Terrorism Profiles

Islamic State (IS)

Posted By November 28, 2015 No Comments

Alternative Names:

Daesh, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, al-Tawhid, al-Tawhid and al-Jihad, Kateab al-Tawhid, Brigades of Tawhid, Monotheism and Jihad Group, The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers, The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in the Land of the Two Rivers, The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in Iraq, The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in Iraq, The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in the Land of the Two Rivers, The Organization Base of Jihad/Country of the Two Rivers, The Organization Base of Jihad/Mesopotamia, Tanzim Qa’idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, Tanzim al-Qaeda al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidain, Tanzeem Qa’idat al Jihad/Bilad al Raafidaini, Jama’at Al-Tawhid Wa’al-Jihad, JTJ, Islamic State of Iraq, Islamic State in Iraq, ISI, Mujahidin Shura Council, Unity and Holy Struggle, Unity and Holy War, Unity and Jihad Group, al-Zarqawi Network

For a period of time, the Islamic State (IS) was also named Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI). However, since the divergence of the two organizations paths they have been renamed and due to their conflicting relationships it did not seem appropriate to continue using that designation.


Iraq and Syria


The original leader of the group that would become IS was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born terrorist who traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s with the intention of joining the fight against the Soviet invasion. Upon Zarqawi’s return, he adopted Salafist ideology and set the foundation for the creation of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad (JTJ), which would eventually become Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), and finally IS after his death on June 7, 2006 in a US airstrike.

Following Zarqawi’s death in 2006, Abu Ayub al-Masri (also known as Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Hamza) became AQI’s leader. Abu Masri had been apart of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and had close ties to Al Qaida. Al-Masri officially turned power over to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi but it was unclear, for at least a period of time, if Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was anything more than a figure head to appease Iraqi disenfranchisement.

Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was appointed as the top commander in October 2006. In April 2010, both Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint US Iraqi operation.

Following al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi’s deaths in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the head of AQI, and led its massive expansion. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very secretive, not appearing in film until July 2014, and little is known about him. It is suspected that he has a background in religious scholarship in Iraq.


The group’s membership remained relatively small between the early stages of JTJ and AQI. It wasn’t until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control in 2010 that rapid expansion took place. Between 2005 and 2010, the estimated number of fighters was 1,000-2,000 (potentially more). In 2010, membership started to increase rapidly, raising to 6,000-10,000 in early 2014. By late 2014, estimates raised again to approximately 11,000, with 6,000 in Iraq and 5,000 in Syria. The last estimate from the CIA in 2014 placed the number much higher, between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters.

IS has also demonstrated a particular proficiency in attracting foreign fighters. US intelligence estimates that approximately 15,000 people from 80 countries have joined IS. Many of these recruits are from known suppliers of foreign fighters like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, however, some have also arrived from atypical locations like Australia, China, Russia, Western European countries and the US.

Funding Sources:

IS has acquired a significant amount of wealth, and is referred to as the ‘world’s richest terrorist organization.’ Its funding comes from various extortion schemes within the territory it controls and foreign donations. In the past, they did receive some funding from Al Qaida, however this ended during the split in direction.

Foreign donations have come in the form of private donations from individuals rather than country support. Some of the donations arrived to promote extremism itself, however, others in came the hopes of seeing the Assad regime in Syria fall.


IS’ origins began in 1999, when Zarqawi returned from Afghanistan and set up his own group, JTJ. Zarqawi’s group would eventually become the foundational basis for IS. JTJ drew international attention for its assassination plots and beheading videos released on the internet. JTJ sought to incite sectarian conflict in order to make the transition of government in Iraq more difficult. Due to this, it often focused on Shiite targets trying to incite retaliation.

In 2004, Zarqawi came to a formal agreement with Bin Laden and Al Qaida leadership, renaming his organization what is commonly referred to as AQI. Following the US-led war in Iraq, the country was left in chaos and drew the attention of large groups of extremists and foreign fighters, Zarqawi and his group among them.

AQI sought to incite violence on all sides. The group did not just fight the US; it attacked Shia mosques and civilians in attempts to provoke mass retaliation against the Sunni population. The hope was to use the violence to drive disenfranchised Sunni populations into supporting AQI. This was and still is the tactic that IS uses today, as it was highly successful in gaining support among Sunni populations.

AQI’s tactics became increasingly violent and extreme, which began to alienate the group from potential supporters. Both local Iraqi supporters and Al Qaida leadership had issues with the use of suicide bombings, assassinations and willingness to target Iraqis and popular Sunni leaders alike. In addition, the vast presence of foreign fighter leadership and its willingness to utilize sectarian violence alienated the group from supporters.

