Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Formed2002
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackOctober 28, 2002: Jama'at al-Tawhid wa'l Jihad (predecessor organization) elements assassinated Laurence Foley in Jordan (1 killed).[1]
Last AttackJune 25, 2014: ISIS attacked the city of Yathrib, Iraq and the adjacent Joint Air Base Balad, also known as “Camp Anaconda.” (Unknown number killed). [2]
UpdatedAugust 4, 2014

Narrative Summary

In 2000, Osama bin Laden asked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to join Al Qaeda, but Zarqawi refused. [3] Instead, Zarqawi formed Tawhid wal Jihad, a militant group based in Jordan. He provided material and financial support for the assassination of an American diplomat, Laurence Foley, in Jordan on October 28, 2002. [4] That year Zarqawi entered northern Iraq, and in October, 2002, he formally joined Al Qaeda to create Tanzim Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al Qaeda in Iraq – AQI). [5] Zarqawi's harsh tactics, such as beheading captives, alienated many Iraqis from AQI. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Al Qaeda leader, sent Zarqawi a letter urging him to foster better relations with Iraqi leaders. [6] However, Zarqawi's tactics continued to alienate potential supporters. In November 2005, AQI's bombing of three hotels in Amman, Jordan prompted critical responses even from radical Islamic groups that normally celebrated Al Qaeda's attacks. [7] Also problematic was Zarqawi's strategy of killing large numbers of Shiites and destroying Shiite religious sites. [8] Arguably the most significant of these attacks occurred on February 22, 2006, when AQI bombed the Askariyah Shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque in Samarra. The attack prompted at least 27 retaliatory strikes against Sunni mosques the same day in Baghdad alone.[9] Sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis escalated to such an extent that a curfew was instated for several days. [10] These attacks on Shiite targets prompted disagreement with the Al Qaeda leadership, which had cooperated with Shiite groups in the past. [11]

On June 7, 2006, Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike. He was replaced by Abu Ayub al-Masri, an Egyptian. A few months later, in October, al-Masri declared the formation of Dawlat al-'Iraq al-Islamiyya (Islamic State of Iraq—ISI), and named Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi its leader. [12] ISI represented a rebranding of the group intended to consolidate existing support and indicate increased focus on the longevity of its governmental infrastructure. The name change was also an attempt to increase the group’s appeal and thereby gain a wider range of new followers. 

However, ISI was failing by the end of 2007 because it was too weak to provide security or enforce the radical religious rules that Al Qaeda espouses. [13] Adding to ISI’s incapability, increasing numbers of Sunni tribal leaders were publicly accepting US assistance and cooperating with US forces against AQI in a mass shift called the Awakening movement. This movement had gained momentum in 2006, as the Anbar Awakening experienced local success against AQI. [14] These events marked the beginning of a low period for AQI.

 From 2008-2011, Coalition forces combined efforts with tribal security forces known as “Sahwa,” killing the majority of AQI’s leadership and leaving it in general disarray. By June, 2010, AQI had even lost stable communication with AQ Central leadership. [15] That same year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi[16] assumed control of an AQI severely weakened by the Coalition-Sahwa crackdown. AQI operations remained low in 2011, but pressure from the Coalition forces was removed in December 2011 after the withdrawal. By January 2012 the number of AQI attacks increased significantly. On July 12, 2012, al-Baghdadi announced a “Breaking Walls” campaign aimed at the al-Maliki government. The “Breaking Walls” campaign reflected a new purpose and renewed vigor for AQI. The pronounced increase in operations throughout 2012 indicates that AQI was quickly regaining strength and organization. [17]

In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced AQI’s operations in Syria and the group’s name change to ISIS; he also claimed that AQI created the Al Nusra Front in Syria. Al-Baghdadi further stated that the two groups were on the verge of merging. Both Al Nusra Front leadership and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disputed this claim. [18] [19] Zawahiri himself “annulled” the merger, dictating that ISIS should limit its operations to Iraq. [20] On June 14, al-Baghdadi rejected Zawahiri’s statement. [21] [22] Attempts at reconciliation failed, and AQ central renounced any connection with ISIS in February 2014. [23] 

