Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) An in-depth look at ISIS

29 May 2019 12:00 am - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


As the people and Government of Sri Lanka reel with shock and grief in the wake of the suicide bomb attacks over the Easter Sunday killing more than 250 innocent civilians including 40 foreigners and wounding more than 500 others and the country is forced to confront some important lessons. And whilst the horrors of the attacks are uniquely personal to the people of Sri Lanka the challenges that they present go well beyond the country. In this backdrop, it is important for policy makers, Defence personnel and citizens of the country to have some knowledge and understanding in the international terrorist organization – ISIS.  



The Islamic State, or ISIS, is a militant organization that emerged as an off shoot of Al Qaeda in 2014. It quickly took control of large areas of Iraq and Syria, raising its black flag in victory and declaring the creation of a caliphate and imposing strict Islamic rule. The group is sometimes also referred to as ISIL — for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. It is largely made up of Sunni Muslim militants from Iraq and Syria but has also drawn thousands of fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe, ISIS gained global prominence in early 2014 when it drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in its Western Iraq offensive, followed by its capture of Mosul and the Sinjar massacre.  
The group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the UN and many individual countries. ISIS is widely known for its videos of beheading and other types of executions of both soldiers and civilians, including journalists and aid workers, and its destruction of cultural heritage sites. The UN holds ISIS responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes. ISIS also committed ethnic cleansing on an historic scale in northern Iraq.  

In Syria, the group conducted ground attacks on both government forces and opposition factions and by December 2015, it held a large area extending from western Iraq to eastern Syria, containing an estimated 8 to 12 million people, where it enforced its interpretation of Shari’a law. ISIS is believed to be operational in 18 countries across the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, with “aspiring branches” in Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. In 2015, ISIS was estimated to have an annual budget of more than US$1 billion and a force of more than 30,000 fighters. In July 2017, the group lost control of its largest city, Mosul, to the Iraqi army. Following this major defeat, ISIS continued to lose territory to the various states and other military forces allied against it, until it controlled no meaningful territory by November 2017. US military officials and simultaneous military analyses reported in December 2017 that the group retained a mere two percent of the territory they had previously held. On December 10, 2017, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that Iraqi forces had driven the last remnants of Islamic State from the country, three years after the militant group captured about a third of Iraq’s territory.  

  • In 2015, 2016 and 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria
  • ISIS aims to return to the early days of Islam, rejecting all innovations in the religion ISIS aims to return to the early days of Islam, rejecting all innovations in the religion


The group was founded in 1999 by Jordanian Salafi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi under the name Jamat al-Tawd wa-al-Jihad. In a letter published by the Coalition in February 2004, Zarqawi wrote that jihadists should use bombings to start an open sectarian war so that Sunnis from the Islamic world would mobilize against assassinations carried out by Shia, specifically the Badr Brigade, against Ba’athists and Sunnis.  

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces, al-Zarqawi and Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad achieved notoriety in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency for their suicide attacks on Shia mosques, civilians, Iraqi government institutions and Italian soldiers of the US-led ‘Multi-National Force’.  

In October 2004, when al-Zarqawi swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, he renamed the group Tanm Qidat al-Jihd f Bild al-Rfidayn, commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI). Although the group never called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, this remained its informal name for many years. Attacks by the group on civilians, Iraqi government forces, foreign diplomats and soldiers, and American convoys continued with roughly the same intensity. In a letter to al-Zarqawi in July 2005,al-Qaeda’s then deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri outlined a four-stage plan to expand the Iraq War. The plan included expelling US forces from Iraq, establishing an Islamic authority as a caliphate, spreading the conflict to Iraq’s secular neighbours and clashing with Israel.  

According to a study compiled by United States intelligence agencies in early 2007, ISIS planned to seize power in the central and western areas of Iraq and turn it into a Sunni caliphate. The group grew in strength and at its height enjoyed a significant presence in the Iraqi governorates of Al Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad, claiming Baqubah as a capital city.  


Beginning primarily in 2017, as the IS lost more swathes of territory and lost control over major settlements and cities, the group increasingly resorted to more terror bombings and insurgency operations, using its scattered underground networks of sleeper cells across regions in the middle east and various offshoots and adherents. The collapse of its final middle eastern territories in 2019 propelled the group into full insurgency phase in the regions it once controlled and outside. 


In 2015, 2016 and 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria, including a mass shooting at a Tunisian tourist resort that left 38 European tourists killed, the Suruç bombing in Turkey killed 33 leftist and pro-Kurdish activists, Tunisian National Museum attack killed 24 foreign and local tourists, 142 Shia civilians perished in Sana’a mosque bombings, Metro jet Flight 9268 crash claimed 224 lives, mostly Russian tourists, the Ankara bombings saw 102 pro-Kurdish and leftist activists killed, the Beirut bombings claimed 43 Shia civilians, November 2015 Paris attacks claimed 130 civilian lives, the massacring of Jaafar Mohammed Saad, the governor of Aden, in January 2016, a blast in Istanbul killed 11 foreign tourists, Brussels bombings in 2016 killed 32 civilians, 2016 Atatürk Airport attack saw 48 foreign and Turkish civilians killed, 2016, in the Nice attack in France 86 civilians killed, July 2016 Kabul bombing, at least 80 civilians killed, mostly Shia Hazaras, Berlin attack in 2016 where 12 civilians killed, 39 foreigners and Turks killed in the 2017 Istanbul nightclub shooting, Saint Petersburg Metro bombing in 2017, 15 civilians had lost their lives, the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 claimed 22 civilians, Catalonia attack in 2017 claimed 16 lives, attacks in Tehran saw18 civilians perished, Pakistan bombings on July 13, 2018, at least 131 people had been killed.

