Who Is ISIS?

Who Is ISIS?

Known for brutality and violence, ISIS is infamous. But who is ISIS, exactly?

In 2014 a little known radical Islamist group seemed to suddenly burst on to the scene.  Known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), or simply the Islamic State, this jihadist group quickly attracted worldwide attention.

Through seizing large portions of eastern Syria and hundreds of square miles across northern and western Iraq, ISIS has forced more than one million people to flee their homes.1 The group has gained notoriety by using brutal tactics, including beheadings, crucifixions, abductions, and mass killings. ISIS’s savagery and use of social media to disseminate graphic images and videos of beheadings has sparked fear and outrage across the globe.

But where did this infamous group originate? What is their background? What are their beliefs? Who is ISIS?

The Origins of ISIS

The origins of ISIS can be traced back to a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.2  In 2004, having pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Zarqawi formed a jihadist group that was then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).3 AQI became a major force in the insurgency in Iraq and proved to be even more radical and ruthless than the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.4

After al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and continued to lead the insurgency. However, the US troop surge that began in June 2007 severely weakened ISI’s operational capacity to the point that it was no longer viewed as a significant threat to the Iraqi and coalition forces.5

In 2010 a new leader emerged for the Islamic State in Iraq, a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.6 By 2013, al-Baghdadi had managed to rebuild ISI’s capabilities to the point that it was carrying out dozens of attacks in Iraq every month. He then expanded the group’s operations by joining the rebellion against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.7 This expansion into Syria led to al-Baghdadi’s announcement in April 2013 of the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which also became known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).8

Through the first half of 2014, ISIS continued to acquire territory in Syria and Iraq, overrunning key Iraqi cities such as Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul, as well as taking control of Raqqa and parts of Aleppo in Syria. By the end of 2014 it was estimated that ISIS controlled somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria, including cities, oil fields, dams, main roads, and border crossings.9 It is believed that approximately 8 million people live in territory that is controlled either fully or partially by ISIS.10

Establishing the Caliphate

In Islamic tradition, a caliphate (which literally means “succession”) is an Islamic state that is ruled by a religious and political leader who is considered to be a caliph—a successor—to the Prophet Muhammad.11 The caliphate is ruled in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) and claims dominion over all Muslims.12 From the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, a caliph continuously led the Islamic community.

Since then, for about 90 years, the Islamic community existed without the leadership of the caliphate. Muslims from many different sects and traditions have longed for its reestablishment. Groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda have publicly supported the notion of uniting all Muslims under the banner of a new caliph. In fact, in a 2006 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Muslims around the world said that they support the goal of unifying “all Muslim countries” into a caliphate.13

On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a new caliphate, erasing state borders and instituting strict sharia in all territory controlled by the new Islamic State.14 Al-Baghdadi declared himself the new caliph, taking the title Caliph Ibrahim. In doing so, he claimed authority over the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.15 The new Islamic State then issued a statement naming al-Baghdadi “the mujaíƒí‘hid [one who struggles in Jihad], the scholar who practices what he preaches, the worshipper, the leader, the warrior, the reviver, the descendant from the family of the Prophet, and the slave of Allah.”16

What Does ISIS Believe?

ISIS is fueled by their belief in an extremist version of Islam. They seek a return to what they view as the “pure” form of Islam—what was practiced in the early days of the Islamic community. They believe that Muslims should interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah (the teachings and example of the Prophet Muhammad) in the most literal way possible, including a return to the more barbaric practices of seventh-century Islam.17

The early years of Islam were filled with conquest, first in Arabia and then across North Africa and South Asia. In those days, normal wartime practices included slavery, beheadings, and crucifixions. Most Muslims believe that these practices during the formative years of Islam were not normative but rather calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. However, ISIS has embraced them, considering them necessary tools to be used to advance Islam through jihad.18

After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE without an heir and without naming a successor, the Muslim community became divided over who the successor should be. Some thought that it should be his son-in-law Ali, who was his closest male relative. Those who thought this were known as the Shiaat Ali—supporters of Ali—and eventually became known as Shia Muslims.19 Others thought that it should be the one who best followed the teachings laid out in the Sunnah. They supported Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s closest companion, and later became known as Sunni Muslims.20

As Sunni Muslims, ISIS believes that the purification of Islam begins with eliminating those who they see as apostates—those who have abandoned “correct” religious beliefs. One such group is the Shia Muslims in northern Iraq. ISIS’s brutality is not reserved for only non-Muslims. They have also methodically massacred Shia Muslims in their pursuit of purifying the Islamic faith.21

While the majority of the Muslim community condemns ISIS’s methods as non-Islamic, the leaders of ISIS are absolutely devoted to their religious ideology. They see themselves as defenders of the Islamic faith, seeking to return Islam to its medieval roots through emulating the ways of Muhammad.22

The Rise of the Islamic State

While the Islamic State is currently limited to the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, it has promised to increase its territory throughout the Muslim world, into Europe, and beyond. Even as they fight for control in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine in its crosshairs.23

Al-Baghdadi and ISIS are not satisfied with simply creating a caliphate for themselves and those who agree with their radical brand of Islam. They have demanded allegiance from Muslims around the world and seem to have their eyes set on world domination. In the process of taking control of territory in Syria and Iraq, they have systematically and ruthlessly imposed their extremist views upon millions. They have instituted a strict form of sharia, oppressing and abusing women while using fear and violence to control the masses in the name of religion.

In both Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has purged Christian and Yazidi communities, initially demanding that they pay a jizya (a tax traditionally levied on non-Muslims living in Muslim lands for protection), leave, convert to Islam, or face execution.24 Eventually they removed the jizya option and gave them an ultimatum: convert, flee, or die.25

The World Responds

As of February 2015 an international coalition of more than forty countries—including the United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE—is bombing ISIS in support of the Iraqi and Kurdish troops fighting them on the ground.26

Around the world, Christians and Muslims alike—indeed, people of all religious backgrounds—have repeatedly condemned the savagery and extremism of ISIS. Most Muslims see ISIS's extremist views and practices as a perversion of Islam that does not reflect what they consider a peaceful religion.

In fact, on September 24, 2014, a group of more than 120 Islamic scholars from around the world issued an open letter to the “fighters and followers” of the Islamic State.27 In their eighteen-page letter these Muslim leaders methodically used the Qur’an to show that the extremist ideology of ISIS is actually anti-Islamic.

Even al-Qaeda, a jihadist organization that promotes and supports the use of terrorist tactics, has disavowed ISIS as too radical. On February 2, 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that al-Qaeda had disowned ISIS and expelled them from their organization.28 Even by al-Qaeda’s standards, ISIS has become too extreme.

United Against Evil

ISIS has massacred, looted, tortured, and killed civilians. They have raped women and forced innocent people to flee from their homes. They have published graphic photographs and videos of beheaded bodies, dead children, crucifixions, and the mass graves of brutally executed Shia Muslims. 

ISIS has become the most extreme jihadist organization in the world. In spite of their regular use of vicious methods, they have become one of the richest, most powerful, best-organized, and most well-equipped Islamist groups the world has seen since the Ottoman Empire.

While their goal of uniting the Muslim world is shared by many, their methods, ideology, and growing power strike fear into the hearts of all people—whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or anything in between. May the whole world unite to stand against such evil.