Despite ISIS’s separation from AQ Central, it experienced military success in Syria and Iraq, capturing several major cities, including Raqqa, Fallujah, and Mosul. [24] The funds seized through these invasions, combined with income from foreign donors and from criminal activities such as smuggling and the extortion of local businesses, gives ISIS an estimated $2 billion in assets. [25] 

 On June 29, 2014, the group again changed its name to simply the “Islamic State,” declaring a Caliphate and naming its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph; it called upon all Muslims to declare allegiance to the new Caliphate. [26] 

Leadership

After al-Zarqawi's death in 2006, al-Masri took his place. Shortly thereafter, al-Masri created ISI and placed Abu Umar al-Baghdadi in charge. Both were killed in April 2010. [27] That same year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of the group. [28]

  1. Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (2002 to June 7, 2006): AQI's founder and first leader, al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.[29]
  2. Abu Ayub al-Masri (October 2006 to April 18, 2010): Al-Masri became AQI's top comander after al-Zarqawi's death. Al-Masri was killed during a joint raid by U.S. and Iraqi solders in April 2007.[30]
  3. Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (October 2006 to April 18, 2010): The ISI's top commander, al-Baghdadi was killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010.[31]
  4. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Abu Du’a (2010 to Present): Took control of AQI in 2010, and then renamed the group as ISIS in April 2013. [32]

Ideology & Goals

ISIS, like its predecessor AQI, is a radical Sunni (Salafi) militant organization. Zarqawi originally intended to trigger a sectarian war in Iraq, with the hope of preventing Shi'ite control of Iraq and ensuring instability, thus potentially driving Coalition forces from the country.[33] In pursuit of that goal, AQI primarily targeted Shi'ites, but it also launched attacks against the Iraqi government and Coalition troops, as well as anyone—such as police officers or soldiers—who collaborate with Coalition forces. [34] From 2008-2011, AQI was thrown into disarray due to pressure from Coalition and Sahwa forces; during this period, AQI was likely focused on its own survival, but continued to carry out attacks. However, on July 21, 2012, al-Baghdadi announced the “Breaking Walls” campaign, aimed at the al-Maliki government, reflecting a new purpose and renewed vigor for AQI after the withdrawal of US and coalition forces in 2011. [35]

By 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi again changed the group’s purpose – he announced that its goal is the establishment of a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim state in Iraq and Greater Syria to enable the return of the Islamic caliphate. [36] [37] Thus, ISIS began to focus on the seizure of territory, with progressively larger targets falling under its control, most recently Fallujah and Mosul. [38] With al-Baghdadi’s announcement of an Islamic Caliphate on June 29, 2014, it is apparent that the group is taking its new strategy very seriously. [39] 

Name Changes

Tawhid al-Jihad officially became Al Qaeda in Iraq in late 2004 when al-Zarqawi formally joined al Qaeda. [40] Some sources indicate that AQI was also known as “The Islamic State in Iraq,” (ISI), during its period of cooperation with AQ Central. [41] The  name “ISI” was aimed at increasing the appeal of the group in order to consolidate support for AQI’s operations, help ensure the group’s longevity, and widen the range of followers it could attract. Manny followers’ allegiance to ISI superseded their allegiance to al Qaeda. [42] Following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s assumption of power, AQI operations expanded into Syria, prompting AQI’s name change to “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), sometimes translated as “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). [43] [44] 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.” [45] On June 29, 2014, the group again changed its name to simply the “Islamic State,” declaring a Caliphate and naming its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph; it called upon all Muslims to declare allegiance to the new Caliphate. [46] 

Size Estimates

Estimates indicate significant increase in ISIS membership between 2011 and 2014.  However, the most recent estimates include a wide range of possible sizes, demonstrating a lack of definitive knowledge about the current state of ISIS’s membership. 

