What is ISIS/ISIL/Daesh?


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


Daesh, the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or ISIS, is a politically motivated group seeking to change the international system through violence. Located in Syria and Iraq, Daesh emerged by harnessing the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the instability in Syria following the Arab Spring. Although Daesh changed its name to “Islamic State” (IS), governments and their partners confronting the group refer to it as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or by its Arabic acronym “Daesh” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham).

To reach out to and recruit Muslims, especially youth, Daesh selectively exploits Islamic terms, attire, and symbols. Although it calls itself an Islamic State, Daesh is neither Islamic nor a state. The Daesh military core consists of Iraqi Islamists and Ba’athists whose messaging and propaganda is influenced by Western popular culture. Daesh’s killings, including beheadings and mass executions, and brutal practices such as slavery, destruction of heritage sites, and persecuting Shi’a and Christians, have earned it notoriety.

With its core in Iraq and Syria, Daesh declared an “Islamic caliphate” in June 2014. Referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “caliph,” Daesh said: “It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to (him) and support him. . . . The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.” Although Muslim scholars worldwide have denounced Daesh’s proclamation, the group has resonance among like-minded followers fighting governments for decades. By inviting local threat groups to pledge their allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Daesh has expanded and claimed territory in parts of the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus, and Asia.


Daesh can be traced back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian criminal. Radicalized by a Jordanian Palestinian ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, in prison, he joined Bay’at al-Imam and subsequently created his own group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, in 1999. With support from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, Abu Musab created and operated Jund al-Sham at the Al-Matar Camp in Afghanistan, where he trained recruits from the Levant. After the U.S.-led coalition intervention in Afghanistan, Abu Musab relocated to northern Iraq in 2002 where he worked with Ansar al-Islam to expand his network.

After the U.S.-led coalition intervention in Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab changed the name of his group from Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (TQJBR) after pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. Abu Musab’s group, commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), followed the advice of al-Qaeda’s then deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, given in a letter in July 2005 to 1) expel U.S. forces from Iraq, 2) establish an Islamic authority in Iraq, 3) expand the fight to secular countries neighboring Iraq (notably Jordan and Syria), and 4) fight Israel. Abu Musab worked with his successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, to invite Iraqi groups to create a Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in 2006, which eventually evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). After ISI expanded into parts of Syria in 2013, the group named itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The acronym for ISIS in Arabic is Daesh (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham). Daesh hates the use of the Arabic word “Daesh,” as it means “one who crushes something underfoot” and is translated as “one who sows discord.”