Citation for Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria

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Saleh, Zainab . "Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Saleh, Zainab . "Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).

Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria

also known as the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State, or Da‘esh (the Arabic abbreviation of ISIS, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham), is a Sunni militant group that came to prominence after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. As of early 2015 ISIS controls large swaths of land in western and northern Iraq—including Diyala, Mosul, and Anbar—and northern and eastern Syria—including Raqqa, Deir Zor, and Aleppo. The leader of the group is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai. Among his followers he is also known as Commander of the Faithful (Amirul-Mu’minin) and Caliph Ibrahim, in reference to biblical Abraham who is considered a patriarch of Islam by Muslims. On June 29, 2014, the group spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami—a Syrian whose real name is Taha Subhi Falaha—gave an audio speech, entitled “This is the Promise of God.” In this speech al-Adnani announced the establishment of the caliphate, declared al-Baghdadi caliph, and renamed the group the Islamic State, arguing that Muslims everywhere should pay allegiance to the caliphate.

One of the defining features of ISIS has been a communications strategy that relies heavily on social media. It disseminates news, images, and web links via the micro-blogging platform Twitter. It also makes use of the YouTube video platform to circulate audio and video recordings of speeches given by its leaders, and to post videos of highly graphic and violent acts such as the execution of journalists and soldiers. It has also issued a propaganda magazine, Dabiq, which focuses on religious and political affairs.


The emergence of IS needs to be understood against the background of the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the sectarian political system installed by the occupying powers, al-Qaeda’s infiltration into Iraq, the uprising in Syria, and regional politics. The institutionalization of a sectarian quota system in Iraq in 2003 was concomitant with the dismantling of the Iraqi military and the marginalization of the Sunni community, whose members were seen as Saddam Hussein loyalists. The occupation of Iraq contributed to its instability in another important way, in that the policies of the US administration fueled an insurgency in Anbar and other provinces by alienated Sunni Iraqis, and enabled al-Qaeda to establish significant presence in the country.

In 2003 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, founded the Party of Monotheism and Jihad (Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad) in Iraq, before rebranding it as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004. Some of the insurgents in Anbar joined this group. The organization’s targeting of Shia Muslims and minorities, coupled with Shia militias’ retaliation, fueled sectarian violence, which reached its peak between 2006 and 2008, and furthered the rift among Sunni and Shia Iraqis. However, the death of al-Zarqawi in a US strike in 2006, and the establishment of the “Awakening Councils” by Sunni tribes that grew impatient with al-Qaeda’s harsh interpretation of Islam, significantly contributed to the weakening of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared the leader of AQI. Al-Baghdadi had been recently released from Camp Bucca in Iraq where he met the future leaders of IS, and where he was further radicalized after spending almost five years there. He rebranded the group the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In the meantime political stalemate in Iraq further pushed Sunni Iraqis to join ISI. Emboldened by the imminent withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki targeted Sunni leaders, including the former vice president Tareq al-Hashimi, who was sentenced to death in absentia in 2012, the minister of finance Rafi al-Issawi, whose bodyguards were arrested during that year as well, and members of the Awakening Councils. It was at this point that ISI became dominated by Iraqi, rather than foreign, fighters. ISI grew more powerful, and suicide bombings and other attacks in Iraq increased.

In 2011 al-Baghdadi turned his attention to the uprising in Syria. Within a year he sent fighters to set up an al-Qaeda affiliate there, known as the al-Nusra Front, to fight the Syrian regime. In 2013 he merged the al-Nusra Front and ISI into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Baghdadi, however, could not dissolve the al-Nusra Front, which remained a separate and distinct group. Thereafter ISIS became the most powerful armed group in Syria, in control of three major provinces. During this period, ISIS was also gaining influence in Mosul. It forged alliances with the Iraqi Military Council consisting of former military officers, Ba’athist remnants, tribal leaders, and the Naqshbandi Army, a Sufi militia closely identified with the former regime. It was this alliance that enabled ISIS to take over Mosul and other provinces in Iraq.

The role of regional players in the Syrian uprising has contributed to the strengthening of ISIS. The uprising, which started as a nonviolent revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, degenerated into a civil war between the regime and different rebel groups. Intent on weakening what they saw as the Shia threat in the region, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates funded jihadi groups fighting the Syrian regime, including IS. The Gulf states also encouraged fighters from their countries to go and fight in Syria since they constituted an internal threat. This financial support, which continues through private donors in these countries to the present day, has played into the hands of IS, which was gaining ground, and succeeding in recruiting fighters, in Iraq and Syria. Turkey contributed to the victories of IS. Until recently, determined to see regime change in Syria, Turkey has refused to close its borders to foreign fighters willing to join IS. There are reports of collaboration between IS and Turkish intelligence services.

