on the development of a functioning state with a diversified economy and efficient government. IS prioritized the seizure of municipal facilities, which it utilized to establish a legal system and bureaucracy in captured territory.[35] Unlike most invading groups that dismantled the local government after capturing territory, IS chose to maintain and expand upon local institutions.[36] This allowed the group to extort millions of dollars through complex tax policies imposed on local communities.

Shiite and non-Muslim civilians were specifically targeted by oppressive tax and property policies in Iraq and Syria.[37] Thousands or recently recovered documents from IS territory chronicle how the group confiscated the property of Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis and gave it away to Sunni families at discounted prices.[38] For a more detailed account of IS’s taxation and interactions with local communities, please see the Resources and Community Relations sections of this profile. For information regarding the organizational structure of this bureaucracy, please see the Political Activities section.

Terrorism

IS is notable for its devastating terrorist attacks around the world. Though most international attention is centered around IS’s violence against the West, IS carried out the majority of its attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. The Global Terrorism Database records 5,676 attacks by IS from 2013-2017. Of those 5,676 attacks, more than 97% (5,624 attacks) were carried out in the Middle East and North Africa.[39] For a more comprehensive list of attacks, please see the Major Attacks section of this profile.

IS terrorist attacks are also notable for their decentralized nature. Although certain IS attacks were directly supervised by central leaders, others were carried by individuals inspired by IS or by groups that claim IS allegiance but had little direct communication with the group. This strategy allowed IS to maintain and expand global influence, even as the group faced the destruction of its caliphate and a contraction of regional strength.

A U.S. government report from February 2019 describes IS as retaining excellent control and command capability in Syria. The report suggested that the group had the capacity to carry out attacks and assassinations using small and heavy weaponry, as well as improvised explosives.[40] In Syria, IS received widespread attention for kidnapping foreigners – often journalists and aid workers – and demanding ransom money from their home countries. These tactics served both as a form of revenue – some European countries paid these ransoms – and as a way to embarrass the U.S. and U.K., who refused to negotiate with terrorists. If the group did not gain money from a hostage, it used the captive for publicity.[41] In late August 2014, IS recorded the beheading of American journalist James Foley and published the video online, quickly gaining international attention.[42]

In Iraq, IS’s strategy and tactics have shifted as the group’s power expanded and contracted. During the growth of the caliphate, IS focused on controlling urban centers. After losing much of its territory, the group has pivoted to place greater emphasis on small-scale terrorist attacks in rural regions.[43] As of July 2019, IS has no formal territory in either Iraq or Syria but continues to operate through sleeper cells in these countries.[44]

Media

At the core of IS’s strategy is its media presence. IS operates Al Hayat Media Center, a publishing house notable for releasing the group’s monthly magazine “Dabiq.” IS initially created other publications, including Islamic State News and Islamic State Report, however, the group ultimately decided to focus their efforts on Dabiq, which ran between 40 to 80 pages long each month.[45] The magazine was named after a town in northern Syria where Muhammed predicted that a Muslim victory over Christians would initiate the end of times.[46] 15 issues of Dabiq were released between July 2014 and July 2016. The group also runs Amaq News Agency, a news outlet featuring battlefield updates, propaganda videos, and information about IS’s day-to-day activities.[47] Both Al Hayat Media Center  and Amaq News Agency are designed to recruit foreign fighters and were designated as terrorist affiliates of IS in March 2019.[48]

Most IS propaganda fall into one of three categories: caliphate life, military activities, and victimhood. A 2015 study of IS propaganda determined these three categories accounted for 53%, 37%, and 7% of IS videos respectively. [49] (The remaining 3% addressed other themes.) Caliphate life videos depict a peaceful and serene lifestyle enjoyed by residents of the Islamic State, showing children at schools, bustling markets, and beautiful landscapes. These videos marketed the caliphate as a homeland for Sunni Muslims.[50] The military activities videos showcased the group’s terrorist activities and its triumphant victories against the Western coalition. Victimhood videos depicted the West’s violent actions toward Muslim communities (mostly air and drone strikes) and the hypocrisy of Western foreign policy.[51]

The proliferation of propaganda videos created by IS soldiers has drawn thousands of foreign recruits to the group. IS deliberately targeted potential recruits from Western countries with its videos, where the traditional catalysts for radicalization were largely absent. For example, IS released a French language music video in 2016 to attract French-speaking Muslims. The video depicts children wearing camouflage and training for jihad against the West. Images of a young Syrian boy walking through a shelled city are juxtaposed with American presidential speeches and images of “western hypocrisy.”[52]

After IS’s caliphate was dismantled, the group adapted its media strategy to explain its diminishing power. Traditionally, IS propaganda was centered around the existence of the caliphate as a paradise for Muslims and an escape from the vice and hypocrisy of the West.[53] Now without a caliphate to showcase, IS emphasizes its terrorist attacks in its media messages. The group seeks to use videos of these attacks to illustrate that it still retains influence in the ongoing war of attrition against the West.[54]


[1] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 4.

[2] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015, 305.

[3] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015, 305.

[4] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 311.

[5] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 117:1, 351-416, February 13, 2017. 353.

[6] Berlinger, Joshua. “Who are the religious and ethnic groups under threat from ISIS?” CNN. August 8, 2014.

[7] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015, 305.

[8] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 118:1, 315-374, February 13, 2018. 316.; Munoz, Michael. "Selling the Long War: Islamic State Propaganda after the Caliphate." Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 11, no. 10. November 2018. 32.

[9] "Profile: Tawhid and Jihad Group." BBC News. 8 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014; Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[10] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[11] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 70.

[12] “Profile: Tawhid and Jihad Group." BBC. BBC, 8 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[13] Boucher, Richard. "Foreign Terrorist Organization: Designation of Jama'at Al-Tawhid Wa'al-Jihad and Aliases." Archive. U.S. Department of State, 15 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[14] Jehl, Douglas. "C.I.A. Says Berg's Killer Was Very Probably Zarqawi." The New York Times. 13 May 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[15] Wilson, Clay, "Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan: Effects and countermeasures," Congressional Research Service, 28 Aug. 2007. Web. 5 Feb. 2010.

[16] Rubin, Alissa J., "Chlorine gas attack by truck bomber kills up to 30 in Iraq," The New York Times, April 7, 2007, p. A6, LexisNexis Academic; Gardham, Duncan, "Risk of terrorist nuclear attack 'has increased'; Theft of materials and internet helping extremists," The Daily Telegraph, March 25, 2009, p. 6, LexisNexis Academic.

[17] “‘Iraqi Scholars Council' urges Bin-Ladin to explain Al Qaedah practices," Doha Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel Television via BBC Monitoring Middle East, May 24, 2007, LexisNexis Academic.

[18] Glenn, Cameron. “Al Qaeda v ISIS: Ideology & Strategy.” Wilson Center. September 28, 2015.

