Radical Islamist political and terrorist group. It adheres to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and seeks, through jihad (holy war), to establish an Islamic state ruled by a caliph (a religious leader) and the strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). Originating in 2004 as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), IS became so brutal that even al-Qaeda disowned it in 2014. Particularly barbarous were its beheadings of Western hostages, which it broadcast on the Internet, and its massacres and forced conversions of Christians and Yazidis in northern Iraq.
On 29 June 2014, IS declared a caliphate in the area it controlled in northern Iraq and Syria, covering 60,000 sq km and with 8 million people. IS aims to create an even larger state, ‘break the borders’ of Jordan and Lebanon, and ‘free Palestine’. In August 2014, the USA responded by launching airstrikes against IS targets. However, by autumn 2014 IS was well entrenched; it had 30,000 fighters, including 8,000 foreigners from Chechnya and Europe, and was the world's best funded militant group, with $2 billion in cash and assets. It was believed to receive financial support from individuals in some Arab Gulf states and had become self-financing through the cash and bullion it looted from banks in conquered towns and from gas and oilfield revenues.
IS traced its roots to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006), a Jordanian militant Islamist, who, a year after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, set up AQI and pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. AQI took part in the insurgency against Iraq's US-backed and predominantly Shia regime. Al-Zarqawi was killed by US forces in 2006. AQI merged with other Sunni Islam insurgent groups to form Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but was severely weakened in 2007–08 by the US troop surge and opposition from Sunni tribesmen (the Sahwa, ‘awakening’). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of ISI in 2010 and rebuilt its military capability. He took full advantage of the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011 to establish a stronghold around Raqqa in northern Syria, controlling oilfields and agricultural land.
In April 2013, al-Baghdadi merged his forces in Iraq and Syria to create the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, or ISIL). In December 2013, this took the Sunni-dominated city of Falluja in Anbar province in western Iraq. In June 2014, ISIS forces surged into northern Iraq's Sunni heartland, capturing Mosul and Tikrit cities, the oil hub of Kirkuk, and proclaiming al-Baghdadi caliph. The retreating Iraqi army left behind modern weapons, including tanks, high mobility vehicles (Humvees) and anti-tank missiles, which ISIS used in further military campaigns in northeast Iraq and northwest Syria.
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