Islamic State of Iraq and ash Sham / Islamic State (Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS or ISIL, IS)


The ISIS was preceded by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), that was established during October 2006, and comprised of various insurgent groups, most significantly the original Al Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (AQI) organization, al-Qaeda in Mesopotami - led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq, and Jund al-Sahhaba (Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions), which was integrated into the ISI. ISIS members' allegiance was given to the ISI commander and not al-Qaeda central command. The organisation known as the ISIS was formed during April 2013 and has evolved in one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq. ISIS regards Baquba, Iraq, as its headquarters with its allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the group’s emir. Baghdadi’s real name is Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al-Zawi.

Images: Al Nasir Li Din Allah Abu Sulayman, the ISIS war minister [left]; Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi, emir of the ISIS [right].

Split with Nusra Front

Initially al-Baghdadi took lead in the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and expected the JN leader's (Abu Mohammed al-Golani) to view him as senior in position. Al-Golani refusal resulted in the establishment of the ISIS, with indications that approximately 65% of JN members declared their allegiance to ISIS. These defections allowed ISIS to gain control in several areas, such as Raqqa, parts of the Aleppo urban and rural areas. More recently the ISIS seized the headquarters of other groups in Manbaj, al-Bab and Azaz.

Aaron Y Zelin’s article “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, published during June 2014 in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains the schism between the ISIS and al Qaeda/JN as one of differences over authority and methodology (manhaj).

  • Authority

ISIS rejects Zawahiri’s leadership which they viewed as a deviation from the path bin Laden. The ISIS position in this regard is seen in an Adnani’s statement of April 2014:

“The leaders of al-Qaeda deviated from the right manhaj, we say this as sadness overwhelms us and bitterness fills our hearts...Verily al-Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the project of the Islamic State and the coming khilafa (caliphate) now runs after the bandwagon of the majority and calls them as ‘the Umma,’ and softens in their stance at the expense of the religion, and the taghut  (tyrants) of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood).

al-Qaeda in turn claims that Baghdadi did, in fact, pledge baya to Zawahiri, though privately and hence has broken a religious oath.

  • Methodology

The ISIS strategy is one of territorial control accompanied by residents’ adherence to the ISIS interpretation of religious law. The ISIS also does not allow any opposing views or role players in areas conquered. JN strategy is more accommodative in that it defines its role as “one among many groups (primarily other Islamist allies) that must work together not only to fight against the Assad regime, but also to govern liberated spaces”. JN also rejects the idea of coercive adherence to its ideas and religious ideology. Zelin defines this strategy of JN as a “gradualist approach”, which aims “to socialise and normalise its ideas over time so that eventually the group can legitimately implement its more narrow interpretations of Sharia”.

Schism between ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda Central Command

Though the ISIS is mostly referred to as an al-Qaeda affiliate, information seems to confirm the opposite, namely that the ISIS is not representative of al-Qaeda in Iraq. On 03 February 2014, al-Qaeda general command published a media statement on jihadi websites stating that the ISIS is not "a branch of the al-Qaeda group".

ISIS members pledge of allegiance is to the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and not to Sheikh Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command). this is reflected in an ISIS nasheed (a song that carries with it an Islamic belief and/or practice) released during 2013 in which it states (translated version):

“They have closed ranks and pledged bay’ah to Baghdadi, For [he is] our amir in our Iraq and ash-Sham."

The ISIS non-affiliation with al-Qaeda was also evident in Sheik Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command) calling during 2013 for the dissolution of ISIS, anticipating that Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would accept authority and control from al-Qaeda central command. This anticipation most probably related to Sheikh Baghdadi’s history as a prominent member of AQI. However, Sheikh Baghdadi’s rejection of the call reflects a clear schism between the ISIS and al-Qaeda central command. More compelling evidence of the schism is seen in a statement by Sheikh Abu Khalid al-Suri (an alleged Ahrar ash-Sham and al-Qaeda central command member) that was deployed by Sheikh Zawahiri to resolve differences between the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra following continued fighting between the two groups in Syria. Sheikh Abu Khalid condemned ISIS conduct and referred to such conduct as “crimes” being committed “in the name of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state."

Clashes with other Islamic and Rebel groups Associations

The ISIS is operating independently and in opposition to other jihadist groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic Front as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as seen in clashes with these groups in both Iraq and Syria. During July 2013, a commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was reportedly shot dead by ISIS fighters in the coastal province of Lattakia. Discord with the FSA was also seen in deadly clashes between the two groups in the north-western province of Idlib. There has also been friction with other groups with the ISIS being accused of killing a prominent member of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham.


The ISIS has extensive financial resources (mostly derived from alleged organised crime activities in areas of control as well as diaspora funds and unidentified financial sponsors from within Gulf states) as well as human capital that enable operations in various locations. This is seen in attacks executed in areas regarded as primarily Shi’a areas in Iraq, such as Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Wasit as well as bombings in Baghdad (Iraq). These attacks also reflected sophistication both in terms of execution and diverse tactics. More recent skirmishes with Iraqi government forces are evidence of an extensive ISIS capacity.

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The ISIS's objective is the establishment of a world wide Caliphate, reflected in frequent media reports by means of images of the world united under a ISIS banner. Although it has perpetrated many terrorist acts since its formation in 2006, especially against Shia and Christian civilians, ISI/ISIS/ISIL has been especially active in late 2102 and 2013, claiming responsibility for killing and wounding hundreds of people through suicide bombings. It's principal targets are U.S. military and Shia and Christian civilians.

ISIS Leadership (2014)

The ISIS leadership structure and leaders are: