What's the difference between ISIS, ISIL, and IS?
These are all abbreviations for the same group. ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with the Levant being a region typically understood to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel -- all of which the group hopes to overtake; IS is simply short for the Islamic State. The IS abbreviation seems to be gaining traction among the U.S. media because it reduces confusion.
Which areas does IS control?
IS has essentially eliminated much of the border between Iraq and Syria, as illustrated by this map, which shows IS-controlled areas in red:
Map credit: BBC
The area controlled by IS is approximately the size of Belgium.
How did IS form?
IS emerged from the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which ousted Sunni strongman Saddam Hussein. He had maintained a tight grip on power despite a religiously and ethnically fractious Iraqi population -- the majority of which consists of Shiites. His removal, as well as the presence of "infidel" forces in the heart of the Middle East, fostered an atmosphere ripe for Sunni jihadists from Iraq and elsewhere to wreak havoc in the country.
These jihadists formed the Al Qaeda-affiliated group, Al Qaeda In Iraq, which has essentially morphed into IS after a series of internal power struggles and splits. For all intents and purposes, IS has existed for about a decade under multiple names. In June 2013, IS announced a merger with the Syrian rebel group, the Al Nusra Front. However, the leader of the Front denied any such merger and maintained his allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri, who ordered IS not to merge. It was an order that IS ignored. After a year of IS going rogue, al-Zawahiri disavowed any relationship with it due to its disobedience and general fanaticism in what one U.S. counter-terrorism official called an "unprecedented" denunciation.
That's right. IS is too extreme for Al Qaeda.
Who is the leader of IS?
That would be 42-year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi who was a civilian detainee in U.S. custody at Camp Bucca, Iraq between 2005 and 2009. Upon his release, he told his guards -- many of whom were from New York City -- "See you guys in New York."
He reportedly has a PhD. from the Islamic University in Baghdad and is regarded by his organization as the caliph -- the head of the caliphate, which IS hopes to bring to the region and beyond.
What are IS' plans?
In addition to taking large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, IS has grand plans for the rest of the region and beyond. These plans include a caliphate spanning three continents. This map, purportedly from IS, has been circulating online and shows the group's ambitions within the next five years:
The color black signifies darkness, which is exactly what IS would bring.
Will IS really control all of this territory in five years?
By the way, what's a caliphate?
A caliphate is a hypothetical Islamic state whose borders encompass all of the regions where Muslims live.
Supporters of the idea of a caliphate typically cite the Quran and the Hadith (a book of sayings attributed to Muhammad) as justification for the establishment of a caliphate.
Who are the enemies of IS?
Pretty much everyone.
Really. If the barbaric actions of IS have had a silver lining, it's that virtually everyone hates the group.
- Iraq has been fighting IS for a decade.
- The Kurds of northern Iraq hate IS because they've been terrorized the group, which has taken over large chunks of Kurdish territory.
- Syria has been fighting IS since the civil war there broke out in 2011.
- Iran has pledged to help rout IS in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.
- Lebanon has actually been fighting IS since the group took over the Lebanese town of Arsal on the Syria border.
- Jordan was put on notice when al-Baghdadi said it's next to face IS' wrath.
- Kuwait is on high alert.
- Hamas -- yes, that Hamas -- denounced IS, which actually views the Palestinian group as apostates. This is partly because Hamas was elected to power in Gaza, and IS opposes any form of democracy. According Al-Monitor, "[F]or Salafists, if non-Muslims control Islamic countries and apostates exist in the Islamic world, the Islamic world must be cleansed of them before all else. In short, the purification of Islamic society takes priority over combat against non-Islamic societies."
- Turkey has been a wildcard so far, but this may be changing. There is evidence that Turkey has been supporting IS because the group has been fighting two erstwhile Turkish enemies: the Assad regime in Syria and the Kurds in northern Iraq. However, IS' seizing of the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq and its taking 49 hostages show that IS is no friend to Turkey.
How crazy are these crazy fuckers?
The video that surfaced last week of an IS militant beheading James Foley showed Americans and the rest of the world what Syrians and Iraqis have known for years: IS practices a special kind of barbarism "beyond anything that we've seen." IS uses the execution method with astonishing frequency, partially as a propaganda tactic. Many of these beheadings have been of those who refused to convert to Islam and were unable to pay the fine IS imposes on non-Muslims.
One Yazidi man in Iraq described IS' terror and cruelty:
“One of the saddest stories was one of our relatives. They beheaded all his 15 family members in front of him and then took him with them.”
Will IS be defeated?
The source of the group's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness and will eventually be the reason for its demise: uncompromising and all-alienating fanaticism. In the coming weeks and months, we're going to see longstanding religious and geopolitical disputes among Middle Eastern countries take a backseat as diplomats around the region and elsewhere try to forge (temporary) cooperation to rout this threat to their power and interests. Indeed, the threat posed by the group is about to make for some strange bedfellows.
Although U.S. airstrikes have hampered IS' efforts to advance, they will not be sufficient to eliminate the group, although this clip is pretty cool:
Like Al Qaeda, IS is a radical Islamic sub-national organization, regardless of its claims to being a legitimate state. But unlike Al Qaeda, IS is attempting to establish a caliphate now, which Osama bin Laden said could only happen under the right circumstances. Al Qaeda's current leader has even used old footage of bin Laden speaking about the caliphate to say that IS is ignoring the "pillars" necessary to build one.
Ground troops -- whether they're from the United States, various Middle Eastern countries, or a combination -- will be deployed to fight IS eventually. It may be next month or next year, but it's going to happen. Far too many interests are threatened by the existence of IS in the heart of the Middle East, and therefore its presence will only be tolerated for so much longer.
IS won't surrender like a nation-state. This is why any plan to defeat it must result in the elimination of its members. When the war against IS comes, there can be no such thing as an IS prisoner of war -- only members of IS who have been killed, or members of IS who soon will be.