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Do you ever find it odd that we spend so much time talking and worrying about ISIS, and yet only have the most basic idea of what it’s about? Some of our most important foreign policy concerns revolve around the group, and yet many Americans don’t even know what the acronym stands for. I want to take some time in this week’s blog to sum up what many of us are so confused about.

What is ISIS?

ISIS stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Other names for the same group include ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), IS (Islamic State), and Da-esh (literally the same acronym as ISIS, translated in Arabic). Apparently the name “Da-esh” is offensive to ISIS members, but I’d say that gives us all the more reason to use it. ISIS started as a terrorist movement, which grew into an insurgency and at the height of their power began to act as a proto state. This proto state (what ISIS calls its “caliphate”) controls territory in Northern Iraq and Syria, and is led by the current Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The governance of territory makes ISIS the most powerful Islamic terrorist movement of the modern age, even upstaging Al Qaeda. While ISIS is most concentrated in the areas in and surrounding its caliphate, the group has a diaspora of affiliates, admirers, and individuals who are inspired by it throughout the world.

ISIS Features:

ISIS finances itself by smuggling oil, kidnapping and ransoming, but it’s most lucrative returns come through the “taxes” that it collects from the people living within the territory they have captured.

ISIS members consider themselves radical Salafi Muslims. Salafi Islam is a puritanical, severe form of Orthodox Sunni Islam. It considers heterodox versions of Islam such as Shi’ism to be it’s main ideological opponent.

Origins of ISIS:

ISIS was originally an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s ruthlessness toward Shi’a Muslims actually alienated them from Al Qaeda, whose main target was the West. In fact, Zarqawi’s location was revealed by a tip which was suspected to be given to the U.S. military by Al Qaeda. In 2006, Zarqawi was killed in an air raid, after which AQI was decimated by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Sometime around 2010-2012 is when ISIS began to emerge from the rubble of AQI. It was first populated by former members of AQI and former Iraqi Ba-athist military officials, who had been jailed in Camp Bucca after their work with Saddam Hussian. ISIS grew more active in Northern Iraq and Syria as the region was destabilized during the Arab Spring.

Status of ISIS:

2014 was a big year for ISIS, during which it captured territory at remarkable and terrifying speed. Today around 8-9 million Syrians and Iraqis live under ISIS rule. Right now the de-facto “capital” of the proto-state is Raaqa in Syria. They’ve also captured the major cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul (although the liberation of Mosul is underway as I write this). One problem anti-terrorism forces are facing is ISIS’ significant affiliates in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Turkey, since they still have the ability to commit attacks, even as ISIS’ hold on territory in Syria and Iraq is chipped away.

Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq

Foreign Fighters are estimated to make up about half of ISIS’ forces, although this has greatly decreased since their loss of the gateway territory on the Turkish border. Most ISIS members are Iraqi or Syrian, and Iraqis hold most of the leadership positions. The total size of ISIS armed forces are 10,000 to 100,000 people.

Security Challenges Outside of Syria and Iraq:

As ISIS has weakened, lost territory and possibly recruits, it has looked abroad for more resources and targets to attack. It has already launched attacks directly in Turkey, helping to destabilize the country (and possible prompt the coup attempt). It has also helped and/or inspired terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and perhaps Orlando, Florida. As progress is made toward degrading the core of ISIS, we still face a security conundrum: As ISIS grows weaker, the attacks from its affiliates around the world become more common and spread out (but also lower scale, thankfully).

Responses and Challenges:

So far the U.S. military response to ISIS has been characterized by strategic bombing, although we’re beginning to send more troops to the region in order to assist the weak and disorganized Iraqi military. Most of the heavy fighting against ISIS is being done by Shi’i militias who are allied with Iraq and Iran, although their loyalty to the U.S. and the Sunni Iraqis they liberate is questionable. And then of course there’s Russia, who while claiming to be attacking ISIS uses most of its air strikes against Syrian dissidents (a separate group from the Islamic State).

Although this topic is quite convoluted, knowing the basics goes a long way to keeping us informed about what’s going on outside our borders. Let me know if there’s anything you still have questions about that I didn’t have space to cover here–I may be able to help you out!