Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (analogous to the modern concept of Syria or greater Syria) (ISIS), variously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as well as the Islamic State, is a radical Sunni jihadist organization currently active in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is a successor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq and was formally established in 2006, at which time it became known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

A mugshot photo of Baghdadi detained at Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2004

ISIS was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi born in Samara in 1971 who took part in the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency following the Anglo-American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003; he was also a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Baghdadi had been the acknowledged leader of ISIS since 2010. On 27 October 2019, he killed himself by detonating a suicide vest during the Barisha raid, conducted by the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment and the U.S. Delta Force, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province, according to a statement by U.S. President Donald Trump. The commander of the United States Central Command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., stated that al-Baghdadi also killed two children when he exploded his vest and was buried at sea after being offered Islamic funeral rites. On 31 October 2019, ISIL confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, and named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, about whom little is known, as his replacement.

As with Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS sought to expel all foreign troops and personnel from Iraq and wage war against the Shia- dominated secular government of Iraq. These organizations have not only battled coalition and Iraqi armed forces but have also engaged in myriad acts of terrorism and war crimes that have frequently involved civilians. ISIS, however, had ambitions beyond these activities. It sought to establish an Islamic regime, based on strict interpretations of Islamic law or sharia, within Iraq and Syria. It even hoped to eventually extend its reach into the Levant, which encompasses Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

By 2010, Baghdadi had emerged as a top leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He co-opted several other jihadist organizations, most notably the Mujahideen Shura Council, and began recruiting followers who shared his more expansive vision. Observers believed that Baghdadi enjoyed success in recruiting fighters (many are foreigners, and some even hailed from Western Europe and the United States) because he was a charismatic military strategist and battlefield commander as well as a theologian.

By the spring of 2013, ISIS had become a potent force in both Iraq and Syria. In Syria, ISIS has taken full advantage of the bloody civil war there that had been raging since early 2011. ISIS rebels have been battling Syrian government forces defending the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as well as other antigovernment rebel groups. Many Syrians have come to despise ISIS because of its violence toward civilians, attacks on other rebel groups, and uncompromising positions, which include the subjugation of women and enslavement of captured women prisoners. In early 2014, Western-backed Syrian rebels and even other Islamist groups launched a major campaign to expel ISIS from Syria. It met with only modest success, however, and ISIS extended its reach within Syria to include areas populated by the Kurds.

ISIS had an even greater impact in Iraq, however, and by the summer of 2014 it was threatening the very existence of the Iraqi government of President Nuri al-Maliki. Throughout 2013, ISIS made major advances in northern and western Iraq. By late January 2014, ISIS and affiliated groups had managed to seize control of the key cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and virtually all of Anbar Province. In early June 2014 the group enjoyed even bigger gains, taking Mosul (Iraq’s third-largest city) as well as Tikrit. ISIS forces reached to only some 60 miles north of Baghdad and were attempting to drive farther south.

The fall of Mosul stunned the Iraqi government and much of the international community. By mid-June, the United States and other Western nations were involved in urgent negotiations to determine how they should aid Maliki’s government and prevent all of Iraq from falling into the hands of the ISIS. Unfortunately, the corrupt, ineffectual, and anti-Sunni Maliki regime proved virtually incapable of halting ISIS’s advance, and many components of the Iraqi Army simply bolted and fled in the face of ISIS offensives.

During the summer of 2014, the Barack Obama administration began implementing a strategy to reverse ISIS’s advances. This included cobbling together a multinational coalition, including a number of Arab states, to participate in air strikes against ISIS targets, arming moderate Syrian rebel groups combating ISIS fighters, sending more military hardware to the Iraqi government, dispatching some 3,000 military “advisers” to Iraq, and commencing air strikes against ISIS.  These began on August 8, 2014, and the U. S.-coalition air campaign against ISIS in Syria commenced on September 23. Those operations, code-named Operation Inherent Resolve since October 15, 2014, continued into 2018. At the same time that the Obama administration had announced its intent to defeat ISIS, it was lobbying for Maliki to be replaced as Iraqi prime minister. Under great internal and international pressure, he finally resigned on September 8 and was succeeded by Haider al-Abadi, who pledged to pursue conciliatory policies in Iraq and work cooperatively with the United States and its coalition partners in order to subdue the ISIS insurgency. The rise of ISIS has certainly proven to be the worst crisis to hit Iraq since the beginning of the post-invasion insurgency during 2003-2004 and has also greatly complicated the internecine Syrian Civil War.

