Who: Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-appointed Commander of the Faithful
What: Jihadist militant terrorist group
Where: Founded in Iraq, current sphere of influence extends into Syria
Why: Claims the status of an independent caliphate for its territory in Iraq and Syria
When: Founded at Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999, became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004, proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq on October 15, 2006 and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on April 9, 2013
“Our objective is clear. We with degrade and ultimately destroy [IS]” – Barack Obama
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād or ‘The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad’ in 1999. The group achieved early notoriety after the 2003 invasion of Iraq for suicide attacks on Shia mosques and civilians, and was inadvertently incubated by the US when many of the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency were detained together at Camp Bucca. In October 2004, al-Zarqawi swore fealty to Osama bin Laden, and the group became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Osama bin Laden saw his terrorism as the precursor to a caliphate he never expected to see in his lifetime. In 2006 ISIL established its caliphate and began to capture central and western Iraq for its Sunni Islamic state.
The group grew, despite many high-level members (including al-Zarqawi) being captured or killed. After the US-led coalition left Iraq, ISIL recovered from several difficulties to become the supreme jihadist militant group in the region, especially after Mosul was captured in June 2014. ISIL follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, promoting religious violence and aims to reject all religious innovations, seeking to revive the original Wahhabi, conservative Sunni Islam that it believes to be purer. ISIL is notably Shiaphobic, persecuting Shi-ite Muslims. It is almost unilaterally designated a terrorist organization and deemed to be dangerous. Unlike many other terrorist groups however, ISIL maintains a level of professionalism, printing a recruiting magazine, Dabiq, in several languages and maintaining a presence on social media. It is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, especially Shi’ite Muslims, a number of beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, and the immolation of Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh.