What Is the Islamic State?

jihadist group emerged during iraq war

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

What is the Islamic State and how did it form? This once powerful extremist organization emerged from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in the early 2000s. And what is the Islamic State known for?

Silhouettes of Islamic State soldiers holding assault rifles
During the Iraq War, the extremist organization of the Islamic State, formally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), came into power. Photo by Prazis Images / Shutterstock

Just nine months after rising to power, the head of the Islamic State has died and been replaced with an unidentified successor. Where did the Islamic State come from? During the Iraq War, this extremist organization, formally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, came into power. Also translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadists dominated headlines about the Middle East in the 2010s.

ISIS’s history was marked by a quick rise and a slow but steady fall. In his video series War in the Modern World, Dr. David R. Stone, Professor of Russian Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, charts the evolution of the group.

Who Formed the Islamic State?

Osama bin Laden founded Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization linked to the September 11 attack on the United States. Bin Laden, a Sunni Muslim, saw cooperation between Islam’s two sects—Sunni and Shia—as essential to Al-Qaeda’s success. However, not all of Al-Qaeda agreed with him.

“In particular, there was a young radical activist named Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born Sunni with an extensive history as a criminal and petty thug,” Dr. Stone said. “He became radicalized in prison, and led a small Islamist organization in Iraq during the Iraq War. Zarqawi bears a high degree of responsibility for turning Iraq into a hotbed of violence.”

In 2004, after turning the Sunnis and Shias against one another as best he could, Zarqawi officially aligned himself with Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda shortly before igniting a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed by U.S. bombing in 2006, but his organization and their civil war had already gained momentum. Sickened by Zarqawi’s methods, some Iraqi forces began allying with U.S. forces to quell the violence.

How Did the Islamic State Spread?

“Recall that the now deceased Zarqawi and his group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, were dedicated to radical Islam, in part through the suppression and murder of Shia Muslims,” Dr. Stone said. “After Zarqawi’s death, the organization went through a variety of changes but retained its commitment to violence. It became known as the Islamic State of Iraq […] and in 2013 rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.”

Syria collapsed into its own civil war in 2011, and ISIS took advantage of the chaos to emerge as a territorial power in Syria. The Sunni-inspired group drew loyalty from Sunni Iraqis who preferred living under their rule to living under Shia rule, while the Iraqi army had failed to prove itself as modern warfare combatants.

“Put all that together, and ISIS managed to conquer a third of Iraq’s territory, even with little in the way of heavy weapons, and only relatively small military forces,” Dr. Stone said. “While ISIS had seemed to come out of nowhere, it was, in fact, the culmination of developments stretching back for years—the ongoing Sunni-Shia tension.”

At its peak, ISIS counted tens of thousands of fighters in its ranks and ruled a territory the size of Britain. Today, it controls virtually no territory and has been reduced to a low-level insurgency.

War in the Modern World is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily