Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

Not to be confused with Islamic state or Islamic republic.
"ISIL", "ISIS", "Daish", "Daesh", and "Islamic State group" redirect here. For other uses, see ISIL (disambiguation), ISIS (disambiguation), Daish (disambiguation), and Islamic state (disambiguation).
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام
ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām

Participant in the Iraq War (2003–2011), Iraqi insurgency, Syrian Civil War, Iraqi Civil War, Second Libyan Civil War, Boko Haram insurgency, War in North-West Pakistan, War in Afghanistan, Yemeni Civil War, and other conflicts

Primary target of Operation Inherent Resolve and of the military intervention against ISIL: in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria.
AQMI Flag asymmetric.svg

Salafism, [9] [10] [11]

Salafi jihadism, [11] [12]

Wahhabism [12] [13]
Headquarters Al-Raqqah, Syria
(de facto capital)
Area of operations Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese insurgencies.png
Areas of control as of November 25, 2016, in the Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese conflicts
Originated as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (1999) [38]

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, IPA /ˈsl/), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [note 1] (ISIS, /ˈss/), [39] Islamic State (IS), and by its Arabic language acronym Daesh ( Arabic: داعش‎‎ dāʿish, IPA:  [ˈdaːʕɪʃ]), [40] [41] is a Salafi jihadist unrecognised state and militant group that follows a fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] ISIL gained global notoriety in early 2014 when it drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in its Western Iraq offensive, [49] followed by its capture of Mosul [50] and the Sinjar massacre. [51] Its adoption of the name Islamic State and its idea of a caliphate have been widely criticised, with the United Nations, various governments, and mainstream Muslim groups rejecting its statehood. [52]

This group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations and many individual countries. ISIL is widely known for its videos of beheadings [53] of both soldiers and civilians, including journalists and aid workers, and its destruction of cultural heritage sites. [54] The United Nations holds ISIL responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes, and Amnesty International has charged the group with ethnic cleansing on a "historic scale" in northern Iraq. [55]

ISIL originated as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999, which pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces. The group proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate [56] [57] and began referring to itself as Islamic State (الدولة الإسلامية ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah) or IS [58] in June 2014. As a caliphate, it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. [59]

In Syria, the group has conducted ground attacks on both government forces and opposition factions. By December 2015, the Islamic State covered a vast landlocked territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, with a population estimate of 2.8 [60]–8 million people, [61] where it enforces its interpretation of sharia law. ISIL is now believed to be operational in 18 countries across the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, with "aspiring branches" in Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. [62] [63] [64] [65]


Leadership and governance

Mugshot of al-Baghdadi by US armed forces while in detention at Camp Bucca in 2004

ISIL is headed and run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Before their deaths, he had two deputy leaders, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani for Iraq and Abu Ali al-Anbari (also known as Abu Ala al-Afri) [66] for Syria, both ethnic Turkmen. Advising al-Baghdadi is a cabinet of senior leaders, while its operations in Iraq and Syria are controlled by local governors. [67] [68] Beneath the leaders are councils on finance, leadership, military matters, legal matters (including decisions on executions) foreign fighters' assistance, security, intelligence and media. In addition, a shura council has the task of ensuring that all decisions made by the governors and councils comply with the group's interpretation of sharia. [69] While al-Baghdadi has told followers to "advise me when I err" in sermons, according to observers "any threat, opposition, or even contradiction is instantly eradicated". [70]

According to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group, almost all of ISIL's leaders—including the members of its military and security committees and the majority of its emirs and princes—are former Iraqi military and intelligence officers, specifically former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath government who lost their jobs and pensions in the de-Ba'athification process after that regime was overthrown. [71] [72] [73] The former Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism of the US State Department, David Kilcullen, has said that "There undeniably would be no Isis if we had not invaded Iraq." [74] It has been reported that Iraqis and Syrians have been given greater precedence over other nationalities within ISIL because the group needs the loyalties of the local Sunni populations in both Syria and Iraq in order to be sustainable. [75] [76] Other reports, however, have indicated that Syrians are at a disadvantage to foreign members, with some native Syrian fighters resenting "favouritism" allegedly shown towards foreigners over pay and accommodation. [77] [78]

