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The Islamic State:
Background

(December 2016)


ISIS: Table of Contents | The Caliphate | Foreign Fighters


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Background

The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a brutal Sunni Muslim terror organization that gained traction and came to prominence in 2012-2014 during and after Syria's civil war.  ISIS had close ties with Al-Qaeda until early 2014 and have made direct threats against the United States and Britain, including beheading US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines.  ISIS poses a direct threat to international safety and security, as they are the largest in land control and fighting size, and wealthiest terrorist organization in history.  ISIS now controls more territory and resources than any terrorist organization that has ever existed.  The leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

ISIS claims authority over all Muslims in the world and seeks to establish a Caliphate, bringing all of the Muslim inhabited regions of the world under their control.  They are an extremist group who adhere to hard-line jihadist ideology, taking influence from other groups including the grandfather of all modern terror organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who do not agree with their radical ideas about the world (including fellow moderate Muslims) are subject to barbarism, torture, and murder at their hands and are labelled as infidels.  According to ISIS fighters their ideology represents "pure Islam" and embraces the very roots of the religion, shunning later changes made.  Their goal is to establish a Caliphate and a "pure Islamic state", encompassing much of the Middle East. 

The group is the richest terrorist group in history, with assets in 2015 totalling over $2 billion. An analysis into where ISIS funds come from undertaken by the RAND Corporation in 2014 found that the vast majority of ISIS money comes from within Iraq, with only 5% coming from outside sources.  They raise funds by imposing taxes on the citizens of the towns they capture, abducting people and collecting ransoms, extortion rackets, intercepting aid meant for the suffering Syrian and Iraqi people, and pillaging. A report released by IHS in December 2015 detailed the various funding sources that ISIS uses, and concluded that they were taking in at the time an estimated $80 million per month. Half of their income comes from various taxes levied on people living in the areas under their control and an estimated 40% of their income comes from oil sales. ISIS looted $429 million from Mosul's central bank after capturing the city, and also took gold and other valuables from other banks and deposit boxes.  The Islamic State holds control over oil and natural gas fields, and it was estimated that at points they made over $2 million per day from black market oil sales.  According to workers at Syrian oil refineries operated by the ISIS militants, $1 million of oil per day was being smuggled out of Syria in water tankers and fire trucks alone.  Experts predict that if they continue to seize more Syrian old fields, they could eventually be raking in $100 million per month.  The U.S. led bombing campaign against the Islamic State slowed their oil revenue, as the oil refineries were attacked from above. The United States upped the bombing campaign against ISIS oil refineries and tankers in November 2015, using bank records to assess which oil refineries were generating revenue for the terrorist organization. In addition to this oil revenue, the Islamic State makes millions of dollars in the black market trade of archaeological items.  Items sold by ISIS have made their way from Iraq and Syria to auction houses in Europe, the United States, and Asia.  Ancient artifacts are notiriously hard to track because they often change hands multiple times, are smuggled across borders, and often come with false or unidentifiable paperwork.  From 2011 to 2013 US imports of art, artifacts, and collectibles from the Middle East jumped 86% according to the US International Trade Commission.  Experts say that an increase such as this in a time of conflict surely means that most of these imports are illegal items.  ISIS keeps records of it's finances like a well-run business and began to release yearly reports in 2012. 

Illegal immigration also provides millions of dollars per year in revenue for the Islamic State. Smuggling migrants from Africa to the Middle East and Europe is a lucrative business for individuals affiliated with ISIS in Libya and other African countries. The refugees pay thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to cross the Mediterranean sea to Europe, and a good portion of these funds go towards funding terrorist activities. Individuals who are looking to escape their brutal lives in Africa and make their way to Europe often have to pay multiple militant organizations protection and transport fees along the way, and these militant groups as a general statement often extort and exploit these refugees. The border surveilance organization of the European Union, Frontex, published a report on migrant smuggling and the Islamic State in May 2015,which stated that ,“The value of this trade dwarfs any existing trafficking and smuggling businesses in the region, and has particularly strengthened groups with a terrorist agenda, including the Islamic State. This growing business now provides what is possibly the largest and most easily accessible threat finance opportunity for both organized crime networks and armed groups to purchase arms, establish larger and more regular armies, and demand taxation.” (Time, May 13, 2015)

The Islamic State learned from their terrorist predecessors, improving on the financial methods of Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and making their finances less vulnerable.  The United States has successfully attacked the funding sources of terrorist organizations before, targetting foreign individuals who supply the money to the organizations and the banks who hold and move it.  The Islamic State is different however, recieving only 5% of their funds from outside sources, with the vast majority of their funds coming from within Iraq.  The United States plan to degrade the financing of the Islamic State is hampered by their unorthodox financing methods.  The Islamic State's financing is not reliant on the formal financial system, which makes it difficult to target banks that they deal with.  The Islamic State deals almost strictly in cash and most of their financing comes from black market oil sales, kidnapping, dealing stolen antiquities, extortion, illegal taxation, and drugs.  The United States is worried about the greater financial impact on the areas civilian population if they take drastic actions against banks that may be funding the Islamic State.  According to US Treasury Department anti-terrorism finance chief David Cohen, "Our interest is not in shutting down all the economic activity in the areas where ISIL normally operates.  They are subjugating huge swaths of the population, millions of people, who are still trying to live their lives. And banks, as everybody knows, are important lubricants for the economy." (Foreign Policy, November 12 2014) Most money flowing through the Islamic State is done through third party money exchange officers, who transfer large sums of money around the country and then smuggle banknotes through warzones to the office that paid out the sum. Conventional banks and development agencies believe that more than half of all trade and money-transfer business in Iraq is done through these third-party, non-affiliated money transfer services. These money transfer services “move the wheels of Iraq's economy,” according to a former Iraqi politician.

According to a report released by the CIA on September 11, 2014, the Islamic State has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters spread throughout the region.  This is significantly higher than the previous estimates which had placed the Islamic State military might at about 10,000 fighters.  The Islamic State experienced some battlefield successes in mid 2014 which bolstered it's credibility and therefore recruitment ability, and caused their numbers to drastically inflate over a short period of time.  Despite airstrikes levied by coalition forces against the Islamic State during late 2014 and 2015, it was revealed in August 2015 that the Islamic State's recruiting efforts had effectively offset their battle casualties. As of an August 2015 assessment provided by U.S. government officials, the Islamic State boasted a fighting force of 20,000-31,500 fighters. Islamic State recruitment slowed during early 2016, as a result of the increasing air campaign against the group led by the United States, as well as financial hardships faced by fighters. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria slowed more than 90% between 2015 and 2016, dwindling from approximately 2,000 fighters per month on average in 2015, to 200 per month in 2016.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reffered to the Islamic State as "an iminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else" and claimed that the Islamic State is "beyond anything we have ever seen".  The poor, unneducated Islamic State fighters are lured in by promises of glorious battle and well paying jobs, but they rarely receive what they expect. During 2014 and 2015 an Islamic State soldier could expect to make anywhere from $400-$1,200 per month. In January 2016 however, following a change in strategy by allied forces begining to focus on attacking the financial infrastructure of the group, Islamic State leaders issued an announcement that pay for all fighters was to be cut in half regardless of position or rank.

The fighters have seized firearms, ammo, military artillery and vehicles from multiple places including from weapons stockpiles around Iraq left over from Sadam Hussein's regime, and from air bases they have captured.  The ISIS fighters have also seized nuclear material from Mosul University, but these materials are apparently low-grade and cannot be weaponized in any dangerous fashion according to an IAEA spokesperson.  According to Abu Yusaf, a high-ranking Islamic State commander, "When the Iraqi Army fled from Mosul and the other areas, they left behind all the good equipment the Americans had given them." (The Washington Post, August 18 2014). In early March 2016 Islamic State militants siezed the Mahin arms depot, claiming hundreds of guns, 30 tanks, multiple cars and trucks, 2 million rounds of ammunition, 9,000 grenades, and hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles as their own. This was the largest weapons depot capture in Syrian history.

As the Islamic State continued their conquest across the Middle East, they desecrated and ruined many historical and culturally significant sites in their way.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) met in December 2014 in France to formulate a plan to save the significant cultural and historical sites from the hands of ISIS.  The sites in danger include Ezekiel's tomb outside of Baghdad, Daniel's tomb in Mosul, Nahum's tomb near the city of Kush, and many other ancient Jewish heritage sites all over Syria and Iraq.  The Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova stated that "Islamic, Christian, Kurdish and Jewish heritage … is being intentionally destroyed or attacked in what is clearly a form of cultural cleansing."  (Israel Hayom, December 1 2014)

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 13 million people have been displaced by the Islamic State's campaign of terror as of November 2014.  The situation is being referred to as a "mega-crisis" by international aid and human rights organizations.  Due to this conflict, the total number of refugees in the world currently stands at over 50 million, the largest number since World War II. 

A United Nations report released on October 2, 2014 contained evidence that militants from the Islamic State had been carrying crimes against humanity and war crimes on a massive scale.  These egregious offenses included carrying out mass executions, abducting women and selling them as sex slaves, and using child soldiers. Although the international community had known that these things were happening, this was the first comprehensive report featuring witness interviews that was published.  The report said that at least 9,347 civilians had been killed at the time of publication due to air strikes and general conflict. 

Based on eyewitness reports and other evidence collected by the United Nations, experts suggest that the Islamic State's use of child soldiers is widespread.  These children as young as 6 are indoctrinated with the extreme idealogy of ISIS and taught fighting skills, brainwashing them into becoming a jihadi.  US Army Lt General H.R. McMaster believes that because of this, the Islamic State will become a "multigenerational problem", and will be something that the world will be dealing with for years to come.  Officials believe that there is a large, sophisticated, and extensive recruitment program that pulls youth away from traditional schools and forces jihadist ideals onto them.  According to Syrian News sources, the Islamic State fighters bring the children to camps where they are taught the application of their strict version of Sharia law, and taught to shoot guns as well as behead "American" dolls.  A report from Human Rights Watch released on November 4 detailed how the Islamic State members beat and tortured Kurdish children with hoses, electrical wire, and metal rods during the seige of Kobani. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a report in March 2015 that detailed how in the first 3 months of the year, ISIS recruited over 400 children under the age of 18 from local schools and Mosques in Syria.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child released a report in early February 2015, after evaluating the situation in Iraq for the first time since 1998. The report details the horrifying things that the committee uncovered, including but not limited to: members of the Islamic State staging mass executions of teenage and adolescent boys, burying children alive, crucifying them in public, using them as informants, and using mentally handicapped children as suicide bombers.  Committee member Renate Winter told Reuters “We are really deeply concerned at torture and murder of those children, especially those belonging to minorities, but not only from minorities.  The scope of the problem is huge.”  She also detailed how the committee received reports of “children, especially children who are mentally challenged, who have been used as suicide bombers, most probably without them even understanding.”  The report described the killing of these children belonging to minority groups as “systematic,” and accused the militants of perpetrating “extreme sexual violence” against the young children.  Iraqi authorities were called upon by the panel of eighteen experts to use all necessary measures to rescue the children. (Al Arabiya, February 4, 2015)

The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) published an article on February 18, 2016, in which the authors contend that the Islamic State is recruiting children “on a scale rarely associated even with violent extremist organizations.” (CTC, February 18, 2016) The data gathered by the CTC showed that from January 1, 2015, to January 31, 2016, 89 children were eulogized in Islamic State propaganda videos, with 51% having been killed in Iraq, 36% killed in Syria, and the remainder killed in Yemen, Libya, and Nigeria. Out of these 89 cases, 39% were killed in suicide attacks upon detonating a vehicle-born IED, and 4% were killed while carrying out a mass casualty suicide attack against civilians. The authors concluded that the Islamic State's recruitment and use of child soldiers is accelerating: six children were killed in Islamic State suicide operations in January 2015, compared to eleven killed during these operations in January 2016. There were also three times as many attacks involving two or more children in January 2016 as there were in January 2015. Child soldiers are tactically attractive for ISIS to use in bombings and attacks because they are perceived as innocent, they are small and can easily maneuver into small areas and through crowds, and above all else they are impressionable and naive. To read the full report from the CTC, titled “Depictions of children and youth in the Islamic State's martyrdom propaganda 2015-2016," please click here.

To read the report “The Children of the Islamic State,” published in March 2016 by the Quilliam Foundation, please click here.

