Background Briefing: What is the Islamic State?


By Zachary Laub, online writer/editor, and Jonathan Masters, deputy editor at the Council on Foreign Relations


The self-proclaimed Islamic State is a militant movement that has conquered territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, where it has made a bid to establish a state in territories that encompass some 6.5 million residents. Though spawned by al-Qaida’s Iraq franchise, it split with Osama bin Laden’s organization and evolved to not just employ terrorist and insurgent tactics, but the more conventional ones of an organized militia.

In June 2014, after seizing territories in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State proclaimed itself a caliphate, claiming exclusive political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims. Its state-building project, however, has been characterized more by extreme violence, justified by references to the Prophet Mohammed’s early followers, than institution building. Widely publicized battlefield successes have attracted thousands of foreign recruits, a particular concern of Western intelligence.

The United States has led an air campaign to try to roll back the Islamic State’s advances, and a series of terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and Syria in late 2015 that were attributed to the group spurred an escalation in international intervention. The U.S.-led coalition has worked with Iraqi national security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq; some of those forces have also worked with Shia militias. In Syria, a small number of U.S. Special Operations Forces have embedded with some opposition forces. Meanwhile, militant groups from North and West Africa to South Asia have professed allegiance to the Islamic State.

What are the Islamic State’s origins?

The group that calls itself the Islamic State can trace its lineage to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003. The Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aligned his Jama’at al-Tawhidw’al-Jihad with al-Qaida, making it al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).

Zarqawi’s organization took aim at U.S. forces (PDF), their international allies, and local collaborators. It sought to draw the United States into a sectarian civil war by attacking Shias and their holy sites, including the Imam al-Askari shrine, in 2006, and provoking them to retaliate against Sunnis.

Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike that year. The emergence of the U.S.-backed Awakening, or Sons of Iraq, coalitions further weakened AQI as Sunni tribesmen reconciled with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Zarqawi’s successors rebranded AQI as the Islamic State of Iraq and later, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), referring to a territory that roughly corresponds with the Levant, reflecting broadened ambitions as the 2011 uprising in Syria created opportunities for AQI to expand. The group is known to its followers as il-Dawla (“the State”) and its Arabic-speaking detractors as Daesh, the Arabic equivalent of the acronym ISIS.

The Islamic State’s current leader, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent time in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Cells organized in them, along with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s ousted secular-nationalist Ba’ath party, make up some of the Islamic State’s ranks.

How has the Islamic State expanded?

Sunni disenfranchisement in both Iraq and Syria created a vacuum that the Islamic State has exploited. In Iraq, a Sunni minority was sidelined from national politics after the United States ousted Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003. In Syria, a civil war erupted in 2011 pitting the ruling minority Alawis, a Shia offshoot, against the primarily Sunni opposition, spawning sectarian violence.

In Iraq, Maliki cemented his own power as U.S. forces pulled out in 2010 by practicing what was largely denounced as a divisive politics that excluded Sunni political rivals and gave Shias disproportionate benefits.

The Awakening councils effectively came to an end as Maliki rejected the inclusion of many of their militiamen in the security forces, an integration process advocated by U.S. forces, and arrested some of its leaders. In 2013, the security forces put down broad-based protests, contributing to the Sunni community’s sense of persecution.

Maliki purged the officer corps of potential rivals. Combined with desertion and corruption, this contributed to the Iraqi military’s collapse as Islamic State militants overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June 2014.

Syria’s 2011 uprising helped in the Islamic State’s expansion. Some analysts have even described a tacit nonaggression pact between Islamic State militants and Bashar al-Assad regime, with each focused on fighting the main antigovernment opposition forces for territorial control. As extremists came to dominate territory in Syria’s north and east and overran more moderate forces, Assad claimed it validated his argument that only his government could mount an effective opposition to “terrorists” — a term he has applied to opposition forces of all stripes.

The northern Syrian city of Raqqa is often cited as the Islamic State’s de facto capital. There, the group has established some new institutions (e.g., judicial, police, economic) and coopted others (e.g., education, health, and infrastructure) to provide residents a modicum of services and consolidate its control over the population.

