The Islamic State, also known through the out-dated acronyms ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Levant) or as Da’esh, is a radical Islamist Sunni group which, as of June 2014, has taken over operational control and leadership of the global jihadist movement (Sookhdeo, 2015; Gerges, 2017). The organisation seeks to establish a political state, a Caliphate, under the law of sharia in Iraq and Syria, followed subsequently by all Arab states and lastly the whole world (Sookhdeo, 2015). On the 29th June, 2014, the Islamic State emerged on the international scene as it announced its new, shortened name (the Islamic State) and proclaimed itself as a ‘Caliphate’, naming Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its Caliph (Tome, 2015).
The origins of the Islamic State date back to two jihadist groups in the 1990s, the Bayat al Imam and the Jama’at al-Tawid wa-al-Jihad (Tome, 2015). Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, these groups merged with Al Qaeda, adopting the brief title ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ during 2004 up until 2006 (Sookhdeo, 2015). By the end of this two year time frame, al-Zarqawi was killed by US forces and the ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ was taken over by Ayyub al-Masri (Tome, 2015). The subsequent period of 2006 to 2010 saw a period of weakness for the ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’, which in October, 2006 was reformed to the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ (ISI) via the Mujahideen Shura Council, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was tasked with the supervision of the Shariah Committee, although he was not tasked with leading the ISI (Tome, 2015). Despite the ISI effectively being born out of ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, the ISI is not conceived as a denomination of Al-Qaeda but alternatively holds an independent status with the goal of creating a pure Islamic state (Tome, 2015). Throughout the period of 2007-2010, ISI lost a large chunk of its manpower to US, Iraqi and Sunni awakening forces which in turn led to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being assigned control of ISI towards the latter of this period (Tome, 2015).
This weak period for the ISI was succeeded by a period of fortunate circumstances which enabled the rise of the ISI and the consequent ascension of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The alienation of Iraq’s Sunni majority by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki enabled a chance for the ISI to gain support with these ostracised communities (Tome, 2015). In addition, the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, 2011 resulted in the loss of the jihadist movements leading figure and subsequently caused a decline in Al Qaeda’s influence (Gerges, 2017). These circumstances, coupled with widespread unrest which transcended geo-political boundaries in the Middle-East (as a result of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria) created a set of conditions which enabled extremism to thrive (Atwan, 2015). As support for ISI grew in this period as they took advantage of the situation in Syria, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi expanded the ISI to Syria where it was proclaimed that ISI has been re-established as the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’ which operated as a merger between ‘al Nusra Front’, an Al Qaeda group, and ISI to form the new ISIL / ISIS (Tome, 2015). Whilst the move damaged relations with Al-Qaeda due to their occupation in al-sham and led to Al-Qaeda dissociating themselves from ISIS, the move contributed to ISIS’s growing influence which eventually led to them seizing command and leadership of the jihadist movement (Gerges, 2017). Through a rise in their territorial power throughout 2013/14, the group came to dominate a variety of Sunni localities in Syria and across Iraq (Tome, 2015). By the end of 2014, ISIS had come to occupy approximately 1/3 of Syrian and Iraqi territories with pockets of supporters throughout Jordan and Saudi Arabia (Gerges, 2017).
This provides the backdrop for the contemporary Islamic State (IS). Whilst this group shares certain ideologies with Al-Qaeda, primarily in terms of its Salafist-jihadist ideology which is based on a form of Sunni Islam, what distinguishes the Islamic State from other militant groups such as Al-Qaeda is their self-proclamation as a Caliphate; a form of ‘state’ which governs its population and manages its territory and finances (Tome, 2015). The Salafist-jihadist ideology which this ‘state’ bases itself off does not accept the notion of religious diversity and instead, as based on the Takfir doctrine, sanctions violence against other Muslims which have been accused of unfaithfulness (Tome, 2015). As of today, the group has become infamous for its numerous human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law across the Middle East; the group has become known for its attacks against civilians, religious and ethnic minorities, women and children (Wilson Centre, 2015).
Atwan, A. (2015). Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. London: SAQI.
Gerges, F. (2017). ISIS: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sookhdep, P. (2015). Unmasking Islamic State: Revealing their Motivation, Theology, and End Time Predictions. United States of America: Isaac Publishing.
Tome, L. (2015). ‘The Islamic State: Trajectory and Reach a Year After its Self-Proclamation as a Caliphate’. E-journal of International Relations. 6 (1), 117-139.
Wilson Centre. (2015). Report: ISIS Human Rights Abuses in 2015. [Online]. Available at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/report-isis-human-rights-abuses-2015 (Accessed 16th June, 2017).