Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.


By Blaise Misztal

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

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Andrew Szarejko contributed to this post.

Who’s in Iraq? Why are there various names for the terror group in Iraq?

The terrorist group marching through Iraq and slowly taking control of large swaths of the country has been referred to by a variety of names by our government officials, the media and foreign policy experts. These include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Is ISIS/ISIS/ISIL the same group? 

Yes. The group, formed circa 2000, has had many names and iterations, including, most recently, as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The group rebranded itself in 2013 adopting a new name that reflected a more ambitious objective: establishing a caliphate, an Islamic state run by a single religious leader claiming succession from the Prophet Muhammad, in the Sunni-majority regions of Iraq, Syria and perhaps beyond.

Which name is right? 

Technically, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) both are. The titles refer to the same group of militants, but the discrepancy comes when the name is translated from Arabic.

The group refers to itself, in Arabic, as al–Dawla, al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is how several parties, including the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), refer to the group. The term “al-Sham” is a historic one, referring to a province of the early Caliphates (circa 600 – 900 CE) that stretched from modern-day southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt, including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. In English, “al-Sham” is best translated into “the Levant,” hence various references to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

What about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

While some groups and individuals have been referring to the group as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that name isn’t as technically accurate, as it suggests that the group’s ambition is limited only to Iraq and Syria. But the group began its operations in the early 2000s focused on Jordan—killing an American diplomat there—and have recently suggested that their objectives stretch far beyond the current battlefield.

Beyond explaining the differences in the names of the jihadist group in Iraq, BPC has been following the crisis with ISIS closely and has various resources available to help, including analysis on what’s next for the U.S.-Iraq relationship and information on the Middle East’s shifting alliances.