After rapid expansion through Iraq in much of 2014, the Islamic State seemed to run up against its limits as it pushed up against majority Kurdish and Shia Arab regions, where it faced greater resistance from Iraqi forces and local populations along with U.S.-led air strikes. Its militants have failed to advance on Baghdad or the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

What is the Islamic State’s relationship with al-Qaida?

The group became an al-Qaida franchise by 2004 but has since broken with bin Laden’s organization and become its rival. The split reflects strategic and ideological differences. In Syria, the groups compete for power and recruits among many militant forces.

Al-Qaida focused on attacking the United States and its Western allies, whom it held responsible for bolstering Arab regimes it considered apostate, like those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. For bin Laden, the establishment of a caliphate was the end goal — but one that was generations off.

In 2005, bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri castigated AQI’s Zarqawi for indiscriminately attacking civilians, particularly Shias. Zawahiri believed that such violence would alienate Sunnis from their project — a concern borne out by the success of the Awakening movement.

A more thorough rupture came after the start of Syria’s uprising. Baghdadi publicly rebuffed the private ruling of Zawahiri, who had succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaida’s chief, that the emergent Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, remain independent, and Baghdadi’s organization restricted to Iraq. Since then, the two groups have at times fought one another on the Syrian battlefield.

How is the Islamic State financed?

Oil extraction constitutes the Islamic State’s largest source of income. The group is estimated to produce 44,000 barrels a day from Syrian wells and 4,000 barrels a day from Iraqi ones. The group then sells the crude to truckers and middlemen, netting an estimated $1 million to $3 million a day. By selling well below market price, traders are incentivized to take on the risk of such black-market deals. The oil-starved Assad regime, Turks, and Iraqi Kurds — all putative enemies of the Islamic State — are rumored to be among its customers. In a rare raid on Syrian territory in May 2015, U.S. Special Operations forces killed an Islamic State official believed to have managed the group’s oil and gas operations.

The Islamic State is believed to extort businesses in Mosul, netting upwards of $8 million a month. Christians who have not fled the city face an additional tax levied on religious minorities. Protection rackets bring in revenue while building the allegiance of some tribesmen. Exploitation of natural resources and trafficking in antiquities also contribute to the Islamic State’s coffers.

Ransom payments have provided the Islamic States upwards of $20 million in 2014, including large sums for kidnapped European journalists and other captives, according to the U.S. Treasury. The United States maintains a no-concessions policy, at odds with its European counterparts.

The Islamic State pays its fighters monthly wages estimated to be upwards of $350, more than rival rebel groups or the Iraqi government offer, and as much as five times what is earned by ordinary Syrians in territory controlled by the Islamic State.

Does the Islamic State pose a threat beyond Iraq and Syria?

The Islamic State group’s claim to be a caliphate has raised concerns that its ambitions have no geographic limits, and a series of attacks in November 2015 highlighted its ability to strike beyond its territorial base. Militants in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have taken up the Islamic State’s trappings and sworn allegiance to Baghdadi. It is unclear, however, whether these self-proclaimed provinces of the Islamic State should be considered true outposts of Baghdadi’s organization, or rather, local militants looking to capitalize on the Islamic State’s notoriety as they compete with rival groups in local contests for power.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted foreign fighters by the thousands. Middle Eastern and Western intelligence agencies have raised concern that their citizens who have joined the fighting in Iraq and Syria will become radicalized and then use their passports to carry out attacks in their home countries. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated in February 2015 that more than 13,000 foreign fighters joined Sunni Arab antigovernment extremist groups, including the Islamic State, in Syria, and that more than 3,400 of more than 20,000 foreign Sunni militants hailed from Western countries. (Estimates of the group’s total forces range from around 30,000 to more than 100,000.)