[19] Glenn, Cameron. “Al Qaeda v ISIS: Ideology & Strategy.” Wilson Center. September 28, 2015.

[20] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 76.

[21] Lewis, Jessica. "AQI's "Soldiers' Harvest" Campaign." Institute for the Study of War, October 9, 2013.

[22] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015. 305.

[23] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015. 305.

[24] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015. 305.

[25] Carter, Chelsea, Salma Abdelaziz, and Mohammed Tawfeeq. “Iraqi Soldiers, Police Drop Weapons, Flee Posts in Portions of Mosul.” CNN, June 13, 2014.

[26] Schmitt, Eric. “Papers Offer a Peek at ISIS’ Drones, Lethal and Largely Off-the-Shelf.” New York Times, January 31, 2017. ; Ismay, John, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and C. J. Chivers. "How ISIS Produced Its Cruel Arsenal on an Industrial Scale." New York Times, December 10, 2017.

[27] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 310.

[28] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 116:1, 307-364, 09 Feb. 2016. 310.

[29] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015. 309.

[30] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015. 309.

[31] "Weapons of the Islamic State: A Three-Year Investigation in Iraq and Syria" Conflict Armament Research, December 2017. 8.

[32] "Standardisation and Quality Control in Islamic State's Military Production: Weapon Manufacturing in the East Mosul Sector." Conflict Armament Research, December 2016. 7-8.

[33] "Standardisation and Quality Control in Islamic State's Military Production: Weapon Manufacturing in the East Mosul Sector." Conflict Armament Research, December 2016. 7.

[34] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015.  303

[35] Hashim, Ahmed. "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate." Middle East Policy 21.4 (2014): 78. DOI: 10.1111/mepo.12096. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

[36] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[37] Evers, Erin. “Iraq at the Abyss.” Human Rights Watch. 20 Jun. 2014. Web. 25 Jun. 2014; Tayler, Letta. “Iraq’s Minorities Caught Between Scorpions and a Hard Place.” Human Rights Watch. 24 Jun. 2014. Web. 25 Jun. 2014.

[38] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[39] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Global Terrorism Database [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. 2018. https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

[40] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20.

[41] Callimachi, Rukmini. "The Horror Before the Beheadings." The New York Times. N.p., 25 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Jan. 2015.

[42] Callimachi, Rukmini. "Before Killing James Foley, ISIS Demanded Ransom From U.S." The New York Times. N.p., 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

[43] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20.

[44] Operation Inherent Resolve And Other Overseas Contingency Operations - Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress, October 1, 2018‒December 31, 2018. 20.; Hubbard, Ben. "ISIS Wave of Might Is Turning Into Ripple." The New York Times. 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014; Semple, Kirk, and Eric Schmitt. "ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate." The New York Times. 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[45] Ingram, Haroro. “An Analysis of Islamic State’s Dabiq Magazine.” Australian Journal of Political Science, 51:3, 458-477, June 13, 2016.

[46] "Dabiq; Why is Syrian town so important for IS?" BBC News. October 4, 2016.

[47] Callimachi, Rukmini. "A News Agency With Scoops Directly From ISIS, and a Veneer of Objectivity." New York Times, January 14, 2016.

[48] U.S. Department of State - Office of the Spokesperson, Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, 21 Mar. 2019.

[49] Winter, Charlie. “The Islamic State Brand: Marketing and Communicating the New Jihadism.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Culture & Society, 2016. 307.

[50] Winter, Charlie. “The Islamic State Brand: Marketing and Communicating the New Jihadism.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Culture & Society, 2016. 307.

[51] Winter, Charlie. “The Islamic State Brand: Marketing and Communicating the New Jihadism.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Culture & Society, 2016. 307.

[52] "ISIS Music Video In French Featuring Children: Your Roads Will Be Rigged By Mines, Our Swords Are Sharpened To Slice Necks." Middle East Media Research Institute TV Monitor Project. April 29, 2016.

[53] Winter, Charlie. “The Islamic State Brand: Marketing and Communicating the New Jihadism.” European Institute of the Mediterranean - Culture & Society, 2016. 307.

[54] Munoz, Michael. "Selling the Long War: Islamic State Propaganda after the Caliphate." Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 11, no. 10. November 2018. 32.

 

Major Attacks

Disclaimer: These are some selected major attacks in the militant organization's history. It is not a comprehensive listing, but captures some of the most famous attacks or turning points during the campaign.

October 28, 2002: JTJ militants assassinated U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officer Laurence Foley outside his home in Jordan (1 killed, 0 wounded).[1]

August 19, 2003: JTJ bombed the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad (23 killed, 100+ wounded).[2]

August 28, 2003: JTJ bombed the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Iraq (85 killed, unknown wounded).[3]

May 7, 2004: JTJ leader Zarqawi beheaded American civilian worker Nicholas Berg in Iraq (1 killed, 0 wounded).[4]

November 9, 2005: AQI bombed western hotels in Amman, Jordan (57 killed, unknown wounded).[5]

February 22, 2006: AQI bombed the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, which is located 65 miles north of Baghdad. The attack sparked retaliation against 100 or more Sunni mosques (no reported casualties).[6]

August 2009: AQI claimed responsibility for the bombings of several government buildings in Baghdad (250 killed, 1000+ wounded).[7]

May 2010: AQI carried out attacks across Iraq in response to the killings of AQI leaders Masri and Baghdadi (85 killed, 300+ wounded).[8]

March 21, 2012: AQI claimed responsibility for attacks across eight cities carried out together in just under six hours. Shiite civilians and Iraqi police officers, security forces, and government officials were targeted in Karbala, Kirkuk, and Baghdad (46 killed, 200 wounded).[9]

July 22, 2013: AQI attacked Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in Iraq, freeing approximately 800 prisoners with Al Qaeda affiliations (26 Killed, unknown wounded).[10]

September 14, 2013: ISIS took control of an air defense base in Hama, Syria (unknown casualties).[11]

June 10, 2014: ISIS took control of Mosul (unknown casualties).[12]

June 17, 2014: ISIS attacked an oil field in Baiji, Iraq. The Iraq Army reported that it had successfully driven ISIS out of the area within two to three days of fighting (unknown casualties).[13]

June 23, 2014: ISIS seized border crossings at Qaim, Waleed, and Trebil, gaining control over the border between Iraq and Syria and the border between Iraq and Jordan (unknown casualties).[14]

July and August 2014: ISIS took control of Raqqa, Syria (unknown casualties).[15]

August 2014: ISIS beheaded American captive James Foley and released a video of the murder. The video garnered international attention. ISIS proceeded to behead more British and American hostages in the coming months (1+ killed, 0 wounded)[16]

