What is ISIS, also known as Islamic State and ISIL?

Islamic State is a jihadist group that that follows a strict and extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam. It was established as a breakout of Al-Qaida in Iraq, emerging out of the upheaval in the country that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, and gained notoriety during the Syrian uprising and ensuing civil war, attracting foreign fighters and capturing strategic areas in both countries. Originally calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the group changed its name in June 2014 to Islamic State, declaring a new caliphate and instating its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph – the head of state.

Goal and Territory:

The group's declared goal is to form a medieval Islamic state, a caliphate. It has captured swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, and declared Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria along the Euphrates River, its capital. This is where its headquarters and power base are. It also has a presence or affiliated groups in Yemen, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and across North Africa.

Resources and Operation:

The group is funded by a combination of oil revenues, ransom payments, extortion and foreign fighters. Its resources are vast, including oilfields, refineries and agricultural land. It operates more like a regular army with a recruiting network, training camps and a propaganda machine.


Islamic State is infamous for its barbaric violence, including beheadings, immolation, targeted killings, mass shootings, forced conversions, sexual abuse and torture. Its persecution of Christians, Yazidis, Shia and Turkmen has been described as "ethnic and religious cleansing." Children belonging to targeted minorities have been forcibly recruited and positioned on front lines. Its use of extreme violence helps it seize power and recruit members.

Anti-Islamic State Coalition:

Since the summer of 2014, a United States-led coalition of countries has been conducting air strikes against the group and empowering local militias and armies with training and weapons. Despite that, the group has continued to advance. After having extracted American soldiers from the war in Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama has been reluctant to put boots on the ground to fight Islamic State there. He is also cautious of intervening in the Syrian civil war.

The Foundations of a State:

The Islamic State already has the foundations of a state. It controls territory that includes major cities and covers large portions of Iraq and Syria; it has its own military and security force, a self-proclaimed administration that runs daily life - schools, government offices, utilities, hospitals, taxation and a judiciary system that follows Sharia law.