The Islamic State (IS)—also commonly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or alternatively, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—is a predominantly Sunni jihadist group that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on strict Sharia law, starting in Iraq and Syria.
IS first emerged as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI), a major force in the guerrilla insurgency that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched in 2003 to combat coalition forces and their domestic allies in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many former Iraqi soldiers who had served under Saddam subsequently joined AQI, which the U.S. State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in October 2004.
For details about how Russia as well as the governments of both Saddam Hussein (in Iraq) and Bashar al-Assad (in Syria) gave rise to the Islamic State and its early leaders, click here.
After a U.S. air strike killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006, the Egyptian-born explosives expert Abu Ayyub al-Masri—a former confidant of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—took the reins of AQI. In October 2006, al-Masri renamed his group the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and appointed the jihadist Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its operational leader.
The violent activities of ISI peaked in 2006–07, before plummeting as a result of the U.S. troop surge of 2007, which turned the tide of the war dramatically in America's favor.
In April 2010, both Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, setting the stage for ISI leadership to fall into the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971, this new ISI leader had been a battlefield commanderand tactician for the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency, and had been detained atCamp Bucca—a U.S.-administered prison in southern Iraq—from 2005-09. After America completed its military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, ISI's terrorist activities increased dramatically—in particular its attacks on Shiite targets. In 2012 the group adopted the name ISIS (a.k.a. ISIL), to signify its broadened ambition to move also into Bashar al-Assad's Syria. ISIS generally had strained relations with other jihadist groups in Syria such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra—also known as the al-Nusra Front—and for the most part operated independently of them.
During 2012, there were approximately a dozen days on which ISIS carried out coordinated, multi-city attacks that killed at least 25 Iraqis—including at least 4 separate days when more than 100 Iraqis died.
In March 2013, ISIS seized control of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
The following month, al-Baghdadi, against al-Zawahiri's wishes, declared a merger between his ISIS group and Jabhat al-Nusra. But al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani rejected the measure.
In late 2013, a number of rival Islamist militant groups coalesced to form a Mujahedeen Army intent on forcing ISIS out of Syria. But when ISIS proved to be too powerful to evict, the Free Syrian Army signed a truce with it in September of that year.
In January 2014, ISIS took control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, located in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. ISIS also seized large portions of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and established a presence in numerous towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.
On February 3, 2014, after months of infighting between ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda formally renounced all ties to ISIS.
On June 9, 2014, ISIS freed some 1,000 prisoners from Iraq jails; the next day it overran the Iraqi military in Mosul; on June 12 it took control of Tikrit; and on June 21 it subjugated four more Iraqi towns including Al-Qaim, situated on the border with Syria.
As ISIS continued to expand the breadth of its dominion, especiallyin northern and western Iraq, it earned a fearsome reputation for unspeakable barbarism as manifested in kidnappings, forced conversions, mass slaughters, and public executions via such methods as crucifixions, beheadings, pushing people off the tops of tall buildings, confining people in cages and burning them alive, and beating people to death before ceremoniously dragging their corpses through the streets. In 2014, ISIS jihadists famously videotaped and broadcast the beheadings of two British humanitarian aid workers (David Haines, and Alan Henning), an American aid worker (Peter Kassig), and two American journalists (James Foley and Steven Sotloff).
In addition to the aforementioned atrocities, ISIS also engaged in the widespread destruction of "pagan" archaeological relics, museum collections of priceless statues and sculptures dating back thousands of years, and ancient shrines considered holy by Christians and Jews. Charging that these items promoted idolatry, one ISIS member said: “The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.” When ISIS blew up the Mosul Public Library in Iraq, sending 10,000 books and more than 700 rare manuscripts up in flames, another ISIS terrorist declared: “These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned.”
On June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the existence of what it called a new Islamic caliphate that would thenceforth go by the name “Islamic State” (IS) and would recognize no existing national borders. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for his part, declared himself master of all the world's Muslims and began using the name Al-Khalifah Ibrahim.
On August 8, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized “targeted airstrikes” against IS positions in Iraq and Syria. As of September, the organization was believed to have somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in its ranks. Among these were numerous foreign jihadistsfrom the Arab world, the Caucasus, the U.S., and European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
By this time (August 2014), IS was the world's wealthiest terror group, possessing some $2 billion in cash and other assets. In its earlier years (when it was known as AQI), its funding had derived mostly from donations by wealthy individuals in Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Thereafter, IS generated much of its income from smuggling, extortion, the sale of antiquities looted from historical sites, the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mosul branch of Iraq's central bank, and the seizure of large oilfields in eastern Syria.
As of January 1, 2015, IS controlled at least 45 separate cities and towns across northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
In December 2014, an IS spokesman ceremoniously announced his group's genocidal intentions: “We will conquer Europe one day. It is not a question of [whether] we will conquer Europe, just a matter of when that will happen. But it is certain.... For us, there is no such thing as borders. There are only front lines.... Our expansion will be rapid and perpetual. The Europeans need to know that when we come, it will not be in a nice way. It will be with our weapons. Those who do not convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax will be killed—150 million, 200 million or 500 million, it does not matter to us, we will kill them all.”
