Members' Research Service By / February 25, 2015

ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’): background information

Last update 17/03/2015 The jihadist group that has declared itself ‘the Islamic State’ (known variously as IS, ISIS or ISIL,… (CC BY 2.0)
Last update 17/03/2015

The jihadist group that has declared itself ‘the Islamic State’ (known variously as IS, ISIS or ISIL, and by the Arabic acronym ‘Daesh’ or ‘Da’esh’), seized large portions of Iraqi territory in a matter of days in summer 2014. It is also in control of a third of Syrian territory (most of it uninhabited). Beyond the daily account of atrocities committed by ISIL/Da’esh, analysts have tried to fathom how this group, now boasting tens of thousands of fighters and several billion euros in resources, emerged on the international scene and made its claim to power with such sweeping assertiveness.


>>> See also our briefing: Understanding the rise of ISIL/Da’esh (the “Islamic State”), 17/03/2015, 6 p. <<<

Richard Barrett; Patrick Skinner; Robert McFadden; Lila Gosh. The Islamic State. TSG The Soufan Group (USA), 11/2014, 66 p.

An in-depth analysis of all the facets of this group: its main figures, military operations, day-to-day management.

Stephan Rosiny. „Des Kalifen neue Kleider“: Der Islamische Staat in Irak und Syrien = The Caliph’s New Clothes: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, GIGA Focus, 6, September 2014, 8 p.

The rise of Islamic State [interactive video], BBC. 11 August 2014.

Comprendre la montée en puissance de l’Etat islamique en cinq minutes, Le Monde. 27 June 2014.

Ian Black. The Islamic State: is it Isis, Isil – or possibly Daesh? The Guardian. 21/09/2014.

The naming of this organisation by others provoked a good deal of discussion. [In the EU, ‘ISIL/Da’esh’ is the term retained by the High Representative and the Council.]


The Sunni-Shia divide
The Islamic State: background information (CC BY 2.0)

Soon after the Prophet Muhammad’s death (632 AD), a conflict erupted over who should be his successor (‘caliph’ in Arabic). Although some of his companions were in favour of his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the majority decided to nominate Abou Bakr, who was not of Muhammad’s bloodline but was deemed more fit for the task. After years of successive battles, Ali was killed in 661 AD, and Hussein, his son and the grandson of Muhammad, was beheaded in 680 AD by the caliph’s supporters. Since then, Muslims are seen as divided between the Sunnis, who recognise the caliphs succeeding Muhammad as legitimate, and the Shiites, and Shi’a, the partisans of Ali, who believe the true leaders (‘imam’ in Arabic), should have been his descendants.

The Origins Of The Shiite-Sunni Split. NPR National Public Radio (USA), 2013.

CFR InfoGuide: The Sunni-Shia Divide. CFR Council on Foreign Relations (USA), 16 July 2014.

Antoine Sfeir. L’islam contre l’islam : l’interminable guerre des sunnites et des chiites, Grasset, 2013. Book (in FR) available in the EPRS library

François Reynaert. L’Orient mystérieux et autres fadaises : 2500 ans d’histoire autour de la Méditerranée. Fayard, 2013. Book (in FR) available in the EPRS library

The Sunni Shia divide. [map]. 5 May 2014.source: The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr.

The Sunni-Shia divide: Where they live, what they believe and how they view each other. Pew Research Center, 18/06/2014.

Sunnis make up 87-90% of Muslims, 10-13% are Shiites; the latter live predominantly in an area between southern Lebanon and Bahrain, commonly known as the ‘Shiite Crescent’. A third branch of Islam (the Kharadjites), produced the Ibadis, who are in the majority in Oman. In addition, there are also Muslims who identify themselves as ‘just Muslim’.

Brigitte Maréchal; Sami Zemni. The dynamics of Sunni-Shia relationships: doctrine, transnationalism, intellectuals and the media. Hurst, 2012 Book available in the EPRS Library.

Sunnis and Shiites live together in peace in many parts of the world, but their religious divergences also have long been an instrument of power conflicts.

Not all Salafis are jihadists

There is also great diversity within these two main groups: in particular, among the Sunnis, Salafis believe that the only way to be a ‘good Muslim’ is to adhere, in the strictest possible way, to the code of behaviour of Muhammad and his immediate successors. A fraction of them claims it is their duty to fight against those who believe anything else. These violent extremists are often referred to as ‘Salafi jihadists’ or ‘Jihadi Salafis’.