August 2014: Over a period of two weeks, ISIS executed 700 members of the al-Sheitaat tribe in the Deir al-Zor province of Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The al-Sheitaat tribe and ISIS had begun fighting in July 2014 (700+ killed, unknown wounded).[17]

October 22, 2014: IS member Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire at the Canadian National War Memorial, killing a Canadian solider. He then stormed the Canadian parliament before being shot and killed by authorities. ISIS claimed that the attack was a direct call to action (2 killed, 3 wounded).[18]

October 29, 2014: ISIS publicly executed several members of a Sunni tribe, the Abu Nimr, that had been resisting ISIS’s advance in the Anbar province of western Iraq. Reports on the number of dead range from forty-six to over three hundred. The reports also differ on whether or not women and children were killed along with men (46+ killed, unknown wounded).[19]

May 15, 2015: ISIS seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, from Iraqi security forces, which were supported by Shiite militias and American airstrikes. ISIS had controlled areas around Ramadi for almost a year and a half before taking the city (500+ killed, unknown wounded).[20]

November 13, 2015: Eleven IS members killed 130 civilians and injured 100 more in a series of attacks in Paris, France. Gunman and suicide bombers attacked a concert hall, a soccer stadium, restaurants, and bars in the French capital. Within the days following the attack, nine of the IS operatives were killed. One operative remained on the run until he was captured in Brussels on March 18, 2016.[21] According to French President François Hollande, the attacks were planned in Syria and organized in Belgium (130 killed, 100 wounded).[22]

January 14, 2016: Five IS militants armed with suicide explosives and handguns attacked a Starbucks and a police station in Jakarta, Indonesia. One Canadian civilian, one Indonesian civilian, and five attackers were killed (7 killed, 23 wounded).[23]

March 22, 2016: Members of the Islamic State set off three nail bombs in Brussels, Belgium. Two bombs were detonated in the Brussels Airport, and one bomb exploded in the Maalbek Metro Station. In the two days following the bombings, European authorities arrested eleven Islamic State militants that have been linked to this attack and the November 2015 attack in Paris, France (31 killed, 340 wounded).[24]

May 23, 2017: ISIS operative Salman Abedi detonated a bomb at an Ariana Grande pop concert in Manchester, United Kingdom (23 killed, 250+ wounded).[25]

June 7, 2017: Eight gunmen and suicide bombers simultaneously attacked Iranian parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran. This was IS’s first major attack within Iran (12 killed, 42 wounded).[26]

August 17, 2017: A van driver plowed through a crowded plaza in Barcelona, maiming dozens of pedestrians. IS claimed responsibility, but it is unclear if the attack was actually organized by IS or if it was merely inspired by the group’s ideology. It was Spain’s deadliest terrorist attack in over a decade (13 killed, 80 wounded).[27]

October 31, 2017: Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek national with alleged ties to IS, drove a rented van through a crowded sidewalk in New York, maiming and killing more than a dozen individuals. He left a note at the scene stating that the attack was carried out in the name of IS (8 killed, 12 wounded).[28]

November 24, 2017: IS-affiliated militants stormed a mosque in Bir al-Abed, Egypt and massacred hundreds of worshippers. The attack was revenge for the town’s cooperation with the Egyptian government in identifying suspected IS militants. Bir al-Abedr was also targeted because many of its residents practiced Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that IS considers polytheistic and evil (311 killed, 128 wounded).[29]

January 15, 2018: Twin suicide bombers attacked Tayran square, a crowded plaza where day laborers go to find work. The bombings were the group’s first major attack in Baghdad after the Iraqi government declared victory against IS in December 2017 (38 killed, 105 wounded).[30]

April 22, 2018: A suicide bomber attacked a voter registration center in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan. This was the fourth attack in a series of bombings leading up to Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in October (57 killed, 119 wounded).[31]

May 2, 2018: Suicide bombers attacked a United Nations-led electoral commission in Tripoli, Libya. The attack was intended to disrupt international efforts to stabilize Libya (12 killed, 7 wounded).[32]

May 13, 2018: A family of six simultaneously detonated suicide bombs at three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia. Another bomb from an affiliated militant family prematurely exploded at the house of the bomb maker, killing two members of the family. The next day another family detonated a suicide bomb on their motorbike while driving into police headquarters, killing all members of the family and injuring police and civilians. These attacks were the first successful IS mission in Indonesia since 2016 and the first suicide bombings involving women and children in Indonesia (20 killed, 41 wounded).[33]

July 13, 2018: Suicide bombers attacked the convoy of a politician campaigning for a legislative seat in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The candidate, Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, was killed in the attack. Hundreds of others were killed or wounded. The attack is the second deadliest in Pakistan’s history (149 killed, 186 wounded).[34]

July 25, 2018: Islamic State militants attacked the city of Sweida in southwest Syria, detonating suicide bombs and using other weapons to kill large numbers of civilians. The region has a large Druze population and was nominally under government control throughout the civil war. IS militants reportedly woke up families in the hours before dawn and silently killed hundreds in their homes before detonating suicide bombs later in the day (215 killed, 200+ wounded).[35]

September 22, 2018: During a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran, four militants disguised in military uniforms opened fire on a crowd of soldiers and civilian onlookers. Iranian officials blamed the United States and its regional allies for the attacks; however, the Islamic State later took credit and vowed to undertake more attacks in Iran (25+ killed, 60 wounded).[36]

December 11, 2018: Cherif Chekatt, a French national radicalized in prison, opened fire at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. As of August 2019, it is the most recent major IS attack in Europe and North America (5 killed, 11 wounded).[37]

January 27, 2019: IS-affiliated militants set off two bombs at a church in the southern Philippines. The bombing came a week after local voters rejected a referendum for inclusion in an autonomous Muslim region. Separatist Islamist groups in the Philippines had been demanding autonomy for years, and the attacks have been described as a form of revenge against the local population (20 killed, 81 wounded).[38]

April 21, 2019: Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked three hotels and three catholic churches in coordinated attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The militants were from National Thowheed Jama’ath, a group with connections to IS. Photos showing National Thowheed Jama’ath group members pledging their allegiance to IS were released by Amaq News Agency after the attack occurred (300+ killed, 500+ wounded).[39]

 


[1] "Jamaat al-Tawhid wa'l-Jihad," GlobalSecurity.org, 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 26 Jan. 2010; "US Diplomat Shot Dead in Jordan." BBC News. BBC, 28 Oct. 2002. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[2] "Paris Attacks: Islamic State Group 'releases Video of Attackers' - BBC News." BBC News. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[3] "Paris Attacks: What Happened on the Night - BBC News." BBC News. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[4] "ISIS 'minister of War' Likely Killed in US Airstrike in Syria, Defense Official Says | Fox News." Fox News. FOX News Network, 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017

[5] Schmidt, Michael S., and Mark Mazzetti. "A Top ISIS Leader Is Killed in an Airstrike, the Pentagon Says." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2017