The Saudi Arabian government reports that in one; relatively short period -- the first eight months of 2016—there were 25 attacks in the kingdom by ISIL. Latest was the Easter Sunday attack on April 21, 2019 in Sri Lanka killing more than 250 innocent civilians including 40 foreigners.  


ISIS’s ideology represents radical Salafi Islam, a strict, puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Islamic organizations like Islamic Networks Group (ING) in America have argued against this interpretation of Islam. ISIS promotes religious violence, and regards Muslims who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels or apostates. According to Hayder al Khoei, ISIS’s philosophy is represented by the symbolism in the Black Standard variant of the legendary battle flag of Muhammad that it has adopted: the flag shows the Seal of Muhammad within a white circle, with the phrase above it, “There is no god but Allah”. Such symbolism has been said to point to ISIL’s belief that it represents the restoration of the caliphate of early Islam, with all the political, religious and eschatological ramifications that this would imply. ISIS adheres to global jihadist principles and follows the hard-line ideology of al-Qaeda and many other modern-day jihadist groups,which is closely related to Wahhabism.  

For their guiding principles, the leaders of the IS are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls.  


ISIS aims to return to the early days of Islam, rejecting all innovations in the religion, which it believes corrupts its original spirit. It condemns later caliphates and the Ottoman Empire for deviating from what it calls pure Islam, and seeks to revive the original Wahhabi project of the restoration of the caliphate governed by strict Salafist doctrine. Following Salafi-Wahhabi tradition, ISIS condemns the followers of secular law as disbelievers, putting the current Saudi Arabian government in that category Salafists such as ISIS believe that only a legitimate authority can undertake the leadership of jihad, and that the first priority over other areas of combat, such as fighting non-Muslim countries, is the purification of Islamic society. For example, ISIS regards the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas as apostates who have no legitimate authority to lead jihad and see fighting Hamas as the first step toward confrontation by ISIS with Israel.  

According to a study compiled by United States intelligence agencies in early 2007, ISIS planned to seize power in the central and western areas of Iraq and turn it into a Sunni caliphate


Since 2004, a significant goal of the group has been the foundation of a Sunni Islamic state. Specifically, ISIS has sought to establish itself as a caliphate, an Islamic state led by a group of religious authorities under a supreme leader – the caliph – who is believed to be the successor to Prophet Muhammad. In June 2014, ISIS published a document in which it claimed to have traced the lineage of its leader al-Baghdadi back to Muhammad, and upon proclaiming a new caliphate on June 29, the group appointed al-Baghdadi as its caliph. As caliph, he demands the allegiance of all devout Muslims worldwide, according to Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).  
ISIS has detailed its goals in its Dabiq magazine, saying it will continue to seize land and take over the entire Earth until its: Blessed flag covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam and putting an end to the falsehood and tyranny of jahiliyyah [state of ignorance], even if America and its coalition despise such. According to German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent 10 days embedded with ISIS in Mosul, the view he kept hearing was that ISIS wants to “conquer the world”, and that all who do not believe in the group’s interpretation of the Quran will be killed. All non-Muslim areas would be targeted for conquest after the Muslim lands were dealt with, according to the Islamist manual Management of Savagery.  


Documents found after the death of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of the Iraqi Air Force before the US invasion who had been described as “the strategic head” of ISIS, detailed planning for the ISIS takeover of northern Syria which made possible “the group’s later advances into Iraq”.Al-Khlifawi called for the infiltration of areas to be conquered with spies who would find out “as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were”. Following this surveillance and espionage would come murder and kidnapping – “the elimination of every person who might have been a potential leader or opponent”.  

Security and intelligence expert Martin Reardon has described ISIS’s purpose as being to psychologically “break” those under its control, “ so as to ensure their absolute allegiance through fear and intimidation,” while generating, “ outright hate and vengeance” among its enemies. Jason Burke, a journalist writing on Salafi jihadism, has written that ISIS’s goal is to “terrorize, mobilize and polarize”. Its efforts to terrorize are intended to intimidate civilian populations and force governments of the target enemy “to make rash decisions that they otherwise would not choose”. It aims to mobilize its supporters by motivating them with, for example, spectacular deadly attacks deep in Western territory (such as the November 2015 Paris attacks), to polarize by driving Muslim populations – particularly in the West – away from their governments, thus increasing the appeal of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate among them, and to: “Eliminate neutral parties through either absorption or elimination”. Journalist Rukmini Maria Callimachi also emphasizes ISIS’s interest in polarization or in eliminating what it calls the “grey zone” between the black (non-Muslims) and white (ISIS)”. The gray is moderate Muslims who are living in the West and are happy and feel engaged in the society here.”  