Mohammad Abu Rumman. I am a Salafi: A Study of the Actual and Imagined Identities of Salafis. Amman: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, September 2014, 265 p.

Erin Marie Saltman; Charlie Winter. Islamic State: The Changing Face of Modern Jihadism. Quilliam, 11/2014, 72 p.

“This report […] argues that, while we are certainly witnessing a break from ‘traditional’ terrorism as we have come to know it over the last few decades, we should not cast aside experiences from previous years completely. It is argued that IS has not eclipsed all other jihadist groups, it is just a new manifestation of the same idea: salafi-jihadism.”

The Islamic State and the Caliphate

Among Salafi jihadists, ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/Levant; ‘Da’esh’ is the Arab acronym used by those fighting against it) was originally a branch of Al-Qaeda, known as ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, founded in 2004 to resist the US invasion and the Shiite-led government it imposed. Political and theoretical differences led to a split after Osama Bin Laden’s death. On 29 June 2014, the group renamed itself ‘the Islamic State’ , to mark its will to restore a ‘Caliphate’, i.e. theocratic rule of a territory where all inhabitants should abide by ‘Sharia’ – the Islamic law. This act of self-declaration has not been recognised by Muslim authorities, or by the Muslim community, and is even rejected by other Salafi jihadists. More generally, support for ISIL/Da’esh in the Arab world is not high.

ISIL/Da’esh doctrine

ISIS’ Islamism is rooted in Saudi Wahhabi creed. Democracy Digest, 25 September 2014.

ISIL/Da’esh interpretation of Islam is very close to Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s official Salafi doctrine.

Shukur Khilkhal. IS emerges from radical Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Monitor, 12 August 2014.

Qasim Rashid. A Muslim’s Ramadan Message to ISIS: You Don’t Speak for Islam. Huffington Post, 23 July 2014.

Cole Bunzel. From Paper State to Caliphate: The ideology of the Islamic State. Brookings (USA), 03/2015, 48 p.

The author analysed a variety of speeches and statements to reveal the main ideological conceptions of ISIL/Da’esh. He argues that combating the legitimacy of this ideology would do better to reduce ISIL/Daesh’s influence, while on the contrary, the coalition strikes strenghten its claim that “Shia are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East”.


In the areas ISIL/Da’esh controls, in particular its ‘capital’ Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, it installs its own administration, by means of coercion and violence, but also by spending money and recruiting its own workforce for courts, police, and education, Some 6 million people live under ISIL/Da’esh rules.

Matthieu Rey. Aux origines de l’État islamique. La Vie des Idées, 17/03/2015, 11 p.

The author recounts ISIL/Da’esh origins back to the European colonial era and the Gulf wars. He then demonstrates that the ISIL/Da’esh means and methods are closer to those of a NGO than those of a sovereign state.

Who holds the real power in IS? Al-Monitor, 19/02/2015.

Most of ISIL/Da’esh decisions on the application of the Sharia, including “communication plan”, ideological training, and decision on the punishments and killings are taken by a powerful group of clerics, the Sharia Council.

Quinn Mecham. How much of a state is the Islamic State? The Washington Post. 5/02/2015.

An assessment of the State missions ISIL/Da’esh actually fulfills (or not).


There are suspicions that ISIL/Da’esh receives funding from some Gulf States, but it generates most of its income from the territories it occupies.

Financing of the Terrorist Organisation Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). FATF Financial Action Task Force, OECD, 02/2015, 48 p.

The intergovernmental body aimed at combating money laundering and terrorist financing describes in detail the sources and mechanisms used by ISIL/Da’esh to get funds and spend them.This includes:

  • ‘bank looting and extortion’,
  • ‘control of oil fields and refineries’
  • ‘robbery of economic assets’
  • ‘donors who abuse Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs)’
  • ‘Kidnapping for Ransom (KFR)’
  • ‘cash smuggling’
  • ‘extortion of goods and cash transiting territory where ISIL operates’
Some must-read articles:

Borzou Daragahi; Erika Solomon. Fuelling Isis Inc. Financial Times. 17/12/2014.
Isis oil revenues are estimated between $1m and $5m a day.