In January 2015, Jurgen Todenhofer, the first Western reporter to embed (for ten days) with IS fighters and not be killed in the process, discussed his observations of the terror group with Al Jazeera. “I always asked them about the value of mercy in Islam,” he said, but “I didn’t see any mercy in their behavior.” “Something that I don’t understand at all,” Todenhofer added, “is the enthusiasm in their plan of religious cleansing, planning to kill the non-believers.... They also will kill Muslim democrats because they believe that non-ISIL-Muslims put the laws of human beings above the commandments of God.... They were talking about [killing] hundreds of millions. They were enthusiastic about it, and I just cannot understand that.”
Todenhofer expanded upon his observations of IS in his book, Inside IS: Ten Days In The Islamic State, which was published in April 2015. Therein, as well as in subsequent interviews, he made the following remarks:
“The terrorists plan on killing several hundred million people. The west is drastically underestimating the power of ISIS. ISIS intends to get its hands on nuclear weapons.”
“[IS is a] nuclear tsunami preparing the largest religious cleansing in history.”
“They now control land greater in size than the United Kingdom and are supported by an almost ecstatic enthusiasm the like of which I’ve never encountered before in a war zone. Every day hundreds of willing fighters from all over the world come. They are the most brutal and most dangerous enemy I have ever seen in my life.”
“They are extremely brutal. Not just head-cutting. I'm talking about the strategy of religious cleansing. That's their official philosophy. They are talking about 500 million people who have to die.”
“Hundreds of millions of people are to be eliminated in the course of this religious 'cleansing.'”
“This is the largest religious cleansing strategy that has ever been planned in human history.”
“All moderate Muslims who promote democracy, should be killed. Because, from the IS perspective, they promote human laws over the laws of God.”
“[IS is] completely sure they will win this fight.”
“The IS fighters are much smarter and more dangerous than our leaders believe. In the Islamic State, there is an almost palpable enthusiasm and confidence of victory, which I have not seen in many war zones.”
“The IS want to kill ... all non-believers and apostates and enslave their women and children. All Shiites, Yazidi, Hindus, atheists and polytheists should be killed.”
By February 2015, IS had made sweeping new inroads in Libya and had taken numerous coastal towns (on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea) in that country. On February 18, the terror group threatened to flood Europe with 500,000 migrants from Libya in a "psychological" attack against the West.
On October 31, 2015, a bomb planted by IS blew up a Russian passenger plane in midair over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard.
On November 13, 2015, three teams of IS terrorists carried out coordinated attacks in seven separate locations across Paris, France, killing at least 129 people and wounding at least 352. The assailants attacked concert-goers, cafe diners, and spectators at a soccer stadium. Seven of the eight terrorists were killed in the carnage, including six who blew themselves up with suicide belts. In a statement released in multiple languages by IS in the aftermath of the attacks, the terror group declared:
"In a blessed attack for which Allah facilitated the causes for success, a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate, may Allah dignify it and make it victorious, launched out, targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe, Paris.... Allah ... cast in the hearts of the Crusaders horror in the middle of their land, where eight brothers wrapped in explosive belts and armed with machine rifles, targeted sites that were accurately chosen in the heart of the capital of France ... in a coordinated fashion. So Paris shook under their feet, and its streets were tight upon them, and the result of the attacks was the death of no less than 100 Crusaders and the wounding of more than those, and unto Allah is all praise and gratitude.... Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign, and dare to curse our Prophet ... This attack is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn. Allah is the greatest."
By early 2016, an IS terror manual with illustrations of burning buildings on its cover, was circulating in Europe. Titled Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen, this booklet is intended for operatives who have already infiltrated the West. It teaches jihadists how to blend in with their surroundings and avoid being detected before carrying out terrorist attacks. Instructions include:
"If you can avoid having a beard, wearing qamis, using miswak and having a booklet of dhikr with you, it’s better."
"It is permissible for you to wear a necklace showing a Christian cross."
"As you know, Christians -- or even atheist Westerners with Christian background -- wear crosses on their necklaces."
"But don’t wear a cross necklace if you have a Muslim name on your passport, as that may look strange."
"If you want to use perfume, don’t use the oily, non-alcoholic perfume that Muslims use, instead use generic alcoholic perfume as everyone does, and if you are a man, use perfume for men."
"If you are wearing a watch, don’t wear it on your right hand, as this is a sign that you are religious."
"If you have an engagement ring or something like that, it’s better to wear one in gold or better yet, don’t wear any ring at all."
"A silver ring could tell you are religious, as Islam forbids wearing gold rings for men."
Moreover, the IS manual relies heavily on the "importance of surprise when launching an attack to cause maximum impact." It also explains how nightclubs, full of loud music and drunk people, are ideal places in which to discuss terror plans without being spied upon or recorded.
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