Written by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center
This study examines the nature of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Islamic Salafist-jihadi terrorist organization founded a decade ago as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It established itself during the fighting against the United States in the Sunni regions of western Iraq and spread to eastern and northern Syria during the Syrian civil war. In the summer of 2014 ISIS scored dramatic achievements, among them the occupation of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the declaration of the “Islamic Caliphate,” headed by a charismatic Iraqi terrorist operative nicknamed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Roots of ISIS
ISIS began as a branch of Al-Qaeda, founded in Iraq in 2004 after the American invasion and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. It filled the security and governmental vacuum created by the disintegration of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein’s regime, accompanied by the increasing alienation of the Sunni Muslims from the central, Shi’ite-affiliated government in Baghdad sponsored by the United States. The branch of Al-Qaeda gradually established itself in Iraq during the fighting against the United States and its allies, adopted the name the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and became a central force among the anti-American insurgents.
Towards the end of the American presence in Iraq the ISI was weakened (as were other insurgents), the result of America’s military successes combined with its wise policy of fostering the Sunni tribes in western Iraq (ISIS’ principal domain). However, the Americans did not continue the policy, and later policies carried out by Shi’ite Adnan al-Maliki and the American withdrawal from Iraq all contributed to strengthening the ISI. That gave it a convenient starting point for its operations when the Americans eventually withdrew from Iraq.
The civil war that broke out in March 2011 made Syria fertile ground for the spread of the ISI to Syria. In January 2012 the Al-Nusra Front (“support front”) was founded as the Syrian branch of the ISI. However, the two disagreed early on and the Al-Nusra Front split off from the Islamic State in Iraq, which then changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced its support for the Al-Nusra Front and its dissociation from the ISI. After the split ISIS gained military successes, leading it to declare the Islamic State (or the “Caliphate State”), while the rival Al-Nusra Front has weakened.
ISIS is an Islamic Salafist-jihadi organization. Salafism is an extremist Sunni political-religious movement within Islam that seeks to restore the golden era of the dawn of Islam(the time of the prophet Muhammad and the early Caliphs who followed him). That is to be done, according to Salafist jihadist ideology, by jihad (a holy war) against both internal and external enemies. Jihad, according to Salafist jihadism, is the personal duty of every Muslim. Al-Qaeda and the global jihad organizations (of which ISIS is one) sprang from Salafist jihadism.
According to the ISIS concept, Islam’s golden era will be restored through the establishment of a supranational Islamic Caliphate modeled after the regimes of the first Caliphs after the death of Muhammad. It will be ruled by Islamic religious law (the sharia), according to its most extreme interpretation. The Caliphate will arise on the ruins of the nation states established in the Middle East after the First World War. Some of them, including Syria and Iraq, where ISIS operates, are in the process of disintegrating in the wake of the upheaval in the Middle East, creating favorable conditions for the vision of an Islamic Caliphate.
The territory of the Caliphate State, whose establishment was declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, lies in eastern Syria and western Iraq. ISIS seeks to expand the Caliphate throughout Syria and Iraq and finally take control of them. After that, the states belonging to “greater Syria” will be annexed, that is, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and after them other countries in the Middle East and beyond. According to the ISIS vision as it appears on its maps, the future Islamic Caliphate will include vast stretches of North Africa, Asia and the Caucasus, and parts of Europe that were once under Muslim rule, such as Spain and the Balkans.