Echoing international concerns, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced during a press conference in early June 2015 that, “Daesh [ISIS] is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.” The Foreign Minister stated that ISIS had most likely made “serious efforts in chemical weapons development.” (Defense News, June 7, 2015) In August 2015 U.S. officials reported that the Islamic State had likely used the chemical agent mustard gas against Kurdish forces fighting against them in Iraq during the previous week. Kurdish fighters were tended to by local medical personnel and displayed wounds to their throats and faces consistent with a mustard gas attack. Blood samples from several members of Iraqi militias tested positive for mustard gas during October 2015. On November 5, 2015, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released a report confirming that indeed mustard gas was used by the Islamic State on multiple occasions against citizens of Marea during August 2015, and other Syrian cities. The Islamic State militants likely acquired the mustard gas in Syria, leftover from Assad's hidden stockpiles. The international intelligence community believes that the Islamic State has also used chlorine gas in attacks. In November 2015, the Islamic State announced the creation of branches of their organization dedicated to experiments, research and development of chemical weapons. CIA director John Brennan told CBS News on February 12, 2016 that the Islamic State has the capacity to manufacture cholrine and mustard gas, and has without a doubt used chemical weapons on the battlefield. Brennan cited recent reports that revealed ISIS has access to precursors for chemical weapons production, as well as munitions with which they can distribute said chemical weapons. National Intelligence director James Clapper testified before Congress prior to Brennan's interview, confirming that ISIS has “used toxic chemicals in Iraq and Syria, including the blister agent sulfur mustard.”(Al Arabiya, February 12, 2016) On February 15, 2016, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that the samples they had tested had come back positive, and thus they could say with 100% certainty that ISIS had used banned chemical weapons in combat. Samples were taken after soldiers became ill in August 2015. U.S. Special Forces operating in Northern Iraq captured an ISIS commander in charge of developing chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in February 2016. Sulayman Dawud al-Bakkar, the captured chemical weapons expert, allegedly worked for the regime of Saddam Hussein before it's collapse. Based on information gathered from interrogations with al-Bakkar, the United States struck and destroyed two ISIS chemical weapons production facilities in early March 2016. Islamic State fighters used the chemistry lab at the University of Mosul to make chemical weapons and carry out experiments, officials said in March 2016. Top Iraqi officers confirmed that ISIS was using the lab to develop peroxide-based explosives as well as chemical agents, and exporting bomb-making instructions to field operatives.

The Islamic State's terror tactics range from brutal torture to throwing individuals off of buildings. The group has been known to most commonly slaughter their victims via beheading or firing squad, but they have also drowned and burned prisoners while they were helplessly locked in cages. In June 2015 it was reported that for the first time the Islamic State militants were beheading women, accusing them of sorcery. ISIS executions are filmed and disseminated to world via ISIS social media accounts, and the militants have a sophisticated and widely influential social media presence.

Gangs with Russian ties have been interrupted four times since 2010 trying to sell various radioactive materials to Islamic extremists in the Middle East. In October 2015 Modovan police revealed that they had thwarted an attempt in February by a group to sell a large amount of cesium, specifically to the Islamic State. Wiretapped conversations that led to these busts revealed talk of attacks on the United States: the cesium seller was recorded saying, “I really want an Islamic buyer, because they will bomb the Americans.” (Washington Post, October 5, 2015)

From July to September 2015, attacks by the Islamic State jumped in frequency 42% when compared to the previous 3-month period. Although ISIS did not necessarily gain any new territory during this time, the frequency of their attacks signalled a troubling trend of ever increasing violence and barbarism. According to the October 2015 report disseminated by IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, the group carried out attacks in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the North Caucasus and Algeria, during that three month period.

F.B.I. Director James Comey referred to the presence of the Islamic State in the U.S. as “the new normal,” during a press conference in July 2015.

The terror group's territory shrunk by 14% in 2015, according to an analysis done by Institute for Homeland Security released in December. Substantial losses for the group during 2015 included the Iraqi city of Tikrit, the Baiji oil refinery, and a large area of Syria's Northern border with Turkey. While the Islamic State lost territory, the Syrian Kurds expanded area under their control by 186%. During the first three months of 2016 the Islamic State lost a further 8% of it's territory, according to an analysis by the same organization.