Designated/Listed

• US Department of State Terrorist Organizations List: December 2004 to Present. [53]


• UNSC Al Qaeda Sanctions List: October 18, 2004 to Present.  [54] [55]  

 

Resources

From 2002-2013, AQI relied on weapons and fighters smuggled across the border from supporters based in Syria, funding and fighters originating from Saudi Arabia, and logistical support from elements throughout the Arabian Gulf. [56] ISIS also relied heavily on monetary support from donors in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. [57] However, after its cutoff from AQ Central in 2013, ISIS has relied on its own criminal activities, such as kidnapping, extortion of local businesses, robberies, and smuggling for funding. [58] [59] Whether ISIS currently relies more on funds from donors or earnings from criminal activity remains a matter of dispute. [60] [61] However, the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that ISIS acquires around $8 million a month from its extortion of local businesses alone. [62]

Prior to its seizure of Mosul, it is estimated that ISIS’s assets amounted to $900 million; afterwards, it is estimated that ISIS’s holdings of cash and physical assets increased to $2 billion. [63] The Washington Post estimated that ISIS gained around $425 million from the Mosul Central Bank, [64] while the New York Times estimated that ISIS took somewhere between $65-400 million. [65] 

External Influences

While under the AQ umbrella, AQI benefited significantly from foreign elements. The Sinjar Records reveal that AQI had a large contingent of foreign fighters from countries throughout the Arabian Gulf and North Africa. Saudi Arabians, Libyans, and Algerians were the largest groups of foreign fighters in AQI (in that order). Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt were also sources of recruits for AQI. [66] [67] In addition, AQI received logistical and material support from elements in Syria, Kuwait, and Iran. [68] AQI also received funding from the state of Iran in 2006. While support from Iran was likely because of AQI’s opposition to American influence in Iraq, the Shiite Iranian government’s support for a Sunni insurgent group is puzzling. [69] Al Qaeda's central leadership was publicly supportive of AQI. [70] However, following Abu Bark al-Baghdadi’s assumption of leadership and the group’s name change to ISIS in 2013, external support decreased significantly. The Iranian government reversed its policy of aiding the group in 2014, offering assistance to US counterterrorism efforts against ISIS. [71] Differences between ISIS and AQ Central led to a breakdown in relations starting in 2013, and their cooperation ceased completely by 2014. The two groups can now be said to be in direct conflict. [72] Given its rift with AQ Central and subsequent loss of foreign contacts, ISIS is likely more independent now than ever before. 

Geographical Locations

AQI operated in Jordan from 2002 until 2005. It has operated in Iraq continually since 2003, specifically in the cities of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Najaf. [73] ISIS operations expanded into Syria in 2013 and have been largely successful, with ISIS taking control of cities in both northern Syria and western Iraq, including Raqqa, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.  [74] ISIS has also taken control of nearly all official border crossings between Iraq and Syria, and the only border crossing between Iraq and Jordan, which could allow the group to expand its operations into Jordan or Saudi Arabia. [75] 

Targets & Tactics

AQI targeted Coalition forces, their allies and supporters, and the Iraqi government. However, unlike many other Sunni militant groups in Iraq, AQI consistently targeted Shi'ite civilians and religious sites. AQI also regularly used suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) destroy targets. [76] During 2007, as AQI began to compete with other Sunni groups for leadership of the insurgency in Iraq, it began to use chlorine gas in conjunction with conventional explosives to target civilians and other Sunni militants. [77] [78] However, such tactics drew criticism from Muslims, [79] and reports of chlorine attacks stopped around May 2007. Following the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq in 2011, the group altered its strategy to focus on the seizure of territory, capturing Fallujah and Mosul. [80] 

