The Islamic State (IS)—also commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or alternatively, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—is a predominantly Sunni jihadist group that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on strict Sharia law, starting in Iraq and Syria. Yet another alternative name is DA’ESH, an acronym used in the Middle East which stands for the Arabic name of the Islamic State: Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al Sham. IS reportedly considers this name a pejorative and has threatened to cut out the tongue of anyone who uses it.
IS first emerged as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI), a major force in the guerrilla insurgency that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched in 2003 to combat coalition forces and their domestic allies in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many former Iraqi soldiers who had served under Saddam subsequently joined AQI, which the U.S. State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization on December 17, 2004.
After a U.S. air strike killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006, the Egyptian-born explosives expert Abu Ayyub al-Masri—a former confidant of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—took the reins of AQI. In October 2006, al-Masri renamed his group the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and appointed the jihadist Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its operational leader.
The violent activities of ISI peaked in 2006–07, before plummeting as a result of the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq, which turned the tide of the Iraq War dramatically in America’s favor. In April 2010, both Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, setting the stage for ISI leadership to fall into the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971, this new ISI leader had been a battlefield commander and tactician for the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency, and had been detained at Camp Bucca—a U.S.-administered prison in southern Iraq—from 2005-09.
After America completed its military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, ISI’s terrorist activities increased dramatically—in particular its attacks on Shiite targets. In 2012 the group adopted the name ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL), to signify its broadened ambition to move also into Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. ISIS generally had strained relations with other jihadist groups in Syria such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra—also known as the al-Nusra Front—and for the most part operated independently of them.
During 2012, there were approximately a dozen days on which ISIS carried out coordinated, multi-city attacks that killed at least 25 Iraqis—including at least 4 separate days when more than 100 Iraqis died. In March 2013, ISIS seized control of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The following month, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, against al-Zawahiri’s wishes, declared a merger between his ISIS group and Jabhat al-Nusra. But al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani rejected the measure.
In late 2013, a number of rival Islamist militant groups coalesced to form a Mujahedeen Army intent on forcing ISIS out of Syria. But when ISIS proved to be too powerful to evict, the Free Syrian Army signed a truce with it in September of that year. In January 2014, ISIS took control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, located in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. ISIS also seized large portions of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and established a presence in numerous towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.
On February 3, 2014, after months of infighting between ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda formally renounced all ties to ISIS.
On June 9, 2014, ISIS freed some 1,000 prisoners from Iraq jails; the next day it overran the Iraqi military in Mosul; on June 12 it took control of Tikrit; and on June 21 it subjugated four more Iraqi towns including Al-Qaim, situated on the border with Syria.
As ISIS continued to expand the breadth of its dominion, especially in northern and western Iraq, it earned a fearsome reputation for unspeakable barbarism as manifested in kidnappings, forced conversions, mass slaughters, and public executions via such methods as crucifixions, beheadings, pushing people off the tops of tall buildings, confining people in cages and burning them alive, and beating people to death before ceremoniously dragging their corpses through the streets. In 2014, ISIS jihadists famously videotaped and broadcast the beheadings of two British humanitarian aid workers (David Haines, and Alan Henning), an American aid worker (Peter Kassig), and two American journalists (James Foley and Steven Sotloff).
In addition to the aforementioned atrocities, ISIS also engaged in the widespread destruction of “pagan” archaeological relics, museum collections of priceless statues and sculptures dating back thousands of years, and ancient shrines considered holy by Christians and Jews. Charging that these items promoted idolatry, one ISIS member said: “The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.” When ISIS blew up the Mosul Public Library in Iraq, sending 10,000 books and more than 700 rare manuscripts up in flames, another ISIS terrorist declared: “These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned.”
On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the existence of what it called a new Islamic caliphate that would thenceforth go by the name “Islamic State” (IS) and would recognize no existing national borders. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for his part, declared himself master of all the world’s Muslims and began using the name Al-Khalifah Ibrahim.
By July 2014, IS had overrun every Syrian city between Deir Ezzor and the Iraq border. On August 8, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized “targeted airstrikes” against IS positions in Iraq and Syria. As of September, the organization was believed to have somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in its ranks. Among these were numerous foreign jihadists from the Arab world, the Caucasus, the U.S., and European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
By this time (August 2014), IS was the world’s wealthiest terror group, possessing some $2 billion in cash and other assets. In its earlier years (when it was known as AQI), its funding had derived mostly from donations by wealthy individuals in Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Thereafter, IS generated much of its income from smuggling, extortion, the sale of antiquities looted from historical sites, the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mosul branch of Iraq’s central bank, and the seizure of large oil fields in eastern Syria.