[6] “Brussels Attacks: Zaventem and Maelbeek bombs kill many.” BBC. BBC, 22 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017

[7] “Brussels Attacks Death Toll Lowered to 32.” The World Post. Huffington Post, 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[8] Sawyer, Patrick and Chazan, David. “British victim of Brussels attack confirmed dead as slow identification of bodies continues.” The Telegraph. The Telegraph, 25 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[9] Paravicini, Giulia. “Brussels ISIL cell ‘initially’ planned to ‘strike France again.’”Politico, 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[10] “Attentats du 13 novembre: Osoma Krayem soupconné d’avoir fréquenté l’atelier de confection des bombes.” Le Monde. Le Monde, 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[11] Kalamachi, Rukmini and Schmitt, Eric. "Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say." The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Jun. 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

[12] Abbit, Beth. "The number of people injured in Manchester Arena terror rises to 250." Manchester Evening News. MEN Media, 22 Jun. 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

[13] "FBI Probes Islamic State, Terror Links to San Bernardino Massacre." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.

[14] Ellis, Ralph et al. “Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance.” CNN, 13 Jun. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[15] White, Jeffery. "Military Implications of the Syrian Regime's Defeat in Raqqa." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[16] Yourish, Karen. "The Fates of 23 ISIS Hostages in Syria." The New York Times. N.p., 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2015.

[17] Holmes, Oliver, and Suleiman Al-Khalidi. "Islamic State Executed 700 People from Syrian Tribe: Monitoring Group." Reuters. 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

[18] "ISIS Goes Global: Over 60 Attacks in 20 Countries." Fox News. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016; “Ottawa shooting: A day of chaos leaves soldier, gunman dead.” CBC News. October 22, 2014.

[19] Stout, David. "ISIS Massacres Sunni Tribe in Iraq." Time. 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014; Morris, Loveday, and Mustafa Salim. "Islamic State Publicly Kills at Least 46 Sunni Opponents in Captured Iraqi City." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

[20] Arango, Tim. "Key Iraqi City Falls to ISIS as Last of Security Forces Flee." The New York Times. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 18 May 2015.

[21] "Paris Attacks: Salah Abdeslam 'refused to Blow Himself Up' - BBC News." BBC News. Web.

[22] "Paris Attacks: Islamic State Group 'releases Video of Attackers' - BBC News." BBC News. Web. 28 Feb. 2016; "Paris Attacks: What Happened on the Night - BBC News." BBC News. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

[23] Cochrane, Joe, and Thomas Fuller. "Jakarta Attack Raises Fears of ISIS’ Spread in Southeast Asia." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web; "Indonesia: ISIS's New Battlefront." Time. Time. Web.

[24] Graham-Harrison, Emma, Arthur Neslen, and Patrick Greenfield. "Brussels Attacks: Last Gasp of Isis Terror in Europe, or Sign of Growing Threat?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016; "Three More Arrested in Brussels Police Operation over Attacks." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016; Rubin, Alissa J., Aurelien Breeden, and Anita Raghavan. "Strikes Claimed by ISIS Shut Brussels and Shake European Security." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

[25] Kalamachi, Rukmini and Schmitt, Eric. “Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Jun. 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017; Abbit, Beth. “The number of people injured in Manchester Arena terror attack rises to 250.” Manchester Evening News. MEN Media, 22 Jun. 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

[26]McKernan, Bethan. "Tehran attacks: ISIS claims responsibility for 'first major attack on Iran." The Independent, June 7, 2015.

[27] Bolon, Anne-Sophie, Palko Karasz, and Kames C. McKinley Jr. "Van Hits Pedestrians in Deadly Barcelona Terror Attack." New York Times, August 17, 2017.

[28] Prokupecz, Shimon, Eric Levenson, Brynn Gingras, and Steve Almasy. "Note found near truck claims Manhattan attack done for ISIS, source says." CNN. November 6, 2017.

[29]Youssef, Nour. "Motives in Egypt’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack: Religion and Revenge." New York Times, December 2017.

[30] Shaheen, Kareem. "Suicide attack in Baghdad kills at least 38." The Guardian. January 15. 2018.

[31] "Afghanistan: Kabul voter centre suicide attack kills 57." BBC News. April 22, 2018.

[32] Elumami, Ahmed. "Suicide attackers storm HQ of Libya's election commission, 12 dead." Reuters, May 2, 2018.

[33] Schulze, Kirsten. "The Surabaya Bombings and the Evolution of the Jihadi Treat in Indonesia." Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point - CTC Sentinel 11, no. 6 June/July 2018. 1.

[34] Ali Shah, Syed, Sophia Saifi, and Judith Vonberg. "At least 149 killed in Pakistan terror strike targeting political rally." CNN. July 16, 2018.

[35] "Syria war: More than 200 dead in suicide attacks." BBC News. July 25, 2018.

[36] Sulaivany, Karzan. "Islamic State warns Iran more to follow after Ahvaz attack: report." Kurdistan 24, September 26, 2018.; Pérez-Peña, Richard. "Attack on Military Parade in Iran Kills at Least 25." New York Times, September 22, 2018.

[37] "Strasbourg shooting: What we know." BBC News, December 16, 2018.

[38] Gutierrez, Jason. "Philippines Cathedral Bombing Kills 20." New York Times, January 27, 2019.

[39] Dearden, Lizzie. “Isis Claims Responsibility for Sri Lanka Easter Massacre.” The Independent, April 23, 2019.; Withnall, Adam. “Sri Lanka Government Reveals Suicide Bombers Responsible for Deadly Blasts That Killed Hundreds.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, April 22, 2019.

 

Interactions

Foreign Designations and Listings, Community Relations, Relations with Other Groups, State Sponsors and External Influences

    Designated/Listed
  • Designated/Listed
  • Community Relations
  • Relationships with Other Groups
  • State Sponsors and External Influences

Designated/Listed

  • U.S. Department of State Terrorist Organizations List: December 2004 to Present[1]
    • Al Hayat Media Center and Amaq News Agency (IS’s media wing) added to listing: March 2019-Present.[2]
  • United Nations Security Council Al Qaeda Sanctions List: October 18, 2004 to Present[3]


[1] US Department of State. “Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department Under E.O. 13224: Bureau of Counterterrorism.” The U.S. Department of State. 17 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014.

[2] U.S. Department of State - Office of the Spokesperson, Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, 21 Mar. 2019.

[3] Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. “The List established and maintained by the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee with respect to individuals, groups, undertakings and other entities associated with Al-Qaida.” The United Nations. 2 Jun. 2014. Web. 25 Jun. 2014; Department of Public Information. “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends Entry of One Entity on its Sanctions List.” The United Nations, 30, May. 2013. Web. 25 Jun. 2014.