In November 2015, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for downing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai peninsula, shortly after Russia had begun conducting air strikes in Syria. Over the following two weeks, the group also claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in a Shia-majority suburb of Beirut — the city’s deadliest attack since the end of its civil war in 1990 — and coordinated attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people. France retaliated by bombing Raqqa, marking its first major involvement in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria, even as questions persisted as to whether these attacks were centrally directed.

Another concern is Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria, through which foreign fighters have entered and exited the conflict. Turkey kept its border open as it sought the overthrow of Assad. But as the Islamic State crowded out other armed opposition groups and came up to the Turkish border, international pressure mounted for Turkey to seal the border. In July 2015, Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition despite concerns about Kurdish gains on its southern border and domestic reprisal attacks. A series of bombings over the course of the campaign season culminated with an attack in Ankara that killed more than one hundred people — the worst such attack in the country’s history.

What is U.S. strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has assembled a coalition of some 60 countries to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State. The U.S.-led coalition includes the European Union and several Sunni Arab states. As of mid-May 2015, the coalition had carried out nearly 4,000 airstrikes, four-fifths of them by U.S. forces.

In Iraq, the United States has deployed nearly 3,000 uniformed personnel, armed the KRG paramilitary (the peshmerga), and led airstrikes against Islamic State forces. As of early March 2015, the coalition had carried out nearly 1,500 airstrikes, 70 percent from U.S. forces. Meanwhile, Shia militias have done much of the fighting on the ground, making up for the hollowed-out Iraqi army. Militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps played a critical role in Iraq’s March 2015 push to oust Islamic State forces from Tikrit. Another militia involved in the fight against the Islamic State is loyal to the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army battled U.S.-led forces early in the occupation.

The Obama administration insisted that Maliki step down and be replaced by a less polarizing politician as a condition of military assistance. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, pledged to practice more inclusive politics and bring Shia militias aligned with Iraqi security forces under the state’s control. But rights groups allege that these militias have evicted, disappeared and killed residents of Sunni and mixed neighborhoods in the wake of operations to root out Islamic State militants. Acknowledging these abuses, Sadr temporarily froze his militia.

As Islamic State forces fought for control of the heavily Sunni-populated Anbar province, the United States reportedly opposed the deployment of Shia paramilitary groups to fend them off. Washington believed they would exacerbate sectarian tensions and Sunni alienation from the state while undermining the government. Baghdad, meanwhile, resisted arming Anbar’s Sunni tribes. The Islamic State claimed to overrun the provincial capital, Ramadi, in mid-May 2015.

Though opposition to Islamic State advances would seem to put Washington and Tehran on the same side, both sides have downplayed the possibility of tactical coordination in Iraq. Military measures that Sunnis perceive as bolstering hostile regimes in Iraq or Syria could backfire, driving members of the community to cooperate with the Islamic State. The United States has also carried out airstrikes in Syria in a bid to roll back Islamic State territorial gains. The United States does not have a fighting partner on the ground there, while political efforts to end the broader civil war (international negotiations and, more recently, a U.N.-backed effort to broker local ceasefires) have failed.

Some critics in Washington argue that the Obama administration’s failure to follow through on its rhetorical support for rebel forces in Syria with training and arms put them at a disadvantage against both Shia pro-government elements like Hezbollah and Sunni extremist groups, which grew strong with the support of Tehran and deep-pocketed Gulf donors, respectively.

In early 2015, the Pentagon began a three-year program to train and equip 5,000 “appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition” a year to attack Islamic State forces — but not the Assad regime and its allies. But the Obama administration abandoned the $500 million program in October 2015 after it was revealed to have yielded just “four or five” fighters in Syria. In its place, the White House said it would adopt a looser approach, screening just commanders rather than individual fighters. The United States has also embedded Special Operations Forces with Syrian rebels.

These military measures may contain the Islamic State, but are unlikely to help resolve the governance problem, which the administration has said is the only solution to this conflict. But the diplomatic efforts of major powers appear deadlocked as the regime’s backers and opponents remain unable to agree on what a political transition ought to look like.

This backgrounder, originally published in June 2014 and updated in November 2015, first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website.