As of January 1, 2015, IS controlled at least 45 separate cities and towns across northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In December 2014, an IS spokesman ceremoniously announced his group’s genocidal intentions: “We will conquer Europe one day. It is not a question of [whether] we will conquer Europe, just a matter of when that will happen. But it is certain…. For us, there is no such thing as borders. There are only front lines…. Our expansion will be rapid and perpetual. The Europeans need to know that when we come, it will not be in a nice way. It will be with our weapons. Those who do not convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax will be killed—150 million, 200 million or 500 million, it does not matter to us, we will kill them all.”
In January 2015, Jurgen Todenhofer, the first Western reporter to embed (for ten days) with IS fighters and not be killed in the process, discussed his observations of the terror group with Al Jazeera. “I always asked them about the value of mercy in Islam,” he said, but “I didn’t see any mercy in their behavior.” “Something that I don’t understand at all,” Todenhofer added, “is the enthusiasm in their plan of religious cleansing, planning to kill the non-believers…. They also will kill Muslim democrats because they believe that non-ISIL-Muslims put the laws of human beings above the commandments of God…. They were talking about [killing] hundreds of millions. They were enthusiastic about it, and I just cannot understand that.”
Todenhofer expanded upon his observations of IS in his book, Inside IS: Ten Days In The Islamic State, which was published in April 2015. Therein, as well as in subsequent interviews, he made the following remarks:
By February 2015, IS had made sweeping new inroads in Libya and had taken numerous coastal towns (on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea) in that country. On February 18, the terror group threatened to flood Europe with 500,000 migrants from Libya in a “psychological” attack against the West.On October 31, 2015, a bomb planted by IS blew up a Russian passenger plane in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard.
On November 13, 2015, three teams of IS terrorists carried out coordinated attacks in seven separate locations across Paris, France, killing at least 129 people and wounding at least 352. The assailants attacked concert-goers, cafe diners, and spectators at a soccer stadium. Seven of the eight terrorists were killed in the carnage, including six who blew themselves up with suicide belts. In a statement released in multiple languages by IS in the aftermath of the attacks, the terror group declared:
“In a blessed attack for which Allah facilitated the causes for success, a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate, may Allah dignify it and make it victorious, launched out, targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe, Paris…. Allah … cast in the hearts of the Crusaders horror in the middle of their land, where eight brothers wrapped in explosive belts and armed with machine rifles, targeted sites that were accurately chosen in the heart of the capital of France … in a coordinated fashion. So Paris shook under their feet, and its streets were tight upon them, and the result of the attacks was the death of no less than 100 Crusaders and the wounding of more than those, and unto Allah is all praise and gratitude…. Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign, and dare to curse our Prophet … This attack is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn. Allah is the greatest.”
By early 2016, an IS terror manual with illustrations of burning buildings on its cover, was circulating in Europe. Titled Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen, this booklet is intended for operatives who have already infiltrated the West. It teaches jihadists how to blend in with their surroundings and avoid being detected before carrying out terrorist attacks. Instructions include:
Moreover, the IS manual relies heavily on the “importance of surprise when launching an attack to cause maximum impact.” It also explains how nightclubs, full of loud music and drunk people, are ideal places in which to discuss terror plans without being spied upon or recorded.
In 2016-2017, under increased U.S.-led allied air support to forces fighting against IS in Syria and Iraq, IS gradually lost more and more territory from the so-called Islamic State they were creating in large swaths of those two countries. The assault intensified especially after Donald Trump became president. For statistics on the number of bombs that the U.S. and its partners in “Operation Inherent Resolve” dropped on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, click here. Gradually, the IS contingents were driven out of their main strongholds. Some highlights:
• On March 25, 2016 the Pentagon confirmed that U.S. forces had killed IS’s finance minister, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.
• On June 26, 2016, a senior Iraqi general announced that Iraqi forces had completely taken the city of Fallujah away from IS.
• On October 17, 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of an operation to retake the city of Mosul from IS, the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Iraq.
• On July 10, 2017, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced that Mosul had been recaptured from IS.
• On October 17, 2017 U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced that the IS main stronghold of Raqqa had been recaptured, with only small pockets of resistance remaining in the city.
• On December 9, 2017, the Iraqi military announced that it had “fully liberated” all of Iraq’s territory from IS and taken full control of the border with Syria.
Notwithstanding IS’s declining influence in Iraq and Syria, it remained an active force in lawless Libya. Its plan to flood Europe with jihadists posing as refugees likewise remained intact. Moreover, IS encouraged its Western-based jihadists to resort to knife attacks and vehicle attacks if they did not have access to guns and explosives, and the organization continued to claim responsibility for many of the terror attacks being carried out in Europe as well as many attacks in the Middle East. Below is a listing of major terror attacks carried out by IS in the West between 2016 and 2018. (A more comprehensive list of attacks attributed to ISIS worldwide may be accessed here.)