By late December 2014, there were indications that the anti-ISIS effort was beginning to show some incipient signs of progress. Although Syrian officials reported that ISIS had killed 1,878 people (the vast majority of them civilians) between June 2014 and January 2015, Kurdish fighters announced in late December 2014 that they had made sizable inroads against ISIS in the Syrian border town of Kobani; by then the Kurds, who have been aided by U. S. and coalition air strikes against ISIS, reportedly controlled more than 60  percent of Kobani and the surrounding area. They also pushed ISIS out of the Iraqi city of Sinjar, a development that was hailed by some as a possible turning point in the war against ISIS. In May 2015, ISIS was defeated in Tikrit. Over late 2015 and throughout 2016 ISIS suffered a series of defeats in Ramadi and Fallujah. By late 2016, ISIS was under siege and later attack in Mosul. Mosul was returned to Iraqi government control in July 2017 after a battle of nearly seven months.

The threat from ISIS was considerably larger than its military operations in Iraq and Syria might suggest. Indeed, the group routinely violated basic international law and human rights by kidnapping innocent foreign civilians, beheading them, and then releasing the videos of the executions on the Internet. In addition to targeting innocent civilians, ISIS also engaged in the severe repression of women in areas under its control; the group has also engaged in the sexual exploitation and enslavement of women and even young girls.

Beginning in the late summer of 2014, ISIS began publicly executing foreigners. As part of its strategy of conquest, ISIS began to employ terror tactics such as public beheadings to vanquish its opponents, frighten local populations into submission, and attract new recruits. The first public beheading occurred on August 19, 2014, when American journalist James Foley was executed. The video recording was immediately made available on the Internet, which shocked and offended most Americans as well as the international community.

The ISIS campaign of beheading seemed to have backfired, at least in its effect on Western public opinion.  After James Foley was killed in August, U. S. public support for a military campaign against ISIS rose dramatically. The same phenomenon occurred in Britain after David Haines’s beheading. The French were outraged by the killings, and President Fran├žois Hollande promptly decided to take military action against ISIS. The beheadings also spurred many Arab and Islamic nations into action. A number of high-profile Islamic scholars and leaders (including Sunnis) condemned ISIS and its deplorable tactics, and Iran also vowed to defeat ISIS. There have been many reports of ISIS engaging in the sexual enslavement of women, particularly among the Christian and Yazidi minority groups residing in the border areas of Iraq and Syria. In December 2014, the Yazidis asserted that ISIS currently had some 3,500 women and girls imprisoned as sex slaves. In June 2014 as ISIS made more territorial gains in Iraq, it engaged in the kidnapping and rape of women and girls in several Iraqi towns and cities. 

There are also reports that ISIS operatives kidnapped women and then sold them into slavery to third parties. Indeed, in places such as Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, there were reportedly women and girls on display bearing price tags.

From 2015 to 2018 ISIS lost effectively all of the territory it controlled in Iraq and nearly all of the territory in Syria. Iraqi prime minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS at the end of 2017. The enclaves of ISIS in Syria are limited to a handful of villages and neighborhoods in larger cities in 2018.

The final fate of ISIS is uncertain. As their physical self-declared caliphate shrunk, they encouraged attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. They launched or inspired attacks in Paris, Marseilles, Nice, London, Berlin, Orlando, San Bernardino, and possibly Las Vegas. They have also inspired affiliates across the globe from Nigeria to Afghanistan to Indonesia and the Philippines. ISIS has influenced people through an innovative approach to social media and mass communications. They have promulgated their message with videos, online magazines, and twitter accounts. Some have dubbed this the virtual caliphate and have suggested that so long as this exists then the organization may continue to exist.

Al Qaeda in Iraq

Al Qaeda in Iraq (al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al- Rafhidayn, AQI-literally “the base in the land of the two rivers”) is a violent Sunni jihadist organization that has taken root in Iraq since the 2003 Anglo-American-led invasion of that nation. This group is the root organization for what became the Islamic State in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Islamic State. For the purposes of this entry it will be referred to as AQI. The U. S. government has characterized AQI, sometimes referred to as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, as the deadliest Sunni jihadist insurgent force now in Iraq. Other sources and experts argue that this designation is exaggerated, as the group is among more than 40 similar organizations, and the claim was made symbolically to rationalize the idea that coalition forces are fighting terrorism in Iraq and thus should not withdraw precipitously.

Opponents of the continuing U. S. presence in Iraq have argued that the 2003 invasion sparked the growth of Salafi jihadism and suicide terrorism in Iraq and its export to other parts of the Islamic world. AQI first formed under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l Jihad (Group of Monotheism and Jihad) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999.