 

Community Relations

The Islamic State has had extensive interactions with local communities. Below is a description of IS’s changing civilian relations throughout its existence.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

Initially, many Sunnis were sympathetic to AQI. They supported the group’s goals to drive American forces from Iraq and prevent Shiites from taking over the government. However, AQI’s use of suicide bombings, its willingness to target Iraqis and popular Sunni leaders, and its intentional incitement of sectarian violence began to alienate some Iraqis, including Sunnis and other jihadi groups.[1]

The most prominent example of AQI’s brutality and its negative impact on the group’s popularity was Zarqawi’s 2005 bombing of three hotels in Amman, Jordan. The explosion killed 57 people, most of whom were Muslims celebrating a wedding at the hotel.[2] The incident garnered massive protests throughout Jordan. Thousands took to the streets in Amman and called Zarqawi a coward for his violence and hypocrisy.[3] After this incident, the organization grew increasingly unpopular throughout the Middle East, and Zarqawi’s role in AQI gradually diminished until his death in 2006.

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

By 2006, AQI’s indiscriminate violence had exasperated Iraqi communities. Frustrated Iraqis, many of them Sunni, began covertly killing AQI leaders and partnering with the American government to remove the group from power in the Sunni triangle.[4] This movement, known as the Anbar Awakening, worked in conjunction with the surge of U.S. troops to bring about a major decline in violence in Iraq.[5] On September 9, 2006, the U.S. government formally began paying Sunni militias, further decreasing local support for AQI.[6] AQI attempted to communicate with civilians from both its “ministry of information” and from its media production branch, Al-Furqan Media, but public support for the group remained low for the remainder of the U.S. war in  Iraq.[7]

AQI and ISIS expansion, IS contraction: January 2012-2018

After U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, AQI capitalized on growing dissatisfaction within Sunni communities towards the Maliki government. President Maliki instituted a number of policies that excluded Sunnis from power in the central government to garner support among his Shia voter base. AQI used these heightened sectarian tensions to partner with local Sunni militias and former Ba’athist officers. These community alliances allowed AQI to quickly spread its influence throughout northern Iraq.

In addition to partnering with local communities, ISIS used multiple languages to recruit foreigners and spread its message online.[8] The group produced sophisticated recruitment videos and an online magazine – named “Dabiq” – in English and other European languages.[9] Dabiq was published from 2014 to 2016 and included battlefield updates, administrative information, and articles on the establishment of the caliphate and its religious foundations. Through media tools, ISIS encouraged emigration to its territory and global support for its organization.[10]

IS has had complex relationships with civilians residing within the territories it controlled. At its peak in 2015, IS territory was home to nearly 12 million people. Most of these civilians were not originally affiliated with IS, but local communities were significantly influenced by the presence of the group.[11] Citizens in these regions lived in constant threat of violence and faced repressive laws that forced them to adopt a strict religious lifestyle. The group coerced Iraqi and Syrian government employees into continuing to work and taxed local communities immensely.[12] The intense religious laws and regular violence, in addition to the widespread exploitation of minority women as sex slaves, led to a massive exodus of civilians from IS-controlled territories. IS displaced over 3.3 million people in Iraq and contributed to the growing refugee crisis in Syria.[13]

While these draconian measures and violent tactics created backlash in some areas, they also served to improve certain aspects of governance and accountability. State services such as electricity, trash removal, and road maintenance were carried out effectively for the first time in decades.[14] Birth and death records were kept meticulously.[15] IS even established a Department of Motor Vehicles, gave away free food to citizens, and operated an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in fighting.[16] In a region that was historically plagued by weak institutions and a lack of central government oversight, local communities admitted that IS services were an improvement over previous state programs.[17]

The caliphate operated with a social contract in the same way a modern state does, guaranteeing some degree of justice and accountability, protection, and state services in exchange for support through taxation or conscription into the military.[18] IS even drafted “documents of the city” to codify its values and formally outline the relationship between itself and local citizens in Raqqa, Mosul, Tikrit, Hit, and Sirte.[19]

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

As of March 2019, IS no longer controls territory in Iraq and Syria. Without a space to directly govern civilians, the group’s relationship with communities has become much less direct. However, lingering issues remain for civilian populations. IS activity has generated massive stateless populations in Iraq and Syria, consisting of foreign fighters who moved to the IS caliphate, women who married IS soldiers, and children born under IS rule.[20]


[1] Al-Jabouri, Najim Abed and Sterling Jensen. “The Iraqi and AQI Roles in the Sunni Awakening.” National Defense University. N.p, Jan.2010. Web. 7 Jul. 2014.

[2] Fattah, Hassan and Michael Slackman. "3 Hotels Bombed in Jordan; At Least 57 Die." New York Times, November 10, 2005.

[3] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 4-5.

[4] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[5] Biddle, Stephen, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro. “Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” International Security 37, no. 1 (2012): 7-40.

[6] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[7] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[8] Barrett, Richard. Foreign Fighters in Syria. Rep. The Soufan Group, June 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

[9] Ifill, Gwen. "Why Do Foreign Fighters Join the Islamic State?" PBS. N.p., 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014; McCants, William. "ISIS Fantasies of an Apocalyptic Showdown in Northern Syria." Markaz: Middle East Politics and Policy. The Brookings Institution, 03 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

[10] Dabiq: The Strategic Messaging of the Islamic State. Rep. Institute for the Study of War, 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

[11] Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

[12] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.; "Isis: Worst Refugee Crisis in a Generation as Millions Flee Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." International Business Times RSS. 2015. Web.

[13] Callimachi, Rukmini. "To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web.

[14] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[15] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[16] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.; Barnard, Anne and Hwaida Saad. "ISIS Alternates Stick and Carrot to Control Palmyra." New York Times, May 28, 2015; Revkin, Mara. “ISIS’ Social Contract: What the Islamic State Offers Civilians.” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2016.

[17] Callimachi, Rukmini, and Ivor Prickett. “The ISIS Files.” New York Times, April 4, 2018.

[18] Revkin, Mara. “ISIS’ Social Contract: What the Islamic State Offers Civilians.” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2016.

[19] Revkin, Mara. “ISIS’ Social Contract: What the Islamic State Offers Civilians.” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2016.

[20] Hubbard, Ben. "In a Crowded Syria Tent Camp, the Women and Children of ISIS Wait in Limbo." New York Times, March 29, 2019; Callimachi, Rukmini. “ISIS Caliphate Crumbles as Last Village in Syria Falls.” New York Times, March 23, 2019.

 

Relationships with Other Groups

IS initially had a strong relationship with Al Qaeda. The group acted as an AQ affiliate in Iraq despite ideological differences. AQ eventually disowned IS for its disobedience and targeting choices. Regionally, IS had few allies in Iraq and Syria and fought against most organizations and governments it interacted with. Globally, IS continues to lead a network of Islamic militant groups that declared allegiance to Baghdadi and his caliphate.