A United Nations report released in January 2016 estimated that 3,500 individuals, mainly women and children, were being kept as slaves in Iraq by the Islamic State. Most of these slaves come from the Yazidi community. The report claims that at least 18,800 civilians had been killed and 3.2 million people had been displaced internally by the conflict at the time of publication.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a report on February 11, 2016, in which he forecast that the Islamic State's caliphate is likely to expand during the coming year as jihadi combat veterans from the Middle East make their way around the globe. The report concluded that 34 groups around the globe had pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State. Ban wrote that the Islamic State, “represents an unprecedented threat to international peace and security. It is able to adapt quickly to the changing environment and to persuade or inspire like-minded terrorist groups in various regions of the world to facilitate and commit acts of terrorism... It is expected that [its] affiliates will increase in number and that its membership will grow in 2016.” To read the PDF report, titled “Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” click here.

The Islamic State slashed soldier salaries, increased civilian utility taxes on areas it controls, and began releasing detainees for cash in early 2016; signs that the jihadi group was running into financial troubles. Thanks to airstrikes carried out by the U.S. led coalition targetting ISIS equipment, oil production facilities, and cash storage buildings, Islamic State leaders were forced to cut salaries of every member, including commanders, in half. A dramatic drop in global oil prices during late 2015 and early 2016 was a significant contributor to the Islamic State's financial issues as well. The United States State Department estimated in mid-February 2016 that air strikes in Iraq and Syria have destroyed over $500 million in Islamic State cash. The Islamic State's average monthly revenue dropped from $80 million in 2015 to $56 million in March 2016.

European Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Allied Command Operations, General Philip Breedlove, warned on March 2, 2016, that ISIS terrorists were using the cover of the ongoing Middle East refugee crisis to infiltrate Europe and the United States as unassuming refugees looking for safe haven. Breedlove stated during an address to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State was “spreading like cancer” throughout the refugee population. The four-star General testified that approximately 1,500 ISIS fighters have returned to Europe after training with the terror group in Syria and Iraq.

News organizations received data files containing names of more than 20,000 jihadis from 51 countries fighting for ISIS, in March 2016. The fighters filled out a 23 part questionnaire upon recruitment, in which they were asked whether they would be willing to participate in suicide attacks, among other things. Files with the answers to these questions and other personal information were presented during a secret meeting on a memory stick stolen by a disillusioned jihadi from a top ISIS security officer's computer. Well-known names were included on the list such as the infamous “Jihadi John,” who had been recently killed, but the list also included names of previously unknown fighters from across the UK, Northern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the United States, and Canada.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 393-0 to classify the crimes of the Islamic State against minorities as genocide on March 13, 2016. A State Department representative revealed later that week that the department however, needed, “additional time... in order to reach a more fact-based, evidence-based decision,” as to whether genocide had been carried out against minority communities in ISIS territory. On March 17, 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the State Department had indeed concluded that ISIS has been carrying out genocide against minority communities, “including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims,” in regions it controls. (The Atlantic, March 17, 2016) The White House stated that they would cooperate with all efforts by independent organizations to investigate the acts of genocide committed by the Islamic State.

According to the 8th annual Asda'a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, compiled via face-to-face interviews with 3,500 Arabs aged 18-24, support for the Islamic State is dwindling. The survey results, released in April 2016, suggest that the Arab youth have an extremely negative view of the Islamic State and it's actions, and are convinced that the “Caliphate” will fail. Arab youth surveyed overwhelmingly named the Islamic State as the #1 obstacle facing the Middle East, and 50% said that they are “very concerned” about the rise of the terror group. Twenty-four percent of the survey respondents pinned lack of jobs and opportunities as the top reason young people join the Islamic State group. Faith in the future success of the Caliphate is minimal amogst the survey respondents, with 75% stating that they believe the Islamic State group will fail in it's mission to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Many foreign Islamic State fighters have returned to their countries of origin after training in Iraq and Syria, and have joined what are considered “sleeper cells.” These cells, like the groups that carried out the 2015 Paris attacks or 2016 Brussels airport and train station bombings, are small, secretive, technogically savvy, and intelligent. During an interview on April 25, 2016, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that intelligence officials were investigating evidence of ISIS cells in Germany, England, Italy, and various other European countries.