Islamic State makes millions from stolen antiquities. Al-Monitor, 2/09/2014. Translated from Radical (Turkey)

Russell Howard; Marc Elliott; Jonathan Prohov. Digging In and Trafficking Out: How the Destruction of Cultural Heritage Funds Terrorism. CTC Sentinel, Vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 14–18, 02/2015.

This article provides a synthesis of several studies describing the methods and routes of ISIL/Da’esh antiquities trafficking, and trying to assess wealth generated by this smuggling. It also recommends measures to counter it.

Islamic State reaps profits from organ trafficking. Al-Monitor, 5/12/2014.

EU ambassador to Iraq accuses European countries of purchasing oil from Islamic State. MEMO Middle East Monitor, 3 September 2014.

Countering ISIL/Da’esh financing

UN Security Council resolution S/RES/2199 (2015) [on ISIL funding]. 12/02/2015.

Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts: Statement made by the President of the Security Council. United Nations Security Council, S/PRST/2014/14, 28 July 2014.
The UNSC has warned of sanctions the countries who would not impede trade with IS.

Patrick B. Johnston. Countering ISIL’s Financing. Rand Corporation, 13/11/2014.

A testimony presented before the House Financial Services Committee (USA). Targeting donors is not the only solution to harm ISIL/Da’esh finances, as most of its resources are generated internally (though the share between external and internal funds could change at any time). Destroying ISIL/Da’esh sources of revenues (such as refineries) and limiting its access to financial markets must also be considered.

Human resources

Estimates of the number of ISIL/Da’esh fighters in Iraq and Syria vary from 9 000 to 200 000 (20 000-31 500 as of September 2014, according to the CIA) – among them children.

Hassan Hassan (Dalma Institute, Abu Dhabi). More Than ISIS, Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 June 2014.

ISIL/Da’esh enjoys some support in Iraq. The country’s former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is said by many observers to have pitted Sunni tribal leaders against the regime. Furthermore, some of Saddam Hussein’s former collaborators see ISIL/Da’esh as a route back onto the political and military scene.

Michael Knights. ISIL’s Political-Military Power in Iraq. CTC Combating Terrorism Center at Westpoint, CTC Sentinel, vol 7, issue 8, August 2014, 24 p.

Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck. Djihadisme : les femmes prennent les armes = Women and Jihad. Les Echos;Carnegie Middle East Center, 15 September 2014.

Female brigades is not a new phenomenon in Islamic insurgencies, the author explains.

Nimmi Gowrinathan. The Women of ISIS: Understanding and Combating Female Extremism. Foreign Affairs, 21 August 2014.

Cole Pinheiro. The Role of Child Soldiers in a Multigenerational Movement. CTC Sentinel, Vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 11–14, 02/2015.

Children’s enlistment in ISIL/Da’esh ranks is not only an easy and cheap way to expand its troops, but a long-term strategy to ensure that, beyond short term defeats, the struggle for an Islamic State will continue over generations, writes the author.

Recruitment methods, use of the social media

>>> See also our briefing: Foreign Fighters – Member States’ Responses and EU action, February 2015. <<<

On the topic, the most reliable source is probably King’s College ICSR (UK):
cf Mark Townsend. How a team of social media experts is able to keep track of the UK jihadis. The Guardian. 17/01/2015.

Scott Shane; Ben Hubbard. ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media. The New York Times. 30 August 2014.

ISIL/Da’esh also recruits its members among radicalised Muslims globally.To reach them, it has a very sophisticated ‘communication plan’, of which the appalling videos of violent executions are only a part. ISIL/Da’esh uses all available channels, from a paper magazine, Dabiq, to the full range of social media.

J. M. Berger; Jonathon Morgan. The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. Brookings (USA), Analysis Paper 20, 03/2015, 68 p.

A study about the owners and activity of 20,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIL/Da’esh. The authors also proposes a strategy to respond to ISIL/Da’esh online presence.


Thomas L. Friedman. How ISIS Drives Muslims From Islam. The New York Times. 6/12/2014.
IS brutality can trigger anti-Islamic law reactions among young Muslims.

Le changement de stratégie de l’EI sur Internet. Le, 27/11/2014.

The Islamic State has become more prudent in the use of social media, as some posts or SMSs have help locate its forces and appraise its forces .