Concurrent with the breakdown in its relations with AQ Central in 2013, ISIS has increased its scope of operations to include Syria. It appears that ISIS has taken advantage of the Syrian civil war to gain a foothold in Syria that it uses to launch attacks into Iraq; furthermore, it seems that ISIS uses gains in Iraq to consolidate its territory in Syria. [81] However, it continues to target the Iraqi military as well as Shiite and minority civilians. [82] [83] ISIS has also expanded its recruiting strategy to include aggressive use of social media, such as Twitter. In addition, ISIS publishes reports of its purported successes, info-graphics, and videos online, some of which are in English. [84] [85] The increasing proximity of ISIS operations to Baghdad may indicate that the group is preparing to invade the city. [86]

Political Activities

In October 2006, AQI increased its focus on the creation of governmental infrastructure for a Sharia-run Iraq, wanting to increase support by rebranding itself as more Iraqi, and therefore formed ISI, attempting to impose order in the regions it has controlled, issuing religious instructions and establishing a cabinet complete with a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. However, ISI was failing by the end of 2007 because it was too weak to provide security or enforce the radical religious rules that Al Qaeda espouses. [87] Following ISIS’s seizure of Mosul in June 2014, the group has continued these efforts. The New York Times reports that ISIS is establishing rudimentary governance in the areas now under its control, setting up administrative buildings and even courts to adjudicate its imposition of Sharia law. [88] 

Major Attacks

  1. Unknown: ISIS takes control of Fallujah, Iraq, and sections of Ramadi, the capital of the al-Anbar province. (Unknown number killed).[89]
  2. Unknown: ISIS takes control of Raqqa, Syria. (Unknown number killed).[90]
  3. October 28, 2002: Tawhid wa'l Jihad assassinates Laurence Foley in Jordan (1 killed).[91]
  4. August 19, 2003: Bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad (23 killed, 100+ wounded).[92]
  5. August 28, 2003: Bombing of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf (85 killed).[93]
  6. May 7, 2004: Beheading of Nicholas Berg in Iraq (1 killed, 20+ wounded).[94]
  7. November 9, 2005: Bombing of Western Hotels in Amman, Jordan (57 killed).[95]
  8. February 22, 2006: Bombing of the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad. Sparked retaliation against 100 or more Sunni mosques (0 killed).[96]
  9. August 2009: AQI claims responsibility for the bombings of several government buildings in Baghdad (250 killed, 1000+ wounded).[97]
  10. May 2010: Attacks across Iraq in response to the killings of AQI and ISI leaders, al-Masri and al-Baghdadi (85 killed, 300+ wounded).[98]
  11. March 21, 2012: AQI claimed responsibility for attacks across eight cities in just under six hours. Shiites, police, security forces and government officials were targeted in Karbala, Kirkuk, and Baghdad (46 killed, 200 wounded).[99]
  12. July 22, 2013: AQI attacks Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in Iraq, freeing approximately 800 prisoners with al Qaeda affiliations. (26 Killed).[100]
  13. September 14, 2013: ISIS takes control of an air defense base in Hama, Syria. (Unknown number killed).[101]
  14. June 10, 2014: ISIS takes control of Mosul. (Unknown number killed).[102]
  15. June 17, 2014: ISIS attacks Baji oil field, although the Iraq Army reports that it successfully drove out ISIS within two to three days of fighting. (Unknown number killed).[103]
  16. June 23, 2014: ISIS seizes border crossings at Qaim, Waleed, and Trebil; ISIS now has control over the border between Iraq and Syria and the border between Iraq and Jordan. (Unknown number killed).[104]