In August 2016, media reports based on briefings by Western intelligence agencies suggested that ISIL had a multilevel secret service known in Arabic as Emni, established in 2014, that has become a combination of an internal police force and an external operations directorate complete with regional branches. The unit was believed to be under the overall command of ISIL's most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief Abu Mohammad al-Adnani [79] [80] until his death by airstrike in late August 2016. [21]

Civilians in ISIL-controlled areas

In 2014 The Wall Street Journal estimated that eight million people lived in the Islamic State. [81] Al-Raqqah in Syria has been under ISIL control since 2013 and in 2014 it became the group's de facto capital city. [82] The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has stated that ISIL "seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey". [83] Civilians, as well as the Islamic State itself, have released footage of some of the human rights abuses. [84] [85] Since December 2013, ongoing clashes have occurred throughout western Iraq between tribal militias, Iraqi security forces, and ISIL. In early January 2014, ISIL militants successfully captured the cities of Fallujah and Hīt, [86] bringing much of Anbar Province under their control. In June 2014 ISIL took over the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq

Main article: Military of ISIL
Country origins of ISIL fighters (500 or more) [87]
Country Population
Saudi Arabia
United Kingdom

Estimates of the size of ISIL's military vary widely, from tens of thousands [88] up to 200,000. [32] In early 2015, journalist Mary Anne Weaver estimated that half of ISIL fighters are foreigners. [89] A UN report estimated a total of 15,000 fighters from over 80 countries were in ISIL's ranks in November 2014. [90] US intelligence estimated an increase to around 20,000 foreign fighters in February 2015, including 3,400 from the Western world. [91] In September 2015, the CIA estimated that 30,000 foreign fighters had joined ISIL. [92]

According to Abu Hajjar, a former senior leader of ISIL, foreign fighters receive food, petrol and housing, but unlike native Iraqi or Syrian fighters, they do not receive payment in wages. [93]


Although ISIL attracts followers from different parts of the world by promoting the image of holy war, not all of its recruits end up in combatant roles. There have been several cases of new recruits expecting to be mujahideen who have returned from Syria disappointed by the everyday jobs that were assigned to them, such as drawing water or cleaning toilets, or by the ban imposed on use of mobile phones during military training sessions. [94]

ISIL publishes material directed at women. Although women are not allowed to take up arms, media groups encourage them to play supportive roles within ISIL, such as providing first aid, cooking, nursing and sewing skills, in order to become "good wives of jihad". [95] In a document entitled Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study released by the media wing of ISIL's all-female Al-Khanssaa Brigade, emphasis is given to the paramount importance of marriage and motherhood (as early as nine years old). Women should live a life of "sedentariness", fulfilling her "divine duty of motherhood" at home, with a few exceptions like teachers and doctors. [96] [97] Equality for women is opposed, as is education on non-religious subjects, the "worthless worldly sciences". [97]


Conventional weapons

ISIL relies mostly on captured weapons with major sources including Saddam Hussein's Iraqi stockpiles from the 2003–11 Iraq insurgency [98] and weapons from government and opposition forces fighting in the Syrian Civil War and during the post-US withdrawal Iraqi insurgency. The captured weapons, including armour, guns, surface-to-air missiles, and even some aircraft, enabled rapid territorial growth and facilitated the capture of additional equipment. [99] For example, ISIL captured US-made TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the United States and Saudi Arabia to the Free Syrian Army in Syria. [100] [101]

Non-conventional weapons

The group uses truck and car bombs, suicide bombers and IEDs, and has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. ISIL captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in July 2014, but is unlikely to be able to convert them into weapons. [102] [103] In September 2015 a US official stated that ISIL was manufacturing and using mustard agent in Syria and Iraq, and had an active chemical weapons research team. [104] [105] ISIL has also used water as a weapon of war. The group closed the gates of the smaller Nuaimiyah dam in Fallujah in April 2014, flooding the surrounding regions, while cutting the water supply to the Shia-dominated south. Around 12,000 families lost their homes and 200 km² of villages and fields were either flooded or dried up. The economy of the region also suffered with destruction of cropland and electricity shortages. [106]


ISIL is known for its extensive and effective use of propaganda. [107] [108] It uses a version of the Muslim Black Standard flag and developed an emblem which has clear symbolic meaning in the Muslim world. [109]

