The Islamic State is a transnational Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group that has expanded its control over areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria since 2013, threatening the security of both countries. Its forerunner is Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I), which was formed by militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to combat the U.S. military presence in Iraq. In 2013, the group adopted the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) name as it expanded its operations into the Syria conflict. The group’s brutal tactics and clashes with other anti-Asad groups in Syria contributed to the February 3, 2014, Al Qaeda leadership statement disavowing any connection with ISIL. In June 2014 the group declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State.
The leader of the Islamic State is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri al Samarra’i, who operates under the name Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. He is also known as Abu Du’a. An Iraqi national who rose through the ranks of AQ-I, Baghdadi reportedly was detained by U.S. forces in Iraq from 2005 to 2009.
U.S. officials have noted that the Islamic State’s goal is to “establish an Islamic caliphate through armed conflict with governments it considers apostate—including Syria, Iraq, and the United States.”
Areas of Operation
The Islamic State operates in Syria’s northeast, controlling large areas of Raqqah, Hasakah, and Dayr az Zawr provinces. The group also has a presence in northern Aleppo province. Within Iraq, the primary area of IS strength is the overwhelmingly Sunni-inhabited Anbar Province, although the group also operate in Nineveh and Diyala provinces.
Attacks Against U.S. Interests
In September 2014, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stated that the Islamic State poses an “immediate and direct threat” to American personnel in Iraq. IS militants in August beheaded two American journalists captured in Syria. Olsen also stated that “we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the U.S.,”but he highlighted potential threats posed by foreign fighters with Western passports. According to Olsen, as many as 12,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria, including more than 1,000 Europeans, and more than 100 U.S. citizens.
Size, Financing, and Capabilities
The CIA estimates that the Islamic State can “muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria,” according to a reported statement by an agency spokesman. The Islamic State is thought to be largely self-financing, relying on oil sales and criminal and extortion networks. The group has seized a number of oil fields in Syria and Iraq, and members reportedly sell heavy and light crude oil from these fields to local merchants or traders who smuggle the oil across the border or in some cases sell it back to the Syrian government. In both Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State derives revenue by imposing taxes on local populations and demanding a percentage of the funds involved in humanitarian and commercial operations in areas under its control, including farms and local businesses. In addition, it has looted some bank branches, and demanded protection money from Christians and other minorities who wish to remain on land controlled by the Islamic State. The group also gains funds by collecting ransoms in exchange for releasing hostages, particularly from European countries. The Islamic State takes in as much as one million dollars per day from illicit oil sales, smuggling, and ransom payments, according to one senior intelligence official.
Relationship with Al Qaeda and AQ Affiliates
Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri severed ties with the group in February 2014. Since then, IS leaders have stated their view that their group “is not and has never been an offshoot of Al Qaeda” and that, given that they view themselves as a state and a sovereign political entity, they have given leaders of the Al Qaeda organization deference rather than pledges of obedience. Some media reports suggest possible competition between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda for prominence and support.
Source US Congress Research Service 2014