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

Tensions existed between Al Qaeda and JTJ since before the group officially became an AQ affiliate organization, largely due to several ideological differences.[1] The most significant of these disagreements concerned targets; while Zarqawi preferred to attack regional actors and states like Jordan and Israel (the “near enemy”), AQ leadership prioritized attacking the United States and other Western entities (the “far enemy”).[2] Nonetheless, bin Laden allegedly asked Zarqawi to join AQ and provided initial funding for JTJ’s training camp.[3]

Zarqawi finally declared allegiance to bin Laden in October of 2004 (the group renamed itself to AQI), but he continually disobeyed AQ leadership throughout his tenure.[4] In July 2005, bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote to Zarqawi and criticized his brutal tactics. They complained about the beheadings he sanctioned and attacks carried out by AQI that consistently killed Muslims and alienated Iraqis. The letter also questioned the effectiveness of Zarqawi’s strategy of targeting Shiites to fuel a sectarian conflict. When AQ leadership commanded Zarqawi to stop attacking Shiite cultural sites, the AQI leader ignored these orders.[5]

In January 2006, AQI joined the umbrella organization Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (MSC). The MSC was a collective of six jihadi groups in Iraq that sought to consolidate jihadi efforts to expel U.S. and coalition forces from Iraq.[6] By joining the MSC, AQI attempted to prove that it was an Iraqi-based organization and demonstrate that it was willing to work with other groups.[7] While AQI presented itself as a mere member of the MSC, it had significant influence in the group, which in many ways functioned as little more than a media front.[8]

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

Following Zarqawi’s death, AQI attempted to extend its connections with other organizations. It became more integrated with AQ leadership.[9] AQI also gathered several insurgent groups under its banner of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. However, many insurgents declined AQI’s offers of cooperation and argued that the declaration of a state was illegal in Islamic law. Some voiced their concerns to bin Laden and others fought AQI members on the ground.[10]

AQI and ISIS expansion under Baghdadi: January 2012-2014

At the outset of the Syrian Civil War, AQI leader Baghdadi sent Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to create a Salafi cell and carry out operations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Julani established the militant group al-Nusra (which would later become Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and received funding and personnel from both AQI and AQ. In April 2013, Baghdadi declared that al-Nusra and AQI would be merged under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[11] Julani denied the merger and re-pledged allegiance to AQ commander Ayman al-Zawahiri.[12] Zawahiri subsequently ruled in favor of Julani and decreed that the two organizations would continue to operate independently of one another. He also appointed AQ leader Abu Khalid al-Suri to mediate the conflict in Syria and ensure that his orders were followed.[13] The leadership dispute heightened the conflict between the two groups on the ground and generated violent clashes, resulting in 3,000 casualties by March 2014.[14] However, despite the larger fight, there was evidence of some ground-level cooperation between al-Nusra and ISIS units in certain areas of Syria. For example, the two groups released an anti-Hezbollah video together in summer 2014 from the eastern mountains of Lebanon, where they had separately taken Lebanese soldiers hostage.[15] Both facing U.S. airstrikes in 2014, al-Nusra and ISIS leadership reportedly began meeting to discuss coordination.[16]

Former Ba’athists provided critical assistance to ISIS operations in Iraq. The majority of Baath party support came from members of Jaysh Rijal at-Tariqa an-Naqshbandi (JRTN), an Iraqi militant group formed in December 2006 following Saddam Hussein’s death.[17] ISIS’s success in capturing Iraqi cities depended on the military expertise and local connections of the Ba’athists; without help from members of JRTN, many experts believe that ISIS would not have been nearly as effective.[18] However, ISIS’s goal of creating a caliphate was likely opposed by the Ba’athists, who are nationalists and supported ISIS only because of its anti-Maliki stance. There have been reports that ISIS killed Ba’athists in Mosul in order to consolidate its authority and discouraged sects that could negotiate with the government or oppose its vision for a caliphate.[19]

Tensions and skirmishes between ISIS and other Islamist groups on the ground escalated in 2013. Other groups, even some linked to Al Qaeda, found ISIS’s interpretation of Islam too extreme and its tactics too violent. These groups also distrusted the amount of foreign fighters in ISIS.[20] In early January 2014, conflict exploded when ISIS clashed with the Islamist Mujahedeen Army and Free Syrian Army-linked units in a number of locations around Aleppo.[21] Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi militant group part of the Islamic Front (am umbrella group of Sunni Islamist groups operating in Syria), worked with al-Nusra and other rebel groups to push ISIS out of Raqqa.[22] Later that month, a popular Saudi Cleric, Abdulah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, relocated to Syria and announced a reconciliation plan to end the infighting between Islamist groups in Syria. Al-Nusra and other Islamist groups quickly agreed to the plan, but ISIS rejected it.[23]

ISIS frequently targeted rival group leaders. In December 2013, ISIS militants tortured and killed senior Ahrar al-Sham commander Dr. Hussein Abu Rayyan. Group members shot him repeatedly, broke his bones, and amputated his ear. In response to Rayyan’s death, protesters marched against ISIS’s presence in Syria and Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Abboud publicly criticized the killing.[24]  Abboud later condemned ISIS for its practice of calling other Islamist rebels “infidels” and for refusing to submit to mediation.[25] In February 2014, an ISIS suicide bombing killed Liwa al-Tawhid leader Adnan Bakour in Aleppo, along with twenty-five others. That same day, Suqour al-Sham commander Abu Hussein al-Dik was killed by ISIS in Hama, Syria. Both organizations were members of the Islamic Front.[26] Later that month, Abu Khalid al-Suri, Zawahiri’s delegate to Syria and a leader of Ahrar al-Sham, was killed in a suicide bombing. Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Abboud blamed ISIS.[27] In addition to targeted attacks, ISIS also battled Islamist units on the ground. For example, Liwa al-Tawhid worked with al-Nusra to expel ISIS from several areas near Aleppo and Latakia in March 2014.[28]

ISIS’s relationships with different Free Syrian Army (FSA) varies. ISIS ideology is opposed to a secular state, which is a goal of many these FSA-linked brigades. However, the relationship between these smaller FSA brigades and ISIS included some cooperation when tactically useful.[29] In September 2014, for example, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army signed a truce; they both agreed to release around 100 prisoners and to submit a border issue between Syria and Turkey to an Islamic court.[30]

In addition to its interactions with other rebel groups, ISIS also maintained connections to the Syrian government. The group’s relationship with the Assad regime evolved throughout the Syrian Civil War. Initially, Assad utilized ISIS’s presence to force the Free Syrian Army into a two-front war in northern Syria.[31] The Assad regime also purchased oil from ISIS, implicitly funding the organization.[32] However, this mutually beneficial partnership transitioned towards hostility as ISIS increasingly targeted government forces and inevitably clashed with the Assad regime over territorial disputes.[33]