• On March 22, 2016, 32 people were killed and more than 300 injured in three coordinated suicide bombing attacks in Brussels. IS claimed responsibility. The perpetrators were linked to the same terrorist cell that had carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks.
• On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 people in an attack against the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. During his attack, he pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
• On July 14, 2016, 86 people were killed in Nice, France when a Tunisian man drove a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille day. IS claimed credit, saying that the driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had answered their call to attack citizens of coalition countries fighting against IS.
• On December 19, 2016, a Tunisian asylum-seeker named Anis Amri drove a truck through a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people. He was later shot and killed by Italian police outside Milan. Amri had pledged loyalty to IS in a video made before the attack.
• On March 22, 2017, Khalid Masood, a British convert to Islam, drove a van into pedestrians near the Parliament building, killing five and injuring 50. IS claimed credit.
• On April 7, 2017, Rakhmat Akilov, a rejected asylum-seeker from Uzbekistan and IS an sympathizer, drove a hijacked truck into a large group of pedestrians on a major Stockholm street, killing five and seriously injuring 14. The day before the attack, Akilov swore allegiance to IS in a video.
• On May 22, 2017, Salman Ramadan Abedi, a British subject of Libyan origin, carried out a suicide bombing at a music concert in Manchester, England. A total of 23 people were killed and 139 were wounded. Subsequent investigation tied Abedi to al-Qaeda and subsequently to IS.
• On June 3, 2017, a van occupied by three men (2 Moroccans and one Pakistani) drove into pedestrians on London Bridge before crashing. The perpetrators then ran to a nearby commercial area, stabbing people randomly in restaurants and pubs before being shot dead by police. All told, 8 people were killed and 48 were injured. IS claimed responsibility.
• On August 17, 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a Moroccan, drove a van into pedestrians on Barcelona’s La Rambla (Blvd). He killed 13 and injured at least 130. Nine hours later, 5 attackers, believed to belong to the same terror cell, drove into pedestrians in nearby Cambrils, Spain, killing one and injuring six. IS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
• On February 18, 2018, a 22-year-old man from the Russian province of Daghestan – identified as Khalil Khalilov, aka Khalil al-Daghestani – opened fire in an Orthodox church in the town of Kizlyar, killing five women and wounding several others. IS claimed responsibility.
• On May 28-29, 2018, Belgian citizen and Islam convert, Benjamin Herman, while on a furlough from prison, killed four people including two police officers in Liege before being killed by police. IS claimed credit for the attack.
As IS’s control over land in Syria and Iraq diminished, there were various reports that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded or even killed. In February 2018, al-Jazeera reported that he was believed to be somewhere in Syria, badly wounded from an air attack.
On March 22, 2019, the last vestige of the IS caliphate in Syria was wiped out by U.S.-backed forces. As Fox News reported:
“The caliphate has crumbled, and the final offensive is over. While the official announcement hasn’t yet been made – Fox News has been told that this village, the last ISIS stronghold, is liberated…. We have witnessed the end of the caliphate – the brutal empire that once ruled over 8 million people – is gone. Troops here are now bringing down the black flags of ISIS. The flags no longer fly over the town, instilling fear.
“The last five days, Fox News has witnessed the last major offensive up close -– with U.S.-backed SDF forces attacking ISIS from three sides, pushing the fighters back, house to house, then tent to tent, against the Euphrates River…. This final corner of the caliphate was in the far eastern desert of Syria – it was where ISIS first captured territory, and it is where they finally lost….
“None of the main surviving ISIS leaders have been caught inside Baghouz. Instead, they left their men to fight alone…. The scale of the devastation here is incredible. And everyone acknowledges that without U.S. support, it would have taken far longer. For four-and-a-half years, ISIS held this territory, ruling over it with an iron fist. It was the terrorist group’s heartland – and they were so dug in that the only way to push them back was to flatten whole villages. The devastation here goes on for miles – and craters like this are a reminder of the critical role played by U.S. airpower. Military jets still fly overhead.
“SDF fighters are all so grateful to the U.S., not just for their help in the battle, but now for its decision to leave troops here when it’s done. Reports now suggest the figure may be around 1,000 staying.”
On October 26, 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid by U.S. Special Operations forces on a compound in northern Syria where he was hiding. When the American troops and their attack dogs cornered al-Baghdadi inside a dead-end tunnel, the jihadist detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children whom he had taken into the tunnel with him.
On March 10, 2022, ISIS confirmed that Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, who had replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the organization’s top leader after al-Baghdadi killed himself in 2019, had likewise died by suicide when trapped by U.S. special forces members in a raid in Syria on February 3, 2022. ISIS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajer then announced that Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi would now be the new leader, or caliph, of ISIS.