Winter 2014 | ITIC
This study is originally published by The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. The study is an overall analysis of ISIS, also known as ISIL, Islamic State (or IS). The study is structured in nine sections, which if read in conjunction with each other, draws a complete picture of ISIS. You can also download the study in PDF format here.
This study examines the nature of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Islamic Salafist-jihadi terrorist organization founded a decade ago as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It established itself during the fighting against the United States in the Sunni regions of western Iraq and spread to eastern and northern Syria during the Syrian civil war. In the summer of 2014 ISIS scored dramatic achievements, among them the occupation of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the declaration of the “Islamic Caliphate,” headed by a charismatic Iraqi terrorist operative nicknamed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This study is an overall analysis of ISIS. It examines the historical background and reasons for its founding and increase in strength, its ideological attraction, its tactical and strategic objectives and its military, governance and financial capabilities. The main objective of this study is to understand what lies behind its successes and how it became a threat not only to Syria and Iraq but to the Middle East and the international community as well. The study also deals with the campaign the United States declared against ISIS, examines the results so far and weighs the chances of its success in the future.
The Roots of ISIS
ISIS began as a branch of Al-Qaeda, founded in Iraq in 2004 after the American invasion and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. It filled the security and governmental void created by the disintegration of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein’s regime, accompanied by the increasing alienation of the Sunni Muslims from the central, Shi’ite-affiliated government in Baghdad sponsored by the United States. The branch of Al-Qaeda gradually established itself in Iraq during the fighting against the United States and its allies, adopted the name the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and became a central force among the anti-American insurgents.
Towards the end of the American presence in Iraq the ISI was weakened (as were other insurgents), the result of America’s military successes combined with its wise policy of fostering the Sunni tribes in western Iraq (ISIS’s principal domain). However, the Americans did not continue the policy, and later policies carried out by Shi’ite Adnan al-Maliki and the American withdrawal from Iraq all contributed to strengthening the ISI. That gave it a convenient starting point for its operations when the Americans eventually withdrew from Iraq.
The civil war that broke out in March 2011 made Syria fertile ground for the spread of the ISI to Syria. In January 2012 the Al-Nusra Front (“support front”) was founded as the Syrian branch of the ISI. However, the two disagreed early on and the Al-Nusra Front split off from the Islamic State in Iraq, which then changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced its support for the Al-Nusra Front and its dissociation from the ISI. After the split ISIS gained military successes, leading it to declare the Islamic State (or the “Caliphate State”), while the rival Al-Nusra Front has weakened.
ISIS is an Islamic Salafist-jihadi organization. Salafism is an extremist Sunni political-religious movement within Islam that seeks to restore the golden era of the dawn of Islam (the time of the prophet Muhammad and the early Caliphs who followed him). That is to be done, according to Salafist jihadist ideology, by jihad (a holy war) against both internal and external enemies. Jihad, according to Salafist jihadism, is the personal duty of every Muslim. Al-Qaeda and the global jihad organizations (of which ISIS is one) sprang from Salafist jihadism.
According to the ISIS concept, Islam’s golden era will be restored through the establishment of a supranational Islamic Caliphate modeled after the regimes of the first Caliphs after the death of Muhammad. It will be ruled by Islamic religious law (the sharia), according to its most extreme interpretation. The Caliphate will arise on the ruins of the nation states established in the Middle East after the First World War. Some of them, including Syria and Iraq, where ISIS operates, are in the process of disintegrating in the wake of the upheaval in the Middle East, creating favorable conditions for the vision of an Islamic Caliphate.
The territory of the Caliphate State, whose establishment was declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, lies in eastern Syria and western Iraq. ISIS seeks to expand the Caliphate throughout Syria and Iraq and finally take control of them. After that, the states belonging to “greater Syria” will be annexed, that is, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and after them other countries in the Middle East and beyond. According to the ISIS vision as it appears on its maps, the future Islamic Caliphate will include vast stretches of North Africa, Asia and the Caucasus, and parts of Europe that were once under Muslim rule, such as Spain and the Balkans.
The Main Characteristics of ISIS
The main characteristics of ISIS are the following:
- Military capabilities: ISIS has an estimated 25,000 operatives in Syria and Iraq, and their number is growing. In ITIC assessment, as many as 12,000 are operatives from Syria and Iraq, and more than 13,000 are foreign fighters. Most of the foreign fighters come from the Arab-Muslim world. An estimated 3,000 come from Western countries (about half from France and Britain). They usually arrive in Syria via Turkey, are given short military training by ISIS and engage in fighting. For the most part they return to their countries of origin. During their stay in Syria they gain military capabilities and receive Salafist-jihadi indoctrination, and pose a security threat to their countries of origin and to a certain extent to Israel (as illustrated by the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, which was carried out by a French national who fought in the ranks of ISIS).