Despite substantial territorial losses and an ever dwindling stream of foreign fighters making their way to Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State increased the number and severity of their attacks in early 2016 according to a report by IHS Janes. During the first 3 months of 2016 there were 891 attacks carried out in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State; more than any other 3-month period since mid-2014. These attacks killed more than 2,150 people, a 44% rise in casualties over the previous 3-month period. The report also noted a significant increase in the number of ISIS attacks in Libya, a growing hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

A Congressional Research Service report entitled “Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” released in June 2016, names six off-shoots of the Islamic State in multiple world regions. Smaller cells were not counted in this assessment of official fighting forces, which includes the Islamic State in Egypt, the Islamic State in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State in Libya, the Islamic State-Khorsassan Province, the Islamic State in Yemen, and the Islamic State in Nigeria also known as Boko Haram. The report revealed large groups of Islamic State support in at least 13 countries.

In a report released by the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in early August 2016, titled “they Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis,” the authors contend that ISIS is commiting genocide against the Yazidi population. Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission, stated that, “Genocide has occurred and is ongoing. ISIS has subjected every Yazidi woman, child or man that it has captured to the most horrific of atrocities.” The commission's findings were based on extensive interviews with survivors, religious leaders, smugglers, activists, lawyers, medical professionals, and journalists. ISIS members have attempted to exterminate the Yazidi religion by killing those who do not convert to Islam, and by impregnating Yazidi women to kill off the blood lines.

Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S. coalition against ISIS, stated during a press conference on August 10, 2016, that during the last two years fighting ISIS the U.S. had killed approximately 45,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. “We estimate that over the past 11 months, we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed (previously), that’s 45,000 enemy (fighters) taken off the battlefield,” MacFarland said. (Straits Times, August 10, 2016)

A study by researchers at the University of Maryland released in August 2016, concluded that the Islamic State, along with it's predecessors and allies, had killed approximately 33,000 people since 2002.

For the first time during the conflict, in August 2016 the United Nations officially determined that Islamic State militants had used chemical weapons, specifically mustard gas, against civilians. A report released by the United Nations concluded that the Islamic State had shelled a Syrian village with mustard gas in Summer 2015, a claim that had been widely speculated but not confirmed officially until the report's publication.

According to monthly infographics issued by the Islamic State's Amaq News Agency, the group carried out 1,034 suicide bombing attacks during the first 11 months of 2016. Most of these attacks occured in Iraq, with 182 suicide attacks taking place in Mosul alone.

History and Roots

The roots of ISIS can be followed back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999, with the establishment of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ).  Zarqawi was Jordanian and arrived in Afghanistan in 1989 to fight the Soviet Union, and met Osama Bin Laden while setting up a training camp for terrorists in 1999.  Bin Laden attempted to recruit him but Zarqawi chose not to join Al-Qaeda.  When the Taliban fell, Zarqawi fled to Iraq where he remained under the radar for a period of time, planning terror attacks and plotting to establish the organization to be known as the JTJ.  After assassinating US Diplomat Laurence Folley in 2002, Zarqawi's group gained notoriety as a resistance group during the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Zarqawi was successful with this group because they recruited foreign fighters, who then used his contacts to expand their terror network and fight the United States occupiers.  The goals of the JTJ were to drive the US out of Iraq, overthrow the Iraqi government, and then purge the land of all Shia Muslims and establish a pure Islamic state.  Eventually in the mid-2000's the group merged with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other local terrorist organizations and formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  The group pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Ladin's Al-Qaeda officially in a letter sent in October 2004, and were rebranded as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  AQI was a focused and coordinated organization, carrying out complex suicide attacks and abducting multiple people including 2 US soldiers whom they tortured and beheaded on video.  The AQI raised funds by taxing people they terrorized, robbing banks, abductions and ransoms, stealing trucks, and various other methods.  They attempted many high-profile attacks and assassinations and gained notoriety as a ruthless terror force, and in 2006 they merged with other small local terror organizations and formed the Mujahadeen Shura Council.