Liz Sly. Islamic State appears to be fraying from within. The Washington Post. 8/03/2015.

Recent testimonies suggest that the bloodshed by ISIL/Daesh troops deterred new local recruitment, and that foreign recruits are reluctant to go into battle.

Military equipment

Islamic State Weapons in Iraq and Syria: Analysis of weapons and ammunition captured from Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Conflict Armament Research, September 2014, 18 p.

According to Conflict Armament Research-iTrace, an EU-funded project, most of the military equipment in ISIL/Da’esh possession was seized from the defeated Iraqi army in northern Iraq, or from the Free Syrian Army: ISIL/Da’esh holds ‘significant quantities of US-manufactured small arms’.

Jana Hybášková, a former MEP, now head of the EU delegation in Iraq also worried that arms aimed at helping the Kurdish troups (“Peshmerga”) fighting IS could have been diverted by the jihadists.

Turkey’s President Erdoğan affirmed that “some of the weapons” the US dropped to help the Kurdish forces fighting in Kobanî  “were seized by ISIL“.

Dina Esfandiary; Matthew Cottee. The very small Islamic State WMD threat. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15/10/2014.

According to these scientists, “It remains unlikely that the group will be able to acquire and effectively use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons”.

ISIL/Da’esh advance – Risks of regional spillover

The US Institute for the Study of War gives regular updates on ISIL/Da’esh military operations and positions in Iraq and Syria.

Conflits en Irak/Syrie : où en est-on des forces en présence ? IRIS, 10/03/2015.

An overview of Middle Eastern and North African countries’ positions is given by the series The Islamic State through the Regional Lens. ECFR European Council on Foreign Relations.

Syria’s and Iraq’s neighbouring countries are concerned by a possible spillover:

Turkey: Amberin Zaman. Kurdish victory in Kobani defeat for Turkish policy. Al-Monitor, 28/01/2015.

Lebanon: Lebanese groups affiliated with IS. Al-Monitor, 9/03/2015.

Israel: Michael Peck. Five Israeli Weapons of War ISIS Should Fear. The National Interest, 23/09/2014.

Jordan: Sultan Barakat; Rew Leber. Fortress Jordan: Putting the Money to Work. The Brookings Institution, 3/02/2015.

Kuwait: Rodger Shanahan. Kuwait steers careful sectarian course in fight against ISIS. The Interpreter (Australia), 11/11/2014.

Saudi Arabia:Richard LeBaron. What King Abdullah Gets Right and Wrong about Islamic Extremism. Atlantic Council, 8/12/2014.

Iran:Dina Esfandiary; Ariane Tabatabai. Iran’s ISIS policy. International Affairs – Chatham House, Vol. 91, no. 1, 16/12/2014.

There is also a risk of connection with the Islamic insurgencies in Africa and Asia:

Libya: Frederic Wehrey. Rising Out of Chaos: The Islamic State in Libya. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5/03/2015.

Egypt: Mostafa Hashem. Sinai Campaign a Boon to the Islamic State. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5/12/2014.

Morocco: Vish Sakthivel. Morocco Deepens Anti-IS Gulf Ties, but Neglects Returning Jihadi Threat. WPR World Politics Review, 13/11/2014.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Simon Allison. The Islamic State: Why Africa Should be Worried. ISS Institute for Security Studies (South Africa), Policy Brief, 68, 12 September 2014, 12 p.

Nigeria: Philippe Hugon. L’allégeance de Boko Haram à l’organisation de l’Etat islamique (Daech) : une transnationalisation du djihad ? IRIS, 9/03/2015.

Asia: Joseph Chinyong Liow. ISIS Goes to Asia. Foreign Affairs, 21 September 2014.

The international coalition

>>> See our briefing: The international coalition to counter ISIL/Da’esh (the “Islamic State”), 17/03/2015, 12 p. <<<

EU positions and actions

EP resolutions and initiatives on Iraq and Syria (8th term)

Council conclusions about ISIL/Da’esh

EEAS/ High Representative: statements on Da’esh

European Commission:
DG DEVCO: International cooperation with Iraq and Syria (DG DEVCO)
DG ECHO: Factsheets on the humanitarian aid to Iraq and for the Syria crisis (also in Turkey and Lebanon)

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