IS contraction under regional and global pressure: 2014-2018

After IS gained global notoriety, many Islamist militant organizations across the world, particularly in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, began to declare allegiance to the group. Some of these groups appear to have been created in response to IS’s success and Baghdadi’s call for Muslim support, while others were already in existence. However, it is important to note that a declaration does not always indicate a working relationship; as many groups make pledges of allegiance in order to attach their name to the infamous IS brand without having any operational ties to the group.[34] For example, a faction of Abu Sayyaf (AS), an Islamist separatist organization in the Philippines, posted a video threatening to kill two German hostages if Germany did not stop supporting the American airstrikes against IS. After Germany paid a ransom, AS dropped their political demands and freed the hostages. Despite AS’s supposed ties to IS, the Philippine military claimed that there was no evidence of any operational link between AS and IS.[35]

Some pledges of allegiance from other militant groups have been publicly accepted by IS leader Baghdadi. In a November 2014 speech, Baghdadi appeared to accept a number of pledges of allegiance by referring to new “soldiers of the Islamic State” in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen.[36] These groups included the Egyptian Islamic militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which changed its name to the Sinai Province after the speech.[37] In March 2015, Baghdadi’s acceptance of Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram drew global attention because Boko Haram was already highly active before IS gained prominence.[38]

Other Islamist militant groups have declared allegiance but have not been publicly recognized by IS. In a 2014 issue of Dabiq published after Baghdadi had formally accepted a number of pledges but left out others, an IS representative claimed that some of the neglected groups would not be accepted until they established a direct line of communication to Baghdadi and until Baghdadi appointed or formally recognized the group’s leadership. Others speculated that Baghdadi may have been discriminating against non-Arab groups, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in the Philippines, which was among the groups that declared allegiance but were not formally accepted.[39]

Support for IS proved to be divisive for some groups, with some members or leaders announcing allegiance to Baghdadi while others maintained their own group’s independence or upheld previous pledges of allegiance. In particular, some groups that worked with or pledged allegiance to AQ were hesitant to break their pledges, as many Islamist militants consider such a break as a significant betrayal that reflects poorly on group credibility.[40] For example, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced support for ISIS and offered advice to the group in a statement made on its website in August 2014.[41] In November of that year, however, AQAP declared Baghdadi’s caliphate illegitimate and refuted him after he claimed that Yemen was a part of his caliphate, although it is likely that not all AQAP members support the decision to stand against IS.[42]

Some groups with ties to the Taliban were also hesitant to affiliate with IS.[43] Reports of IS activity in Afghanistan began in January 2015, when rumors started to circulate in the country regarding Taliban fighters defecting from their organization to claim allegiance to IS. Some Afghans, including Taliban members, denied that any group had declared support for IS.[44] In May 2015, Afghan officials announced that IS-trained forces were fighting alongside the Taliban against the government in some parts of the country.[45] At the same time, however, other Afghan police officials claimed that IS and the Taliban were at war with each other. In short, the situation on the ground appeared fractured and unclear.[46] As of August 2019, IS-Khorasan is the active affiliate of IS in Afghanistan and Central Asia.[47]

Death of the IS caliphate: 2018-Present

Despite losing all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, IS still maintains connections to a global network of jihadist groups. In addition to its sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, In addition to its presence in Iraq, Syria, IS claims to conduct operations in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, East Asia (specifically the Philippines), Somalia, and West Africa (specifically Nigeria).[48] IS also has a branch based in the Khorasan region, which covers areas of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries. [49] Additionally, IS has recently claimed affiliation with militant groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[50] For more information on these organizations, see the Global Islamic State map on the Mapping Militants website.


[1] Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in Al-Qa'ida from 1989-2006. Rep. West Point: Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 2007. Pg 19. Print. Harmony Project.

[2] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[3] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. https://www.csis.org/analysis/al-qaeda-iraq. 3.

[4] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[5] Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014; Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in Al-Qa'ida from 1989-2006. Rep. West Point: Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 2007. Print. 20. Harmony Project.

[6] "Terrorist Organization Profile: Mujahideen Shura Council." National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. University of Maryland, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

[7] Felter, Joseph, and Brian Fishman. Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records. Rep. Harmony Project at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Dec. 2007. Web, 5. 9 Dec. 2014.

[8] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web. 12. 22 Dec. 2014

[9] Bergen, Peter, Joseph Felter, Vahid Brown, and Jacob Shapiro. Bombers, Bank Accounts, & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. Rep. Ed. Brian Fishman. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008. Web, 9. 22 Dec. 2014.

[10] Siegel, Pascal C. "Islamic State of Iraq Commemorates Its Two-Year Anniversary." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. N.p., 15 Oct. 2008. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

[11] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity." Long War Journal. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 01 July 2014.

[12] "Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI)." Terrorist Groups. National Counterterrorism Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.}

[13] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Analysis: Zawahiri's Letter to Al Qaeda Branches in Syria, Iraq." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, 10 June 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[14] Associated Press. "ISIL says it faces war with Nusra in Syria." Al Jazeera. N.p., 8 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 June 2014.

[15] Branford, Nicholas. "After Foley murder, more jihadi threats to murder hostages." The Christian Science Monitor. N.p., 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

[16] Chulov, Martin. "Isis Reconciles with Al-Qaida Group as Syria Air Strikes Continue." The Guardian, September 28, 2014.

[17] Arango, Tim. “Uneasy Alliance Gives Insurgents an Edge in Iraq.” New York Times. New York Times, June 18, 2014.

[18] Al-Salhy, Suadad and Tim Arango. “Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital.” New York Times. New York Times, June 11, 2014.

[19] Fick, Maggie and Ahmed Rasheed. “Islamic State rounds up ex-Baathists to eliminate potential rivals in Iraq’s Mosul.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, July 8, 2014.