It is unclear how many members IS counts in its ranks. It is estimated that it includes between 10,000 and 35,000 fighters. There are no accurate estimates of the number of Arab and foreign fighters; however, analysts agree that currently the majority of the fighters are Iraqis and Syrians. In September 2014 the US president announced that the United States would target IS by airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. It is yet to be seen if these airstrikes will be able to weaken IS, or deter its advance.

Islamic State Ideology

Scholars disagree over the foundation of IS’s religious orientation. While some think that the group champions Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, others maintain that the group is not rooted in Salafi Islam. The former cite the distribution of the writings of shaykh Mohammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab—such as The Book of the Unity of God (Kitab al-Tawhid), The Book of Clarification of the Doubts (Kitab Kashf al-Shubuhat), and Nullifiers of Islam (Nawaqid al-Islam)—in areas under IS control. They also argue that the group’s key figures, in their writings and education, have followed the teaching of ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in particular his emphasis on monotheism, warning against polytheism, war on disbelief, and call for emigration. Those skeptical of the group’s Salafi credentials believe that IS cannot be seen as a mere extension of Salafism since it has not been able to produce its own well-delineated theoretical literature that discusses religious and political doctrines. Still other scholars warn against hastily describing the group as Salafi since little information is available on the religious beliefs that the thousands of fighters who joined IS actually espouse. So far IS does not have prominent religious scholars who are tasked with developing a religiously informed canon, or serving as spokespersons on matters of religious doctrine.

The religious principles of IS can be gleaned from its leaders’ speeches as well as through essays published in Dabiq. However, these principles remain rudimentary as no efforts are made to offer detailed analysis of the concepts advanced. The espoused religious doctrines revolve around the questions of: monotheism (tawhid), rejection of innovation, emigration (hijrah), and holy war (jihad), subjection to the law of God, and congregation (jama’ah). The leaders of IS emphasize monotheism and warn against polytheism (shirk) and disbelief (kufr) in their speeches. They call upon Muslims to emigrate from the land of kufr to the areas under the control of IS, asserting that emigration to the land of Islam is obligatory. They also urge Muslims to wage a holy war against renegades and neighboring tyrants (tawaghit). The jama’ah or Muslim community is called on to live by religious fundamentals and to show ta’ah (obedience) to the caliph/imam. When making these commands, IS leaders envision the caliphate to be modeled on the teachings of Prophet Mohammed and Ibrahim. While they make reference to Prophet Mohammad’s hadiths to a great degree, and to al-Rashidun caliphs to a lesser degree, IS leaders aim to emulate Ibrahim, who performed hijrah and fought jihad in his efforts to carry God’s command to spread monotheism according to them.

IS adopts an apocalyptic vision of the world. It sees the world as divided into two camps: “the camp of Islam and faith” and “the camp of disbelief [kufr].” The title of its magazine, Dabiq, reflects this perspective. Dabiq is an area in the northern countryside of Aleppo where, according to the hadith, the final battles between Muslims and Romans will take place before the Day of Judgment. IS reads this hadith in a contemporary context, and links the fall of Mosul to the imminent liberation of Dabiq from the Awakening Councils, which were formed in Syria to fight IS. According to the magazine, God promised Dabiq to those who are fighting to build a caliphate. Indeed, IS leaders perceive the group as inhabiting “a new era,” one in which an Islamic state unites Muslims, as opposed to the artificially constructed nation-states that the Sykes-Pico Agreement imposed on the region. They also consider nationalism and democracy as innovations that have led to the disempowerment of Muslims. They also condemn secularism and the separation of the state and religion, and call for the establishment of a united Muslim nation (ummah) under the leadership of one imam (leader). In a caliphate, the imam/caliph is charged with both religious and political affairs, and the Qur’an becomes a book of rule as well as a book of worship and religion.

Funding and Administration

Analysts have described IS as “the best funded terrorist organization in recent history.” IS has developed a complex system to fund its military and pay bills. This system operates outside of conventional banking channels. ISIS relies on the smuggling of both crude oil and refined products, heavy taxation imposed on the populations and businesses under its control, seizure of banks, ransom from kidnappings, and sale of antiquities. Private donors—especially royalty, businessmen, and wealthy families—from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have funneled money to IS. The open banking systems of Kuwait and Qatar in particular are easily exploited by IS to channel money to the group. These donations are usually moved through unregistered charities under the pretext of humanitarian aid. Except for these transfers of money, IS deals in cash to a great extent in order to avoid trading in the global financial system. IS also takes advantage of the relatively easily crossed borders between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the lax controls on bags in airports in the Middle East, to smuggle cash in briefcases.