On June 7, 2006, Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike. It was announced that al-Masri would take over. Al-Masri convinced several jihadist groups in Iraq to merge and declared the establishment of the Islamic State Iraq (ISI), despite a portion of which continued to be known as AQI. At this time, al-Masri proclaimed Abu Umar al-Baghdadi  the leader of the ISI.

Both AQI and ISI suffered in the war with the US-led Operation Iraqi Freedom and with the dissent of the Sunni population. By 2009, almost all of AQI and ISI fighters were killed or held in prisons. The lesson learned for AQI was that dissent among the Iraqi Sunni populations was disastrous. As a result IS has taken a particularly brutal approach to removing dissent in the current conflict.

In April 2010, both al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with Abu Umar al-Baghdadi) took control of a depleted and weakened AQI. During this time, AQI struggled to maintain a presence in Iraq and relevance among the local populations. In 2011, coalition forces withdrew and gave AQI the opportunity to regain strength. Al-Baghdadi began aligning himself with former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and recruited disaffected Sunnis. The Iraqi government’s harsh policies and intense political tensions inadvertently gave AQI exactly what it needed to regain strength.

In April 2013, Baghdadi announced AQI operations in Syria and changed the group’s name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Attempts at reconciliation with Al Qaida leadership failed, and Al Qaida officially renounced any connection to IS in February 2014. Despite the split, IS grew in size and power through various military operations in Iraq and Syria. They challenged the governments of Iraq and Syria, local tribal groups and militias in Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga and various other rebel groups in Syria.

In January 2014, the group began to make large territorial gains after defeating the Iraqi forces at Fallujah. Following this, in March 2014, IS seized Mosul. These operations had resulted in IS acquiring vast amounts of funds and material that gave the group a significant boost in strength. Through foreign donors, smuggling, and extortion of locals, this gave IS an estimated $2 billion dollars in assets. By September 2014, experts estimated that the IS revenue from the sale of oil was between $1 and 2 million dollars a day.

After significant territorial gains through the spring of 2014, the group changed its name to the Islamic State (IS), declaring that it was now an Islamic Caliphate with al-Baghdadi as the Caliph. Internationally, IS has continued to be known by several names: ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.

Major Attacks:
*There are many attacks that have been unsubstantiated or suspected to have been perpetrated by IS, these have been omitted from this list.
**There are also numerous attacks that have been substantiated in addition to this list that have been omitted.

October 28, 2002: Assassinated Laurence Foley in Jordan. (1 killed)

August 19, 2003: Bombed the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, killing prominent UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-two others. (23 killed, 100+ wounded)

August 28, 2003: The group bombed the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. (85 killed, unknown wounded)

May 7, 2004: Zarqawi beheaded American civilian worker Nicholas Berg in Iraq. (1 killed, 20+ wounded)

November 9, 2005: The group bombed western hotels in Amman, Jordan. (57 killed, unknown wounded)

August 2009: Claimed responsibility for the bombings of several government buildings in Baghdad. (250 killed, 1000+ wounded)

May 2010: Carried out attacks across Iraq in response to the killings of AQI leaders Masri and Baghdadi. (85 killed, 300+ wounded)

March 21, 2012: Claimed responsibility for attacks across eight cities in just under six hours. Shiites, police, security forces and government officials were targeted in Karbala, Kirkuk, and Baghdad (46 killed, 200 wounded)

July 22, 2013: Attacked Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in Iraq, freeing approximately 800 prisoners with Al Qaeda affiliations. (26 Killed, unknown wounded)

September 14, 2013: Took control of an air defense base in Hama, Syria. (Unknown casualties)

June 10, 2014: Took control of Mosul. (Unknown casualties)

June 17, 2014: Attacked Baji oil field, although the Iraq Army reported that it successfully drove out IS within two to three days of fighting. (Unknown casualties)

June 23, 2014: Seized border crossings at Qaim, Waleed, and Trebil, gaining control over the border between Iraq and Syria and the border between Iraq and Jordan. (Unknown casualties)

July 2014: Takes control of Raqqa, Syria. (Unknown casualties)

August 2014: Over a period of two weeks, executed 700 members of the al-Sheitaat tribe in the Deir al-Zor province. (700+ killed, unknown wounded)

August 19, 2014: Beheaded American captive James Foley and releases a video of the murder. The video garnered international attention and ISIS would proceed to behead more British and American hostages in the coming months. (1+ killed)