[20] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times. N.p., 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014; Mourtada, Hania. "The Islamist Enemy of Our Islamist Enemy." Foreign Policy. N.p., 31 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[21] Landis, Joshua. "The Battle between ISIS and Syria's Rebel Militias." Syria Comment. N.p., 4 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[22] Barnard, Anne, and Rick Gladstone. "Rebel Infighting Spreads to an Eastern Syrian City." The New York Times. N.p., 06 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[23] Joscelyn, Thomas. "Saudi Cleric's Reconciliation Initiative for Jihadists Draws Wide Support, Then a Rejection." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[24] Berger, Miriam. “Syrian Rebels Wage New Battle Against Al-Qaeda Affiliate.” Buzzfeed News. 13 January 2014.; “Islamic State Torture is Destroying Syrian Society.” Atlantic Council. 13 July 2016.; Lund, Aron. "Pushing Back Against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: The Path to Conflict." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014

[25]Joscelyn, Thomas. "Ahrar Al Sham Leader Criticizes Head of Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[26] "Al-Qaeda Fighters Kill Syrian Rebel Leaders." Al Jazeera. N.p., 2 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[27] Lund, Aron. "Who and What Was Abu Khalid Al-Suri? Part I." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[28] "Al Qaeda Splinter Group in Syria Leaves Two Provinces - Activists." Reuters. N.p., 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

[29] Pizzi, Michael. "Syrian Rebels Turn on Each Other as 'big Tent' Strategy Collapses | Al Jazeera America." Syrian Rebels Turn on Each Other as 'big Tent' Strategy Collapses | Al Jazeera America. Al Jazeera, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

[30] Pizzi, Michael. "Syrian rebels turn on each other as 'big tent' strategy collapses." Al Jazeera America 20 Sept. 2013. Al Jazeera. Web. 23 June 2014.

[31] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 115:1, 303-362. February 10, 2015, 303.

[32] Shekhani, Helbast. “Islamic State sold oil to Syrian regime and Turkey, commander says.” Kurdistan 24. 02 Jul. 2018.

[33] Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa, The Military Balance, 118:1, 315-374, February 13, 2018. 316.

[34] Milton, Dan, and Muhammad Al-`Ubaydi. "Pledging Bay'a: Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State?" CTC Sentinel. Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 May 2015.

[35] Whaley, Floyd. "Philippines Says Local Terrorist Group Is Not Linked to ISIS." The New York Times. N.p., 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 May 2015.

[36] "Islamic State: 'Baghdadi Message' Issued by Jihadists - BBC News." BBC News. N.p., 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 May 2015.

[37] Hashem, Mostafa. "Islamic State Leader Urges Attacks in Saudi Arabia: Speech." Reuters. N.p., 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 May 2015.

[38] Reuters. "ISIS Accepts Boko Haram Allegiance Pledge." CBS News. N.p., 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 07 May 2015.

[39] Milton, Dan, and Muhammad Al-Ubaydi. "Pledging Bay`a: A Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State? | Combating Terrorism Center at West Point." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. N.p., 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 May 2015; Agence France Presse. "Philippine Militants Pledge Allegiance to ISIS." The Daily Star Newspaper. N.p., 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 May 2015.

[40] Milton, Dan, and Muhammad Al-Ubaydi. "Pledging Bay`a: A Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State? | Combating Terrorism Center at West Point." Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. N.p., 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 May 2015.

[41] Al-Moshki, Ali Ibrahim. "AQAP Announces Support for ISIL." Yemen Times. N.p., 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

[42] Cruickshank, Paul. "Al Qaeda in Yemen Rebukes ISIS." CNN. N.p., 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

[43] Khan, Dera Ismail. "Pakistan Taliban Splinter Group Vows Allegiance to Islamic State." Reuters. N.p., 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 May 2015.

[44] Shah, Taimoor, and Joseph Goldstein. "Taliban Fissures in Afghanistan Are Seen as an Opening for ISIS." The New York Times. N.p., 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 May 2015.

[45] Afghanistan Forces Defend Kunduz from Taliban - BBC News." BBC News. N.p., 7 May 2015. Web. 07 May 2015.

[46] "Taliban, ISIS Announce War against Each Other in Afghanistan." The Oslo Times. N.p., 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 May 2015.

[47] “Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K).” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Last updated November 9, 2018.

[48] Al-Lami, Mina. “Where is the Islamic State Group Still Active in the World.” BBC News. 27 Mar. 2019.

[49] Al-Lami, Mina. “Where is the Islamic State Group Still Active in the World.” BBC News. 27 Mar. 2019.; “Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K).” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Last updated November 9, 2018.

[50] Wembi, Steve, and Joseph Goldstein. “ISIS Claims First Attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” New York Times, April 19, 2019.

 

State Sponsors and External Influences

JTJ and AQI under Zarqawi: 1999-June 2006

JTJ relied on Osama bin Laden’s funding to create Zarqawi’s training camps in Herat, Afghanistan.[1] The group did not receive resources from any state or other external actor at this time.

AQI decline: June 2006-December 2011

In 2006, U.S. forces in Iraq found documents that proved that Iran provided AQI with funding and weapons, as well as negotiated the release of AQI prisoners. Because Iran is majority Shia and AQI had always been hostile toward Shiite Muslims, the state’s support of the group was likely an attempt to sabotage the U.S. intervention in Iraq.[2] In 2009, the Iraqi government accused the Syrian government of harboring terrorist cells, an allegation that Syrian officials denied.[3]

AQI and ISIS expansion under Baghdadi: January 2012-2014

Private donations from wealthy individuals in the Gulf region were vital in the early years of ISIS’s resurgence. Qatar was criticized for being complacent in this process and not adjusting its laws to stop the flow of money to ISIS.[4] While not an explicit endorsement, Qatar’s lack of willingness to comply with international finance norms benefitted ISIS.

Meanwhile, Iran ceased its assistance of the group. The Iranian government reversed its policy of aiding the group in 2014. Instead, the country offered assistance to U.S. counterterrorism efforts against ISIS.[5]

IS contraction under regional and global pressure: 2014-2018

The Turkish government, Iraqi Kurdish militias, and the Assad regime purchased oil from IS during the Syrian civil war.[6] These actions implicitly funded the group; however, they should  not be considered as deliberate endorsements of IS. The deals were established through preexisting networks of oil smugglers, an example of wartime necessity rather than a purposeful decision of finance IS.

The Death of the Caliphate (2018-Present):

As of August 2019, IS is not receiving support from any known state sponsor or external actor.


[1] Kirdar, MJ. AQAM Futures Project Case Studies Series: Al Qaeda in Iraq. Publication. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. 3.

[2] "Treasury Designates Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security for Human Rights Abuses and Support for Terrorism." Press Center. U.S. Department of the Treasury, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

[3] Londoño, Ernesto, "Al-Qaeda in Iraq gaining in strength," Washington Post Foreign Service,. The Washington Post, 22 Nov. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2010.

[4] Boghardt, Lori. "Qatar and ISIS Funding: The U.S. Approach." The Washington Institute, August 2014.

[5] Laub, Zachary and Jonathan Masters. “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The Council on Foreign Relations.. The Council on Foreign Relations, 12 Jun. 2014. Web. 23 Jun. 2014; Laub, Zachary, and Jonathan Masters. "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Backgrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

[6] Di Giovanni, Janine, Leah McGrath Goodman, and Damien Sharkov. "How Does ISIS Fund Its Reign of Terror?" Newsweek, November 6, 2014.

 

Map

The project develops a series of interactive diagrams that “map” relationships among groups and show how those relationships change over time. The user can change map settings to display different features (e.g., leadership changes), adjust the time scale, and trace individual groups.