Relationships with Other Groups

Partially in response to its conflict with AQ Central over tactics, AQI formed an umbrella organization called Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (Mujahideen Shura Council—MSC) in January 2006[105] with Jaish al-Taifa al-Mansoura, al-Ahwal Brigades, Islamic Jihad Brigades, al-Ghuraba Brigades, and Saraya Ansar al-Tawhid. [106] A few months later in October 2006, AQI and the rest of the MSC created the ISI. Ansar al-Islam (AI) simultaneously cooperated and competed with AQI. [107] The relationship was complex; AI never joined the MSC or the ISI, but still cooperated tactically with AQI, especially in northern Iraq and Baghdad. Elements from AI joined the Jihad and Reformation Front rather than the ISI, rejecting AQI's vision for Iraq. [108] The ISI and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) had a particularly competitive relationship. After months of infighting within Iraqi jihadist circles, the IAI publicly split from AQI in April 2007. [109] IAI took issue with AQI's targeting of Muslims and its divisive tactics. [110] IAI led the formation of the Jihad and Reformation Front. In June of 2007, the 1920s Revolution Brigades came to an agreement with the U.S., turned on AQI, and drove AQI out of the city of Buhriz. [111]

In 2004, Tawhid al-Jihad changed its name to AQI and was accepted into global AQ. [112] However, AQI had a contentious relationship with AQ Central. In 2005, Ayman Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s chief lieutenant at the time, expressed AQ Central’s disapproval of AQI targeting of Shi’ites. [113] In April 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced AQI’s operations in Syria and the group’s name change to ISIS, he also claimed that AQI had founded the Al Nusra Front in Syria. He further stated that the two groups were on the verge of merging. Al Nusra Front leadership denied these claims and instead proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaida and Ayman al-Zawahiri. [114] [115] Tensions with Al Nusra Front were already high; Al Nusra emir Abu Muhammad al Julani issued an ultimatum to ISIS on February 25, 2014 after ISIS continually targeted other rebel forces, including jihadists; directly before the declaration, an emissary of Zawahiri was killed in an AQI bombing. [116] Zawahiri himself “annulled” the merger, dictating that ISIS should limit its operations to Iraq alone. [117] On June 14, al-Baghdadi rejected Zawahiri’s statement. [118] [119] Attempts at reconciliation failed and AQ central renounced any connection with ISIS in February 2014. [120] According to Muhammad al-Obaidi and Nelly Lahoud of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, “the statement marked the first time that al-Qa’ida publicly disowned a jihadist group.” [121]

In September 2014, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army signed a truce; they both agreed to the release of around 100 prisoners and that a border issue between Syria and Turkey will be submitted to an Islamic court. [122]  

 

It is also becoming clear that former Baathists have been providing critical assistance to ISIS’s operations in Iraq. The majority of Baath party support seems to be coming from members of the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order (JRTN), which was formed in December 2006, following Saddam Hussein’s death. [123] Former Hussein regime official and leader of the JRTN, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, may be a key commander of ISIS forces. It is evident that ISIS’s success in capturing Iraqi cities has been largely dependent on the military expertise and local connections brought by the Baathists; without help from members of JRTN, ISIS would likely not be nearly as effective. [124] However, cooperation between ISIS and the Baathists will almost certainly be short lived; ISIS’s goal of creating a Caliphate is most likely opposed by the Baathists, who are nationalists and have likely supported ISIS only because of its anti-al-Maliki stance. There have been reports that ISIS has killed Baathists in Mosul in order to consolidate its authority and discourage sects that could feasibly negotiate with the government or oppose their vision for a Caliphate. [125] 

Community Relationships

While AQI once enjoyed a position as the nominal defender of Sunni interests in Iraq, it alienated itself from much of the surrounding population by utilizing more brutal tactics and targeting Shi'ite Muslims. Furthermore, increasing numbers of Sunni tribal leaders publicly accepted US assistance and cooperated with US forces against AQI in a mass shift called the Awakening movement. This movement gained momentum in 2006, as the Anbar Awakening experienced local success against AQI. [126] As a result, the group made concerted efforts (such as forming the MSC and the ISI) to rebrand itself as Iraqi. Despite its efforts, the group weakened considerably during 2007 and 2008 and continued to lose support. [127] Currently, ISIS continues policies that strain its relations with the communities that it controls; Human Rights Watch has documented the imposition of Sharia law in ISIS’s Syrian territory and the use of school programs and public events for the recruitment of child soldiers. [128]

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