- Possession of weapons: ISIS has a large arsenal of weapons, most of them plundered from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. They include light arms, various types of rockets and mortars, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In addition ISIS possesses heavy arms and the advanced technologies usually found only in regular national armies: artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and drones. It has used mustard gas a number of times in Syria and Iraq and may have other types of chemical weapons, such as chlorine gas. Chemical weapons were used to attack the Kurdish militias in Ayn al-Arab (Qobanê) in northern Syria and against the Iraqi security forces. ISIS also has at least one Scud missile (technically flawed, in ITIC assessment) and a number of planes (operating from an ISIS-controlled airport).
- Areas of control: Today ISIS controls an estimated third of the territory of Iraq and between a quarter and a third of Syria, from the outskirts of Baghdad to the outskirts of Aleppo. The vast area, according to various estimates, is home to between five and six million people. Several important cities are in the ISIS-controlled region, among them Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq), Fallujah (symbol of the struggle against the United States) and Al-Raqqah (the ISIS “capital city” in northern Syria). It is noteworthy that a relatively small number of ISIS operatives control a broad swath of territory, which is one of ISIS’s weak points. To overcome it, ISIS relies on local supporters and allies, and is making an effort to enlist operatives from Syria, Iraq and abroad.
- Establishment of alternative administration networks: In the areas under its control ISIS instituted alternative administrations to replace those of Syria and Iraq which collapsed. They include educational, judicial, policing and law enforcement networks. ISIS uses them to provide vital services and at the same time to enforce its Salafist-jihadi ideology on the local population. To that end it uses brutal measures against its opponents and the minorities living under its control (including mass executions). Nevertheless, so far the local populations seem to have come to terms with ISIS control and sometimes even support it. They do so especially in view of its ability to provide basic services, restore daily life to the status quo ante, and fill the administrative void that was created.
- High financial capabilities: In Syria and Iraq ISIS took control of the state infrastructure, including most of the oil fields in eastern Syria and several oil fields in Iraq. The export of petroleum products is the main source of ISIS’s income and its profits are estimated at several million dollars a day. However, profits fell in the wake of the aerial attacks carried out by the United States and its allies on its oil infrastructure. Other sources of ISIS income are various types of criminal activity (extortion, collecting ransom for abductees, trading in antiquities), collecting donations and imposing local taxes. Thus it is an exceptional example of a terrorist organization which managed to acquire semi-national financial capabilities to fund its military infrastructure and allow it to establish an alternative governmental system.
Military Measures Taken by ISIS in Syria and Iraq (Updated to mid-November 2014)
In June 2014 ISIS began a military campaign in Iraq whose objective, in ITIC assessment, was to take over most of the territory of northern and western Iraq to launch an attack on Baghdad. At the same time it waged campaigns for the control of various districts in eastern and northern Syria and to weaken its rivals and enemies (the Syrian regime, the Al-Nusra Front, the Kurdish militias and the other rebel organizations). Its military achievements so far have enabled it to create a supranational territorial continuum of the vast area under its control, where it is actively working to establish the rule of its self-declared Islamic Caliphate.
To date ISIS’s military campaign in Iraq has had three stages:
- Dramatic success (June — August 2014): ISIS captured the oil city of Mosul from the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army, in whose establishment and training the United States invested enormous resources for years, collapsed and fled. An ISIS force also captured the Mosul Dam with its hydroelectric plant (north of the city on the Tigris), driving out the Kurdish Peshmerga force defending it. (An ISIS force also tried to capture the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates, the second largest dam in the country, but was met with resistance from the Iraqi army stationed there.) ISIS also took control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and a former stronghold of the Iraqi Ba’ath party.
- Containment and halt (second half of August – September 2014): During the second half of August and September 2014 (when the United States began its pinpointed aerial attacks) ISIS’s advance was halted. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias retook the Mosul Dam. The Iraqi army drove ISIS forces from the large Haditha Dam and the oil city of Baiji (an important logistic passage besieged by ISIS). ISIS enemies saved the lives of minority groups considered “infidels” by ISIS and targeted for harassment, attack and slaughter: Yazidi refugees were rescued from Mt. Sinjar (in northern Iraq) and the siege of the predominantly Shi’ite-Turkmen town of Amerli (south of Kirkuk) was lifted.
- Establishment of control over the Al-Anbar province, possibly a step in a campaign against Baghdad (end of September – mid-November 2014): ISIS forces cleared pockets of resistance in the Al-Anbar province (Iraq’s largest Sunni district) and advanced towards the capital city of Baghdad. At the same time, ISIS carried out a series of suicide bombing attacks in Baghdad, mainly in Shi’ite neighborhoods. The news agencies reported ISIS forces located several dozen miles from the city and fighting in the city of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. However, the Iraqi army, the Shi’ite militias and the Kurdish forces had several military achievements, the most prominent of which was relieving the siege of Baiji.