Zarqawi fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and when he returned to his native Jordan, he organized a group called Bayt al-Imam with the noted Islamist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi) and other veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Zarqawi was arrested and imprisoned but was released in 1999. He returned to Afghanistan and set up camp in Herat. Following the U. S. invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq by way of Iran and Syria. Once Mullah Krekar, the leader of the Kurdish group Islamist Ansar al- Islam, was deported to the Netherlands in 2003, certain sources claim that Zarqawi led some 600 Arab fighters in Syria.

Following the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l Jihad was blamed for, or took credit for, numerous attacks, including bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the Canal  Hotel that killed 23 at the United Nations headquarters, and the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l Jihad is also credited with the killing of Italian paramilitary police and civilians at Nasiriyah and numerous suicide attacks that continued through 2005. The group also seized hostages and beheaded them. A video of the savage execution of U. S. businessman Nicholas Berg, murdered in Iraq on May 7, 2004, reportedly by Zarqawi himself, was followed by other killings of civilians.

AQI has targeted Iraqi governmental and military personnel and police because of their cooperation with the American occupying force. AQI’s recruitment videos have highlighted American attacks and home searches of defenseless Iraqis and promised martyrdom. Estimates of AQI members have ranged from 850 to several thousand. Also under dispute have been the numbers of foreign fighters in relation to Iraqi fighters. Foreign fighters’ roles were first emphasized, but it became clear that a much higher per- centage (probably 90 percent) of fighters were Iraqi: members of the Salafi jihadist, or quasi- nationalist jihadist, groups.

In October 2004 Zarqawi’s group issued a statement acknowledging the leadership of Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and adopted the name al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al- Rafhidayn. The Iraqi city of Fallujah, in western Anbar Province, became an AQI stronghold. U. S. forces twice tried to capture the city, first in the prematurely terminated Operation Vigilant Resolve from April 4 to May 1, 2004. The Fallujah Guard then controlled the city. U. S. military and Iraqi forces conquered the city in Operation Phantom Fury (Fajr) during November 7-December 23, 2004, in extremely bloody fighting.

Zarqawi formed relationships with other Salafist jihad organizations, announcing an umbrella group, the Mujahideen Shura Council, in 2006.  After Zarqawi was reportedly at a safe house in June 2006, the new AQI leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, announced a new coalition, the Islamic State of Iraq, that included the Mujahideen Shura Council.

Al Qaeda, along with other Sunni Salafist and nationalist groups, strongly resisted Iraqi and coalition forces in Baghdad, Ramadi, and Baqubah and continued staging very damaging attacks into 2007. How- ever, by mid-2008 U. S. commanders claimed dominance over these areas. Nevertheless, AQI was acknowledged to still be operative southeast of Baghdad in Jabour, Mosul, Samarra, Hawijah, and Miqdadiyah. The United States believed that AQI’s diminished presence was attributable to the Anbar Awakening, which enlisted numerous tribes, including some former AQI members, to fight Al Qaeda. The Americans further believed that AQI had been diminished because of the troop surge strategy that began in early 2007. From then until his death on May 1, 2011, bin Laden had urged the mujahideen to unify in the face of these setbacks.

AQI has strongly influenced other jihadist groups and actors, particularly through its Internet presence. In sparking intersectarian strife in Iraq, the group has also badly dam- aged Iraq’s postwar reconstruction efforts and tapped into the intolerance of many Salafi groups as well as other Sunni Iraqis and Sunni Muslims outside of Iraq who have been threatened by the emergence of Shia political parties and institutions that had suffered  under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s Al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the July 23, 2013, jailbreak from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison that unleashed 500 to 600 militants into an already unstable region and boosted the group’s resurgent fortunes in Iraq and Syria. The prisoners were freed in two coordinated assaults in which fighters used suicide bombs and mortars to storm the two top security prisons on Baghdad’s outskirts at Abu Ghraib and Taji. Both were once run by the U. S. military and housed the country’s most senior Al Qaeda detainees. At least 26 members of the Iraqi Security Forces and more than a dozen prisoners were killed.

The scale of the attacks against the heavily guarded facilities reinforced an impression building among many Iraqis that their security forces are struggling to cope with a resurgent Al Qaeda since U. S. forces withdrew in December 2011, taking with them much of the expertise and technology that had been used to hold extremists at bay. Iraqis’ fears about a resurgent Al Qaeda were further vindicated when the group took control of Fallujah and Ramadi and much of Anbar Province by January 2014. Meanwhile, car bombings, kidnappings, and other violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda and allied groups accelerated rapidly during 2013 and into 2014.