Little information on how successful IS has been in governing and administrating the areas under its control is available. Recent reports have suggested that IS is in fact a failing state. These reports focus on the lack of basic services such as water and electricity, soaring prices, scarcity of medication, spread of diseases, and dysfunctional school system. Thousands of civil workers are still the ones who are running the areas under IS control, and they receive their salaries from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, not IS. Some reports also suggest that IS has employed former local bureaucrats affiliated with the Iraq’s now defunct Ba’ath Party to administer some areas under its control.

IS and al-Qaeda

Though IS is originally a splinter group of al-Qaeda, the two organizations split following internal fighting among jihadist groups in Syria. After failing to reconcile IS and the al-Nusra Front and to end the operations of ISIS in Syria, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader, disavowed al-Baghdadi, and declared that “Al-Qaeda announces that it does not link itself with (ISIS)… It is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group… does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their action.” The spokesman of IS, in turn, faulted al-Zawahiri for deviating from the true teachings of al-Qaeda as laid down by Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He also asserts that IS has not attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, and that it has limited its attacks to the Shia out of respect for al-Qaeda. He further characterizes the split with al-Qaeda as a difference in principles.

ISIS and al-Qaeda differ in their strategies and goals as well. While ISIS has sought to establish an Islamic state based on Islamic law, al-Qaeda is more focused on military attacks in Western countries and the United States, and does not perceive the state as an immediate priority. As such, IS is more oriented toward domestic issues while al-Qaeda is focused on foreign jihad and terrorist attacks on Western targets. Al-Qaeda has built alliances with other jihadi groups while IS has been fighting these groups, especially in Syria. Following its split from al-Qaeda, IS became more vocal and direct in its criticism of Saudi Arabia, and expressed its intention to expand its operations into the Arabian Peninsula. However, the two organizations share many similarities, including adherence to the teachings of Sheikh Mohammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, resort to takfir, reliance on media, reliance on Gulf funding, and justification of the killing of fellow Muslims and minorities.

IS and the World

The rise of IS and the atrocities the group has committed have been condemned and deplored by state officials and human rights groups. It is hard to assess the popularity of IS among Muslims at the popular level. In Mosul, for instance, Sunnis welcomed IS, not out of religious convictions, but because of their grievances against the former Iraqi prime minister’s policies. In the Gulf Arab states, which have provided support to IS, the reaction varies. Qataris in affluent neighborhoods posted IS logos on their cars. Following the news of the fall of Mosul, Saudis close to the regime hailed IS fighters as “revolutionaries” before fear set in when IS announced the expansion of its military campaign into the Arabian Peninsula. Young Saudis took to social media to pay allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and to urge him to free Mecca from the House of Saud. Fighters from Europe and Arab countries in particular went to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of IS though no accurate estimate of the number of these fighters is available. Generally speaking, ordinary Muslims, appalled by the group’s atrocities and intolerance, did not express support of IS or its victories.

Muslim scholars have condemned IS. One hundred and twenty Muslim scholars, representing different Muslim organizations worldwide, wrote a letter to al-Baghdadi, IS fighters, and IS followers, denouncing them as un-Islamic and as distorting the scripture to further their cause. The letter offers harsh criticism of the group and its practices, reminding the addressees of what is forbidden and permissible in Islam. The letter especially focuses on forbidden practices in Islam, many of which have been carried out by the group. These include: issuing of fatwas without the necessary prerequisites; oversimplification of shari‘a; killing of innocent people; the mistreatment of Christians, Yazidis, and “People of the Scripture;” reintroduction of slavery; destruction of tombs and shrines; waging unjustified holy war; forcing people to convert; and declaring the caliphate without consensus. Likewise, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar, asserts that “It is not a caliphate. It is just people playing with politics referring to religious sources …They [ISIL] are distorting the whole message. So we have to respond by saying … what you are doing, killing innocent people, implementing so-called ‘Sharia’ or the so-called ‘Islamic State’, this is against everything that is coming from Islam.”


  • Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami. “This is the Promise of Allah.”
  • Abu Khalil, As‘ad. “ISIS and al-Qaeda: Similarities and Differences.”
  • Al Jazeera Center for Studies. Deciphering Daesh: Origins, Impact, Future. Mecca, 2014. 12/20141238492604185.html
  • Bulliet, Richard. “It’s Good to Be the Caliph: But the Muslim World Won’t Take ISIL’s Pretensions Seriously.”
  • Dabiq. ISIS’s magazine, collected by The Clarion Project.
  • Dodge, Toby. Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism. London: Routledge, 2012.
  • Doostdar, Alireza, “How not to Understand ISIS.” Jadaliyya, October 2, 2014.
  • Esposito, John L. “The Challenges in Defeating ISIS.” Huffington Post, October 27, 2014.
  • Ghosh, Bobby. “ISIS: A Short History.” The Atlantic, August 14, 2014.
  • The Rise of ISIS, an investigative program on the origin of ISIS on Frontline.

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