Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinaga. (Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)
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Introduction

ISIS is a powerful terrorist militant group that has seized control of large areas of the Middle East. Infamous for its brutal violence and murderous assaults on civilians, this self-described caliphate has claimed responsibility for hundreds of terrorist attacks around the world, in addition to destroying priceless monuments, ancient temples and other buildings, and works of art from antiquity.

The roots of ISIS trace back to 2004, when the organization known as “al Qaeda in Iraq” formed. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was originally part of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda Network, founded this militant group.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq began in 2003, and the aim of al Qaeda in Iraq was to remove Western occupation and replace it with a Sunni Islamist regime.

When Zarqawi was killed during a U.S. airstrike in 2006, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri became the new leader and renamed the group “ISI,” which stood for “Islamic State of Iraq.” In 2010, Masri died in a US-Iraqi operation, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took power.

When the civil war in Syria started, ISI fought against Syrian forces and gained ground throughout the region. In 2013, the group officially renamed themselves “ISIS,” which stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” because they had expanded into Syria.

ISIS rule spread quickly throughout Iraq and Syria. The group focused on creating an Islamic state and implementing sharia law—a strict religious code based on traditional Islamic rules and practices.

In 2014, ISIS took control of Falluja, Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq, and declared itself a caliphate, which is a political and religious territory ruled by a leader known as a caliph.

ISIS fighters attacked a northern town in Iraq that was home to the Yazidis, a minority religious group, in August 2014. They killed hundreds of people, sold women into slavery, forced religious conversions and caused tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee from their homes.

The attack sparked international media coverage and brought attention to the brutal tactics employed by ISIS. Also in 2014, al Qaeda broke ties with ISIS, formally rejecting the group and disavowing their activities.

Throughout its existence, ISIS has been called several names, including:

  • ISIL: This acronym stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The Levant is a broad geographical region that includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Some experts believe the ISIL label more accurately describes the objectives of the militant group.
  • IS: The shortened “IS” simply means “Islamic State.” In 2014, the militant group announced they were officially calling themselves IS because their goals for an Islamic state reached beyond the areas identified in other titles.
  • Daesh: Many Middle Eastern and European governments have used this Arabic acronym for “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham,” which translates to “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” to address the group. However, ISIS doesn’t approve of the name, and in 2014, threatened to cut out the tongue of anyone who called them Daesh in public.

Although there’s been debate over which name most accurately describes the militant group, these titles are typically used interchangeably, and they all refer to the same organization.

ISIS became recognized around the world for carrying out heinous acts of violence, including public executions, rapes, beheadings and crucifixions. The group has earned an nefarious reputation for videotaping brutal killings and displaying them online.

One of the first widely publicized acts of ISIS violence happened in August 2014, when a few of the group’s militants beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley and posted a video of the bloody execution on YouTube.

About a month later, ISIS released another video that showed the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff. A series of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of kidnapped journalists and international aid workers followed for the next several months.

In February 2015, ISIS released footage of Jordanian military pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive in a cage. The same month, an ISIS video showed militants beheading 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya.

Images of a man being thrown off a building in Syria were made public in March 2015. ISIS claimed to have killed the man because he was a homosexual.

Numerous other videos and images documenting brutal executions have been released and attributed to ISIS.

ISIS has also claimed responsibility for hundreds of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world. Some of the most well-known attacks on Western soil that were linked to ISIS include:

  • November 2015, Paris Attacks: In a series of attacks, bombers and shooters terrorized the streets of Paris, killing 130 people.
  • December 2015, San Bernardino Attack: A married couple opened fire at the Inland Regional Center in California and killed 14 people.
  • March 2016, Brussels Bombings: Bombings at Brussels Airport in Belgium and a nearby Metro station killed 32 people.
  • June 2016, Pulse Nightclub Shooting: A gunman opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and killed 49 people.
  • July 2016, Nice Attack: A terrorist driving a truck mowed down a crowd of people in the French Riviera town, killing 86.
  • December 2016, Berlin Attack: A man hijacked and drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing himself and 11 others.
  • May 2017, Manchester Attack: A single suicide bomber killed 22 people during an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in England.

Since about 2014, members of ISIS have destroyed numerous historical sites and artifacts throughout Iraq, Syria and Libya.

The group claims cultural monuments, statues and shrines are idolatrous and shouldn’t be worshipped. However, several news investigations have revealed that ISIS has sold and profited from many of these artifacts.

Some of the cultural sites ISIS has attacked or destroyed include:

  1. Ancient ruins, monuments and buildings in the cities of Hatra, Nimrud, Khorsabad, Palmyra and others
  2. Iraq’s Mosul Museum and the Mosul Public Library
  3. Various churches, temples, mosques and shrines throughout the Middle East

ISIS has been called the richest terrorist organization in the world. While estimates vary, the group was said to have made $2 billion in 2014 alone. Much of ISIS’s money has come from seizing control of banks, oil refineries and other assets in the territories it occupies.

The group has also used kidnapping ransoms, taxes, extortion, stolen artifacts, donations, looting and support from foreign fighters to fill its coffers.

However, a report released in 2017 by the British International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) revealed that ISIS financial revenue has dropped dramatically in recent years.

In response to ISIS violence, various countries—including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, several Arab nations and other countries—have initiated efforts to defeat the terrorist group.

In 2014, a U.S.-led coalition started airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. That same year, the Pentagon announced a program to train Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. However, this initiative was nixed a year later when only about 150 rebels were recruited.

The United States has primarily used targeted airstrikes and special operations forces to fight ISIS. In 2015, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. had launched nearly 9,000 airstrikes on ISIS.
The United States military dropped its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on an ISIS compound in Afghanistan in April 2017.

Reports have suggested ISIS has weakened both militarily and financially. The group has lost control of large amounts of territory in Iraq, and several of its leaders have been killed.

While notable gains against ISIS have been made, international efforts to control this powerful terrorist organization will likely continue for many years.

Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed: National Geographic.

What is ‘Islamic State’?: BBC.

Islamic State group: The full story: BBC.

Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq: Washington Post.

Timeline: US Policy on ISIS: The Wilson Center.

ISIS Fast Facts: CNN.

ISIS goes global: 143 attacks in 29 countries have killed 2,043: CNN.

The ISIS Chronicles: A History: The National Interest.

How an arrest in Iraq revealed Isis’s $2bn jihadist network: The Guardian.