Traditional media

In November 2006, shortly after the group's rebranding as the "Islamic State of Iraq", it established the Al-Furqan Foundation for Media Production, which produces CDs, DVDs, posters, pamphlets, and web-related propaganda products and official statements. [110] It began to expand its media presence in 2013, with the formation of a second media wing, Al-I'tisam Media Foundation, in March [111] [112] and the Ajnad Foundation for Media Production, specialising in nasheeds and audio content, in August. [113] In mid-2014, ISIL established the Al-Hayat Media Center, which targets Western audiences and produces material in English, German, Russian and French. [114] [115] When ISIL announced its expansion to other countries in November 2014 it established media departments for the new branches, and its media apparatus ensured that the new branches follow the same models it uses in Iraq and Syria. [116] FBI Director James Comey has said that ISIL's "propaganda is unusually slick," noting that, "They are broadcasting... in something like 23 languages". [117]

In July 2014, al-Hayat began publishing a digital magazine called Dabiq, in a number of different languages including English. According to the magazine, its name is taken from the town of Dabiq in northern Syria, which is mentioned in a hadith about Armageddon. [118] Al-Hayat also publishes a digital magazine in Turkish called Konstantiniyye, the Ottoman word for Istanbul, [119] [120] and another in French called Dar al-Islam. [121] The group also runs a radio network called Al-Bayan, which airs bulletins in Arabic, Russian and English and provides coverage of its activities in Iraq, Syria and Libya. [122]

Social media

ISIL's use of social media has been described by one expert as "probably more sophisticated than [that of] most US companies". [107] [123] It regularly uses social media, particularly Twitter, to distribute its messages. [123] [124] The group uses the encrypted instant messaging service Telegram to disseminate images, videos and updates. [125]

The group is known for releasing videos and photographs of executions of prisoners, whether beheadings, shootings, caged prisoners being burnt alive or submerged gradually until drowned. [126] Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan described ISIL's media content as part of a "systematically applied policy". The escalating violence of its killings "guarantees" the attention of the media and public. Following the plan of al-Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji, ISIL hopes the "savagery" will lead to a period of "vexation and exhaustion" among its Western enemies, where the US will be drawn into a direct fight with ISIL, and lacking the will to fight a sustained war will be "worn down" militarily. [70]

Along with images of brutality, ISIL presents itself as "an emotionally attractive place where people 'belong', where everyone is a 'brother' or 'sister'". The "most potent psychological pitch" of ISIL media is the promise of heavenly reward to dead jihadist fighters. Frequently posted in their media are dead jihadists' smiling faces, the ISIL 'salute' of a 'right-hand index finger pointing heavenward', and testimonies of happy widows. [70] ISIL has also attempted to present a more "rational argument" in a series of videos hosted by the kidnapped journalist John Cantlie. In one video, various current and former US officials were quoted, such as US President Barack Obama and former CIA Officer Michael Scheuer. [127]


Main article: Finances of ISIL

According to a 2015 study by the Financial Action Task Force, ISIL's five primary sources of revenue are as followed (listed in order of significance):

  • proceeds from the occupation of territory (including control of banks, petroleum reservoirs, taxation, extortion, and robbery of economic assets)
  • kidnapping for ransom [128]
  • donations from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, often disguised as meant for "humanitarian charity"
  • material support provided by foreign fighters
  • fundraising through modern communication networks [129]

In 2014, the RAND Corporation analysed ISIL's funding sources from documents captured between 2005 and 2010. [130] It found that outside donations amounted to only 5% of the group's operating budgets, [130] and that cells inside Iraq were required to send up to 20% of the income generated from kidnapping, extortion rackets and other activities to the next level of the group's leadership, which would then redistribute the funds to provincial or local cells that were in difficulties or needed money to conduct attacks. [130]

In mid-2014, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service obtained information that ISIL had assets worth US$2 billion, [131] making it the richest jihadist group in the world. [132] About three-quarters of this sum was said to looted from Mosul's central bank and commercial banks in the city. [133] [134] However, doubt was later cast on whether ISIL was able to retrieve anywhere near that sum from the central bank, [135] and even on whether the looting had actually occurred. [136]

Since 2012, ISIL has produced annual reports giving numerical information on its operations, somewhat in the style of corporate reports, seemingly in a bid to encourage potential donors. [107] [137]

Monetary system

Main article: Modern gold dinar

ISIL mints its own gold, silver, and copper coins, based on the coinage used by the Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century. [138] [139] [140] [141]