Even though ISIS have only come into the public in the last 6 months after their capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul near the Iraqi/Syrian border, they have been active in the Middle East for almost 15 years. During this time they have changed their name several times, starting as ‘Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad’ in 1999 before changing their name more than 5 times over the next 15 years until they finally became the ‘Islamic State’ that we know today.
Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad
Founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, the group also known as Tawhid and Jihad, primarily operated in Iraq with limited operations in Jordan.
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the group’s objectives were to resist and force a withdrawal of coalition forces and also to topple the interim Iraqi government. Whereas other groups resisting the occupation relied heavily on guerilla warfare, Tawhid and Jihad extensively used suicide bombings. As well, they became well known worldwide for their beheadings of Iraqis and foreign nationals and releasing the recordings on the internet.
The group was only thought to have a few hundred members but was considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations in Iraq, the first name change happened in 2004 and the group became:
Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn
Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, also known as Tawhid and Jihad changed their name to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn after the leader of the group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden in 2004. The group was informally known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI but officially they were referred to by their full name.
Between 2004 and 2006, the group carried out several suicide bombings and assassinations of high-level Iraqi politicians They also captured and subsequently beheaded a Japanese national, Shosei Koda who was kidnapped whilst touring the country. The group demanded that Japan remove their forces from the region, a demand which the country categorically refused. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stated that they would not concede to terrorism, and after the killing Prime Minister Koizumi announced that the murder would not affect government policy and that the deployment would continue.
In November 2004, al-Zarqawi and AQI were one of the main targets of Operation Phantom Fury, also known as the Second Battle of Fallujah. 95 American, 8 Iraqi and 4 British soldiers were killed in the month long battle but al-Zarqawi and other leaders managed to escape.
In 2005, AQI carried out several suicide bombings, killing hundreds of Iraqi Shia in car bombs outside of mosques, markets and hotels. The (now) leader of al-Qaeda sent a letter to AQI in October 2005, questioning their tactics of attacking Shia muslims indiscriminately.
In early 2006 the group went through their second name change and became part of the:
Mujahideen Shura Council
The Mujahideen Shura Council were a group active between January and October 2006, the group consisted of;
- al-Qaeda in Iraq
- Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura
- Katbiyan Ansar al-Tawhid wal Sunnah
- Saray al-Jihad Group
- al-Ghuraba Brigades
- al-Ahwal Brigades
The group was allegedly led led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian national who moved to Iraq in 2002 after the US invasion of Afghanistan. On the 7th of June 2006, the US air force dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, a laser-guided GBU-12 and GPS-guided GBU-38 on a safehouse where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of AQI was attending a meeting, killing 5 people including al-Zarqawi and one of his top lieutenants, Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman.
A little over a week later, on the 16th of June, a US checkpoint was attacked. 1 US soldier (David J. Babineau) was killed and 2 others (Kristian Menchaca and Thomas L. Tucker) were abducted. On the 19th of June, the Mujahedeen Shura Council claimed it was holding Menchaca and Tucker captive. Later that day their bodies were found 3 miles away from where they were abducted. Their corpses showed evidence of torture and they were rigged with explosives. The Mujahideen Shura Council claimed the attack was in retaliation for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and her family, allegedly by members of the unit Babineau, Menchaca and Tucker belonged to.
Following the short time as the Mujahideen Shura Council the group went through yet another name change and became:
In late 2006, the Mujahideen Shura Council rebranded themselves as ISI, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq. The group was led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and focused on establishing an Islamic state in Sunni majority areas in Iraq.
Their strength was estimated to be between 1000 and 2500 fighters. Despite their strength, it was estimated that ISI were only responsible for between 2% and 15% of attacks in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. By late 2007, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and ultra violent attacks had severely damaged ISI’s image and they began to rapidly lose the local population’s support. Several Sunni militias even began fighting back against the group they had once been allied with, forcing ISI out of their villages and communities. ISI responded harshly with suicide bombings and targeted assassinations against Shia militia leaders.