The formation of the Mujahadeen Shura Council was a calculated move by Zarqawi to distance himself from Al-Qaeda, but Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 shortly after the Council was formed.  His death allowed for the group to change directions once again, this time with the support of the other organizations involved in the Mujahadeen Shura Council.  After Zarqawi's death the Mujahadeen Shura Council took an Arab oath of allegiance with even more local terror groups and tribal leaders, and in October 2006 the group announced that the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) had been established.  The ISI brought the Southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora under their control from 2006-2007, harassing and imposing a jizya tax on the citizens that they could not afford.  By November 2007 ISI fighters had been beaten back from the Dora neighborhood by US forces. 

In June 2007 open gun battles raged on the streets of Iraq between members of ISI who were foreign influenced Jihadists and those who were nationally born Sunni Muslims.  The Sunni tribes and insurgents battled for weeks before the violence came to a halt, but not before it significantly weakened ISI to the point where their spokespeople described ISI as being in a state of crisis. 

The United States began it's withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, leaving the governance and security to the Iraqi military and police forces. ISI used this time to regroup and rethink their strategy as many moderate Iraqis had feared, and in mid to late 2009 there was a significant spike in terror activity including suicide bombings and other mass casualty attacks.  After regaining their strength and engaging in fundraising activities ISI began a campaign targetted at toppling the Iraqi government.  In late 2009 ISI attacked 5 government buildings in Baghdad including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Finance, and the Ministry of Justice, killing 256 people total.  As opposed to targetting Shia Muslims like they had in the past, this resurgence represented a shift in tactics, to targetting government buildings and general terrorism instead of attempting to incite sectarian violence.  General Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq in 2009 stated that ISI has changed over the last 2 years and "what once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens".  This change in membership caused this shift in tactics and policy of the terror organization. (Reuters, November 18 2009)

It was reported in April 2010 that through US calculated strikes and other missions the leadership structure of ISI had been crippled, with 80% of the organization's top 42 individuals having been captured or killed.  It was also announced that they had been completely cut off from communication with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

The Syrian Civil War

During the Syrian civil war which began in Spring 2011, ISI played an integral role in the conflict as a large opposition force to the Syrian army of the Assad regime.  In August 2011 members of ISI were sent into Syria with the mission to spread out and recruit fighters for their terror cells.  After recruiting, in January 2012 the members of ISI in Syria announced their name as Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl al-Sham, more commonly known as the al-Nusra Front.  Due to their connections with Al-Qaeda they quickly spread and became a formidable fighting force against the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  After months of involvement in the conflict, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a statement that the al-Nusra Front had been financed by ISI and that the two groups were about to merge, forming the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS).  Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of the Al-Nusra Front however denied the validity of the announcement claiming that he nor any leaders of the Al-Nusra Front had been consulted about the merger.  A letter to both groups was released from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahari in June 2013, in which he expressed dissaproval of the merger and appointed an envoy to oversee relations between Al-Nusra and ISI.  ISI leader al-Baghdadi blatantly disregarded the statement made by Al-Qaeda's leader and contested that the merger was going to be proceeding as planned.  After 8 months of tension between the groups, Al-Qaeda cut all ties to ISI and the Al-Nusra front in February 2014.  Throughout 2014 there was much hostility shown between ISI and Al-Nusra, with the rival groups attacking each other regularly. 

April 2013 saw the Islamic State make considerable territorial gains in Northern Syria, where they quickly became the strongest group in the region.  In July 2013 ISIS strategically planned and carried out a prison break from Iraq's Abu Ghriab prison in which over 500 ISIS members escaped including senior commanders. 

ISIS began playing a major role in the civil war after they captured the border town of Azaz in Northern Syria from the Syrian army through the most intense fighting the conflict had seen so far.  They next overran the town of Atme and attempted to continue their conquest but were beaten back by the Army of the Mujahadeen, a branch of the Syrian army.  This victory did not last though and in January 2014 ISIS had captured the stronghold city of Raqqa, though they were beaten and retreated out of Aleppo.  Through subsequent fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups, ISIS was eventually also chased out of Azaz and the other areas they had shortly conquered during the civil war, but retained their base in RaqqaRaqqa was the first province in Syria to completely fall under ISIS rule, and as of February 2015 Raqqa is still their base of operations.   