ISIS is headed and run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS’ self-styled Caliph. There are two deputy leaders, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani for Iraq and Abu Ali al-Anbari (also known as Abu Ala al-Afri) for Syria, both are ethnic Turk. Advising al-Baghdadi is a cabinet of senior leaders, while its operations in Iraq and Syria are controlled by local ‘emirs,’ who head semi-autonomous groups which the IS refers to as its provinces. Beneath the leaders are councils on finance, leadership, military matters, legal matters (including decisions on executions) foreign fighters’ assistance, security, intelligence and media. In addition, a shura council has the task of ensuring that all decisions made by the governors and councils comply with the group’s interpretation of Shari’a.  


According to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group, almost all of ISIS’s leaders—including the members of its military and security committees and the majority of its emirs and princes—are former Iraqi military and intelligence officers, specifically former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath government who lost their jobs and pensions in the de-Ba’athification process after that regime was overthrown. The former Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism of the US State Department, David Kilcullen, has said that “There undeniably would be no ISIS, if we had not invaded Iraq.” It has been reported that Iraqis and Syrians have been given greater precedence over other nationalities within ISIS because the group needs the loyalties of the local Sunni populations in both Syria and Iraq in order to be sustainable. Other reports, however, have indicated that Syrians are at a disadvantage to foreign members, with some native Syrian fighters resenting “favouritism” allegedly shown towards foreigners over pay and accommodation.  

Military - Number of combatants  

Country origins of foreign ISIS fighters (500 or more), As of 2015 estimates Tunisia 3000, Saudi Arabia 2500, Russia 1500, Jordan 1500, Morocco 1500, France 1200, Lebanon 900, Turkey 600, Libya 500, Germany 600, UK 500, Uzbekistan 500 and Pakistan 500.  

US intelligence estimated an increase to around 20,000 foreign fighters in February 2015, including 3,400 from the Western world. In September 2015, the CIA estimated that 30,000 foreign fighters had joined ISIS.  

According to Abu Hajjar, a former senior leader of ISIS, foreign fighters receive food, petrol and housing, but unlike native Iraqi or Syrian fighters, they do not receive payment in wages. Since 2012, more than 3000 people from the central Asian countries have gone to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to join the Islamic State. 


ISIS relies mostly on captured weapons with major sources including Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi stockpiles from the 2003 –11 Iraq insurgency and weapons from government and opposition forces fighting in the Syrian Civil War and during the post-US withdrawal Iraqi insurgency. The captured weapons, including Armour, guns, surface-to-air missiles, and even some aircraft, enabled rapid territorial growth and facilitated the capture of additional equipment. For example, ISIS captured US-made TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the USA and Saudi Arabia to the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Ninety percent of the group’s weapons ultimately originated in China,Russia or Eastern Europe according to Conflict Armament Research. 


The group uses truck and car bombs, suicide bombers and IEDs, and has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. ISIS captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in July 2014, but is unlikely to be able to convert them into weapons. In September 2015 a US official stated that ISIS was manufacturing and using mustard agent in Syria and Iraq, and had an active chemical weapons research team. ISIS has also used water as a weapon of war. The group closed the gates of the smaller Nuaimiyah dam in Fallujah in April 2014, flooding the surrounding regions, while cutting the water supply to the Shia-dominated south. Around 12,000 families lost their homes and 200 km² of villages and fields were either flooded or dried up. The economy of the region also suffered with destruction of cropland and electricity shortages.  

Non-combatant recruits  

Although ISIL attracts followers from different parts of the world by promoting the image of holy war, not all of its recruits end up in combatant roles. There have been several cases of new recruits expecting to be mujahideens who have returned from Syria disappointed by the ‘everyday jobs’ that were assigned to them, such as drawing water or cleaning toilets, or by the ban imposed on the use of mobile phones during military training sessions.  


ISIS publishes material directed at women, with media groups encouraging them to play supportive roles within ISIS, such as providing first aid, cooking, nursing and sewing skills, in order to become “good wives of jihadists”. In 2015, it was estimated that western women made up over 550, or 10%, of ISIL’s western foreign fighters.  

Until 2016, women were generally confined to a “women’s house” upon arrival, which they were not allowed to leave. These houses were often small, dirty and infested with vermin and food supply was scarce. There they remained until they either had found a husband, or the husband they had arrived having completed his training. After being allowed to leave for confinement, women still generally spent most of their days indoors where their lives are devoted to caring for their husbands and the vast majority of women in the conflict area have children. Mothers play an important role passing on ISIS ideology to their children. Widows are encouraged to remarry. 

The author is a former security forces commander (Wanni) and colonel commandant SL Sinha Regiment with 36 years of military experience and presently working as an international researcher.

(Part 2 of this article to be continued tomorrow)

  Comments - 2

  • seshu Wednesday, 29 May 2019 11:56 PM

    ISIS Look at that

    Wijebandu Jayasundara Thursday, 11 July 2019 03:12 PM

    Fantastic research work from a great Sri Lankan Army presonnel!

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