In 2009, the commander of the US forces in Iraq mentioned that over the last 2 years, ISI had become less dominated by foreign fighters and now relied on local Iraqis. This led to accusations that al-Qaeda and ex-Ba'athists were working together to undermine the new government.
On the 18th of April 2010, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (ISI’s 2 top leaders) were killed in a US raid near Tikrit. Less than a month later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as the new leader or ‘Emir’ of ISI. In the months that followed al-Baghdadi assuming leadership of ISI, the group carried out 2 large bombings. On the 17th of August 2010, an ISI suicide bomber detonated his bomb, killing approximately 60 new Iraqi army recruits, then later on the same day a fuel tanker rigged with explosives detonated in a Shia neighbourhood, killing 8 civilians and wounding nearly 50 more.
In early 2011, Syrians began protesting against their president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of wider regional unrest during the ‘Arab Spring’. Assad cracked down brutally on the mostly peaceful protesters with his army and security forces killing scores of unarmed people in the streets. Very rapidly the country was in civil war and several jihadi groups saw this as an opportunity to grab land for themselves. ISI was no different.
Al-Baghdadi sent Abu Mohammad al-Julani, a Syrian national into Syria at the beginning of the war, and tasked him with establishing a foothold in the region and to recruit others to their organisation. In early 2012 the group in Syria announced that they were now to be known as ‘Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl as-Sham’ or more commonly known by western sources as the al-Nusra Front.
Al-Nusra have been heavily involved in the battle for Aleppo, a battle which, on the 1st of January 2015 will enter its 900th day of non stop fighting. The group have made several allies in the region, mostly by coming to the aid of other rebel groups and pushing back the Syrian army. Some FSA (Free Syrian Army) members even defected to the group after they spearheaded significant offensives and made considerable advances in some regions.
In mid 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the al-Nusra Front and ISI were merging under the new name of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ (ISIS) but al-Julani rejected this even though al-Nusra had allegedly been receiving funding and information from ISI since they entered Syria. Following this announcement there were defections to ISIS from al-Nusra and also defections from ISIS to al-Nusra. Eventually, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri stepped in and declared that he opposed the merger and appointed an emissary to mediate between the 2 groups. Responding to this, al-Baghdadi announced he did not accept the ruling and announced that the merger was going ahead. Fighting then broke out between ISIS and al-Nusra and in February of 2014 al-Qaeda cut off all ties with ISIS and even threatened war with them unless they could prove they were not involved with the assassination of a senior Ahrar ash-Sham (another Islamist group in the civil war) commander.
While the group continued to grow and consolidate its position in Syria, it began to make a series of lighting gains in its homeland of Iraq. First in late 2013, it began a push into Anbar province, riding on a wave of anti-Government discontent among Sunni Iraqis. This enabled them to take the city of Fallujah and surrounding areas, causing major alarm for Western powers who had fought major battles to hold this city during the earlier Iraq War.
Then, on June 10, ISIS fighters attacked Iraq’s second city of Mosul, with what was reportedly only several hundred fighters. While they received some assistance from other anti-government groups, these fighters managed to completely rout the Iraqi Army defending Mosul, with many dropping their weapons and fleeing their posts on foot. Following this stunning victory, ISIS went on to push further south into Iraq, capturing Baiji and Tikrit.
Islamic State (Khalifa)
Riding the wave of this success, on 29th of June 2014 ISIS declared a worldwide caliphate and claimed authority over every Muslim worldwide. ISIS released a statement which stated;
"We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilafah , it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him (may Allah preserve him)"
ISIS then stated that they would now be simply known as the Islamic State or IS. In just a few months IS have made huge gains in Iraq and Syria, with the CIA estimating that they have between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria while Kurdish sources believe the number is closer to 200,000. As well as local forces in Iraq and Syria, several Islamist groups around the world have pledged to support IS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring themselves part of his ‘caliphate’
Since joining the Syrian Civil War, IS have been involved in chemical attacks, attempted genocide, mass executions, slavery and many other atrocities. They are by far one of the most ruthless groups in the war and seemingly will stop at nothing to achieve their goal of a global caliphate.