ISIS declared an Islamic state in Fallujah on January 3, 2014, and Syria's main army and it's counterparts launched an offensive aimed at the ISIS held Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.  January saw multiple clashes between ISIS and the Syrian army, with intense fighting over Aleppo and Raqqa.  By March, ISIS had been forced out of Aleppo.  Iraq's second most populous city, Mosul, fell to ISIS control on June 9 after they took over the government buildings, airports, and police stations.  The militants also reportedly looted the bank, taking $429 million.  In order to avoid persecution or death, half of a million people fled from Mosul after ISIS gained control.  Mosul is strategically relevant because it is a main crossroad between Syria and Iraq, and sits on top of an oil fortune. International humanitarian group and watchdog organization Human Rights Watch reported on October 30 that ISIS had carried out a massacre of 600 Shiite prison inmates at Mosul's Badoosh prison after taking the city. 

The Syrian army declared an offensive against ISIS in Raqqa on April 26, 2014, and were able to take back border towns in the surrounding area but not completely beat ISIS out of Raqqa.  Mid 2014 saw ISIS expand their presence inside of Syria, using the chaos of rebuilding after a civil war as a chance to grab land and stake their claim.  According to an August 7 2014 statement from ISIS, at that time they controlled:

  1. All of Sinjar municipality and the areas belonging to it.
  2. All of Talkif municipality and the areas belonging to it.
  3. All of al-Hamdaniya municipality and the areas belonging to it.
  4. All of Makhmour municipality and the areas belonging to it.
  5. Zammar township and all the villages belonging to it.
  6. Rabee'ah township and all the villages belonging to it.
  7. Bartala township and all the villages belonging to it.
  8. Karam Lays township and all the villages belonging to it.
  9. Al-Kweir township and all the villages belonging to it.
  10. Wana township and all the villages belonging to it.
  11. Large areas in Filfeel township.
  12. Large areas of Ba'ashiqa township.
  13. Some of the al-Shalalat areas in Mosul.
  14. The Sada and Ba'wiza area of Mosul.
  15. The oil-rich 'Ayn Zalah area.
  16. The strategic Mosul dam
  17. The large Tumarat base

Sources:BBC (July 22 2013), Reuters (July 26 2014), Huffington Post (August 7 2014), The Washington Post (August 25 2014), CNN (August 9 2014), BBC (August 18 2014), New York Magazine (January 2 2014), The Washington Post (November 22 2009), Time Magazine (June 6 2007), The Wall Street Journal (August 24 2014), Haaretz (September 8 2014), The White House (September 10 2014), The LA Times(September 14 2014), The LA Times (September 20 2014), CBS News (September 18 2014), The Local (September 22 2014), The New York Times (September 24 2014), The Wall Street Journal (September 30 2014), Fox News (October 1 2014), Yahoo News (September 30 2014), Politico (September 24 2014), Reuters (October 2 2014), The New York Times(October 12 2014), Reuters (October 16 2014), Asharq Al-Awsat (October 22 2014), The New York Times (October 23 2014), The Associated Press (November 13 2014), Reuters (November 17 2014), The Washington Post (November 18 2014), Reuters (November 20 2014), The Washington Post (November 22 2014), Reuters (November 24 2014), Defense News (November 24 2014), McClatchy DC (November 25 2014), LA Times (November 26 2014), The Washington Post (November 28 2014), Huffington Post (December 1 2014), Israel Hayom (December 1 2014), New York Times (December 3 2014), LA Times (December 3 2014), McClatchy DC (December 9 2014), Voice of America (December 11 2014), Reuters (December 18 2014), Reuters (January 6, 2015), Reuters (January 13 2015), Al Arabiya (January 13 2015), The New York Times (January 12, 2015) (January 18, 2015) (January 21, 2015), Yahoo News (January 13 2015), LA Times (January 20 2015), The Daily Star Lebanon (January 22, 2015), Ynet News (January 22, 2014); The New York Times (January 26, 2015); The Huffington Post (January 29, 2015); The New York Times (February 3, 2015); Al Arabiya (February 3, 2015); Wall Street Journal (August 13, 2015); IHS Janes (December 22, 2015); Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point (February 18, 2016); The Daily Beast (March 9, 2016); The Atlantic (March 17, 2016); The Washington Post (April 11, 2016); Reuters (May 1, 2016); Washington Times (June 20, 2016);

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