It goes by several names: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; its preferred name, the Islamic State, reflects the goal to build a religious state — a caliphate — that sweeps across the border of Iraq and Syria. Untold numbers of refugees have fled their brutal march under the threat of death. Many others have been massacred by the hundreds.
ISIS began in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Sunni Muslim group was called al-Qaida in Iraq and was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a high school dropout from Jordan. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. After his death and major defeats at the hands of Iraqi tribal fighters and American troops, the group was virtually extinct. Then in 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria, eventually leading to a civil war. The group began to operate there in 2013, calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former Iraqi teacher. Syrian rebel groups initially welcomed ISIS as an ally but soon realized they had different goals. ISIS was more interested in forming an Islamic state than in toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad. Its goal is to create a new religious state — a caliphate — that blurs the border between Syria and Iraq. Baghdadi has declared himself the caliph: the leader of the Muslim world.
SCOPE AND SIZE
ISIS holds about a third of Iraq and Syria, including several strategically important cities, such as Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. It rules over a population of several million people. It also controls many of the roads linking the communities it has conquered, although much of the territory in between is sparsely populated desert. It spreads into most of the Sunni-dominated areas of northern and western Iraq, right up to the edges of Baghdad. That terrain includes the oil fields of Syria's eastern Deir el-Zour province.
ASSETS AND RESOURCES
The group controls virtually all major oil fields of eastern Syria, including the Omar oil field, Syria's largest, with a capacity to produce 75,000 barrels a day. Their assets are believed to total $1.5 billion. They support many operations through a combination of border tolls, extortion and sale of grain.
Estimates of its ranks range from 5,000 to 30,000. They have been engaged in a war of attrition with Western-backed rebels in Syria, overwhelming their outposts and picking off towns and villages one by one through force and intimidation. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting, which has detracted from the rebellion's main goal of toppling Assad. In Syria, they seized a series of military bases, including the Tabqa airfield in Raqqa province. Following its blitz in Iraq, the group has moved tanks, cannons, Humvees and surface-to-surface missiles into Syria, parading the hardware recently in Raqqa. Most of the group's leaders are believed to be in Syria, including Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen and one of its most prominent military figures.
LIFE UNDER ISIS
Raqqa, Syria, was once a diverse, thriving commercial center. Today it is patrolled 24 hours a day by vice squads known as the Hisba — armed fighters in long robes who make sure their strict interpretation of Islam is observed. The militants have banned music and smoking, and have forced women to cover up. They have carried out beheadings in the main square for violators of sharia, or Islamic law. People who were killed have had their bodies hung from crosses. The group recently imposed a curriculum in Raqqa schools, scrapping subjects such as philosophy and chemistry. In the past two years, the group has become entrenched in parts of Syria, establishing a governing system that includes administrative offices, Islamic courts and traffic police.
WHAT DANGER DOES ISIS POSE?
The world has seen the risk of allowing a state sympathetic to Islamic extremists exist before. Al-Qaida was able to plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in part because it had a safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. ISIS is a far superior threat today than al-Qaida was in 2001. It is richer, operates a modern media arm and holds much more territory than al-Qaida ever did. "With the Islamic State we are seeing a highly centralized command and governing structure, which will require a new counterterrorism strategy in the region," said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
CAN ISIS EXPORT TERRORISM TO THE WEST?
Western officials are concerned about the threat posed by ISIS sympathizers. They point to the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who authorities say fought alongside ISIS militants before he shot four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May. Analysts believes the group is foremost a regional threat but acknowledge that "lone wolf" attackers inspired by the group's ideology do threaten the West.
Sources: Associated Press, New York Times, Brookings Institution and Washington Post