October 29, 2014: Publicly executed a number of members of a Sunni tribe, the Albu Nimr, that had been resisting ISIS’s advance in the Anbar province. Reports on the number of dead range from forty-six to over three hundred, and differ on whether or not women and children were killed along with men. (46+ killed)

March 18, 2015: Two ISIS gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia targeting tourists. (21 killed, 40+ wounded)

May 15, 2015: Seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, from Iraqi security forces, which were supported by Shiite militias and American airstrikes. ISIS had controlled areas around Ramadi for almost a year and a half before taking the city. (500+ killed, unknkown wounded)

May 22, 2015: A suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque during prayer in the al-Qadeeh village in Saudi Arabia. (21 killed, 90+ wounded)

May 28, 2015: Simultaneous car bombs were set off near the Cristal Grand Ishtar Hotel and Babylon luxury hotel in Bagdhad. (10 killed, 30 wounded)

June 1, 2015: Three suicide bombers attacked the Iraqi police station in Tharthar region in the Anbar Province. (41 killed, 63 wounded)

June 13, 2015: Four suicide VBIEDs were detonated inside an Iraqi police station in the Hajjaj near Tikrit and Baiji. (11 killed, 27 wounded)

June 25, 2015: Fighters from ISIS detonated three VBIEDs close to the Turkish border crossing at Kobani. (146 killed, unknown wounded)

June 29, 2015: A VBIED detonates behind a military hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. (28 killed, unknown wounded)

July 1, 2015: IS fighters attacked five Egyptian Military checkpoints. (17 killed, 30 wounded)

July 12, 2015: A series of bombings across Baghdad including VBIEDs and suicide bombers. (29 killed, 81 wounded)

July 17, 2015: A car bomb was detonated in the crowded Khan Bani Saad Market in Iraq. The bomb was detonated during the Eid al-Fitr celebration. (100+ killed, 170 wounded)

August 10, 2015: Bombing of predominately Shia areas of the Diyala Province, Iraw. (50+ killed, 80+ wounded)

August 13, 2015: A refrigeration truck filled with explosives detonated in the centre of Baghdad’s Sadr City Market. (76+ killed, 212 wounded)

August 15, 2015: A series of bombings in Baghdad. (20+ killed, 101+ wounded)

September 3, 2015: Suicide bombing inside the Al-Muayad mosque in northern Jarraf district, Suicide bombing inside the Al-Muayad mosque in northern Jarraf district, Yemen. (32 killed, 92 wounded)

September 24, 2015: IS fighter detonated a suicide bomb inside the Balili mosque in Sana’a, another fighter did the same in the entrance when people fled. (25+ killed, 36+ wounded)

October 5, 2015: VBIED detonated outside markets in Khalis, Al Zubair and Hussainiva districts, Iraq. (57 killed, unkown wounded)

November 13, 2015: Series of coordinated attacks across six locations, including the Bataclan Theatre, Stade de France, and the 10th Arondissement of area of central Paris. (130 killed, 352 wounded)

Ideological Roots:

The Islamic State is a Sunni jihadist group. The core values mimic that of Al Qaida, which was the base for the original leaderships creation for the group. However, IS has taken a more radical and violent approach which has lead some groups, including Al Qaida, to separate and disavow association with them.

IS has exploited sectarianism and Sunni disenfranchisement in both Iraq and Syria to appeal to groups within both countries.

Since its creation, IS has sought to establish an Islamic caliphate based on extreme interpretations of Islam and Sharia.


IS has one clear objective: to establish a single, transnational Islamic Caliphate based on Sharia law.

It seeks to use civil unrest in Iraq and Syria to overthrow both governments and encourage disenfranchised members of both populations, along with foreign fighters to continue to grow and establish larger territorial authority under its Islamic Caliphate.


IS largely focuses on bombings, utilizing a combination of IED, VBIED and suicide type attacks. They have been known to also utilize firearms in terror attacks. The groups most prominent attacks have utilized suicide VBIEDs, IEDs, armed attacks, and hostage takings. Additionally, the group has been known to utilize public executions to instil fear among local populations, and abroad via the Internet.

Interestingly, IS has exhibited many capabilities that terror groups rarely do. For example, IS holds territory, maintains military capabilities, engages in control, supply and communication chains. The group has a defined command infrastructure and engages in military operations. To a degree, the 30,000-strong force mimics that of a pseudo-state led by a conventional military structure.

Despite its origins, IS has taken on the role of an organized militia, and has not evolved simply to employ terrorist and insurgent tactics.

Updated on November 27, 2015.