Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) OR Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/ al-Sham (ISIS) OR DAISH (Dawlat-e-Islamia fil Iraq o al-Sham) is a Sunni Muslim militant organization fighting in Iraq and Syria and in control of large area of these countries. Apart from that, ISIS also has presence in several Muslim countries like Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya etc. In June 2014, the group proclaimed caliphate after capturing large parts of Syria and Iraq and named itself ad-Dawlat al-Islamia (Islamic State or IS) but it is still known as ISIS or ISIL. ISIS is designated as terrorist organization by UN and several countries including few Muslim countries.
Origin and Foundation of ISIS
A Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the Organization of Monotheism and Holy War (Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad) in Jordan before US invasion of Iraq while the sleeper cells of the organization were present in Iraq at the time of US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The guerilla war started in Iraq after the overthrown of Saddam’s regime by USA in May 2003. Fighters from Iraq and all round Arab world started armed struggle against US occupation and many among them joined the JTJ. The group not only targeted the coalition troops but also initiated a sectarian conflict by suicide and other terror attacks against Iraqi Shia Muslims.
The biggest victory of JTJ was the First Battle of Fallujah in April 2004 during which USA remained unsuccessful to end the control of JTJ and its allies from the city and they had to wait for next six months till the Second Battle of Fallujah to clear the city from insurgents.
Merger with al-Qaeda
In October 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi announced its organization as part of al-Qaeda and named it Tanzeem Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The militant activities of the group against coalition troops and civilians continued in the previous manner and intensity. Al-Qaeda leaders were not happy over indiscriminate killings of Iraqi Shias by AQI and advised Zarqawi to focus primarily on coalition troops but they continued their support for the group as they had no other option in Iraq.
In January 2006, AQI and several other Sunni militant groups joined together to form Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) and al-Zarqawi became its leader. In June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by US aerial strike after which he was replaced by Abu Ayyub al-Masri as leader of MSC. In October 2012, several groups and Sunni tribes joined MSC after which it was renamed as Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Masri was replaced by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as leader of ISI.
Difficult Times and Reemergence
During the last months of 2007, US increased the number of soldiers in Iraq considerably which helped them to regain several areas that were mostly under the control of ISI. Due to this reason, 2008 remained difficult period for the group as they not only lost their safe havens but also support from large part of Sunni population of Iraq who were unhappy due to religious extremism of ISI. The Sunni Arab tribes formed paramilitary groups known as Sahwa in order to drive them out from Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. In April 2010, ISI leaders Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed by US air strikes.
In May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of ISI. Al-Baghdadi completely changed the face of organization as he appointed several military and intelligence members of former Baath party in the higher leadership places that were emptied due to death of former leaders. These experienced Baathist officers played a critical role in the later capture of areas in Iraq and Syria.
In July 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced return of AQI in the areas from where they were driven out by US and Sunni Arab tribes while he also declared to free members of AQI from Iraqi prisons. In September 2012, AQI was able to free around 100 fighters from a prison in Tikrit after a successful attack. After complete one year of al-Baghdadi’s announcement, AQI successfully released hundreds (more than 500) of its supporters from Iraqi jails of Abu Ghraib (Baghdad) and Taji in July 2013 through car bomb attacks.
The attacks of AQI increased in Iraq and the death toll again rises to over 1,000 a month while before it reduced markedly after 2007.
Syrian Civil War & Rise of ISIL
Syrian Civil war also played major role in the strength of ISIL. Protests against Syrian regime started in March 2011 as part of Arab Spring which later transformed in to armed struggle against Bashar al-Assad and his regime. With support from AQI, the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front was formed in 2011 which proved as one of the most dangerous group against Syrian regime due to suicide bombings and other military techniques.
Al-Baghdadi was eager to expand his influence due to which he announced the merger of AQI and al-Nusra Front and the formation of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq & Sham/ Syria) in April 2013. But the merger was rejected by al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to remain in Iraq. But al-Baghdadi refused the orders of al-Qaeda leader and continued activities of his group in Syria. After prolonged tension, al-Qaeda cut all ties with ISIL in February 2014.
Declaration of Caliphate
In January 2014, ISIL captured important Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi while in June 2014, just over 1,000 fighters of ISIL defeated 30,000 members of Iraqi Army to capture the second largest city of Iraq, Mosul. Capture of Mosul made ISIL extremely strong financially and militarily. Just two days after capture of Mosul, ISIL invaded and capture Tikrit (birthplace of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain).
At this time, ISIL was also in charge of large area of eastern Syria. After looking at the favorable time, ISIL proclaimed itself to be a worldwide Caliphate and renamed itself Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah or Islamic State (IS) while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was named as its Caliph and Syria city of Raqqa became the capital of the self-proclaimed Caliphate.
The proclamation of Caliphate by ISIL was rejected by Muslims at large but few militant and terror organizations in Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, subcontinent and few other areas accepted the Caliphate of IS and al-Baghdadi.