So far ISIS has not yet taken full control of the Sunni Al-Anbar province. In ITIC assessment, in the future ISIS is planning to take over Baghdad, but apparently the campaign will be far more difficult than the easy conquest of Mosul, because its operatives are liable to encounter fierce resistance from the Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi army, which will have Iranian support and aerial cover from the American-led coalition. It is also likely that ISIS’s rivals will cooperate against it. In can be expected that ISIS will attempt to overcome resistance by besieging Baghdad and disrupting life in the city (by firing rockets and mortar shells, and detonating IEDs and car bombs). During October and to mid-November 2014 hundreds of civilians were killed in Baghdad, most of them Shi’ite, in suicide bombings and car bomb attacks, for at least some of which ISIS was responsible.
While launching military campaigns, ISIS has firmly established its grip on extensive areas of eastern and northern Syria. It has expelled its rivals and enemies (among them other rebel organizations, the Al-Nusra Front and the Syrian army), and attempted to gain control of new key areas (as of this writing the campaign for the Kurdish region of Qobanê near the Turkish border has not yet ended). It established its control over Al-Raqqah, turning it into its “capital city” in Syria, and solidified its control over the local population. Its accomplishments are funded by the enormous sums of money pouring in from its control of the country’s infrastructure, especially the sale of petroleum products from the fields in eastern Syria (although its profits have decreased since the Americans and their allies began aerial attacks).
The Significance and Main Implications of ISIS’s Achievements in Syria and Iraq
The foothold gained by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has far-reaching local, regional and international significance and implications:
- Iraq: ISIS conquests in the summer of 2014 accelerated the disintegration of Iraq into religious and ethnic components. It can be said that Iraq no longer functions as a nation state. Three quasi-entities arose: a Sunni district controlled by ISIS in western and northern Iraq; an autonomous Kurdish region in the north and a Shi’ite region in the center and south affiliated with the Shi’ite regime in Baghdad. The borders between them are blurred and unstable, and ISIS, which is gaining strength, can be expected to continue its efforts to enlarge the areas under its control at the expense of the other entities, which are currently on the defensive.
- Syria: In Syria as well ISIS’s increase in strength contributed to deepening the country’s de facto division. ISIS secured its control over the northern and eastern parts of the country and weakened its various rivals (the Syrian regime, the Al-Nusra Front and the other rebel organizations). However, ISIS has not been able to break the Syrian regime’s hold on Damascus and other core areas in the north and west, or of the rebel organizations on the southern part of the country (including most of the area of the Golan Heights along the border with Israel). The strengthening of ISIS and the American-led campaign against it increased the existing complexity of the Syrian civil war and made the situation more volatile, making it more difficult to resolve the Syrian crisis in the foreseeable future.
- The establishment of the global jihad in the Middle East: ISIS’s successes in Syria and Iraq turned them into a new focus for the global jihad, inheriting the place of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As opposed to the era of Osama bin Laden, today there are two principal hostile, rival jihadi organizations: one, ISIS, affiliated with the global jihad but at odds with the Al-Qaeda leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri; and the other, the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Between the two are global jihad networks within the Middle East and beyond. Some of the jihadi networks in the Middle East, mainly the Egyptian-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, have already taken a stand and sworn allegiance to ISIS, which is gaining power against the Al-Qaeda leadership. In addition, in the future ISIS’s potential for subversion and terrorism is liable to destabilize countries in the Middle East and to export jihadi terrorism to Israel and the West.
- Regional Middle East significance: The foothold gained by ISIS and the global jihad in Syria and Iraq reflects and may aggravate the regional upheaval in the Middle East: the flashpoints include the tensions, schisms and hostility among the various ethnic, religious and tribal groups, especially between the Sunnis and Shi’ites; the political weakness of the nation states created and forced upon the region by the French and British after the First World War; the loss by the key states in the Middle East of their ability to govern; and the establishment of alternative ideologies and governance in the places where nation states collapsed. The establishment of the Salafist-jihadi organizations in Syria and Iraq are manifestations of the power of radical Islamic ideology to attract followers and present itself as a magical solution for the ongoing distress and basic ills that have plagued the nation states since their inception.
Thus additional instability and volatility were injected into the already unstable situation in the Middle East by the establishment of ISIS and the global jihad organizations’ power base in Syria and Iraq. They are liable not only to accelerate the disintegration of Syria and Iraq but to filter into the entire region. In the foreseeable future ISIS can be expected to continue its military occupation of Syria and Iraq, establish its control and oppose the campaign the United States is waging against it. However, in the long run, as it establishes itself more firmly in Syria and Iraq, its influence may gradually spread to other Arab states; its growing cooperation with the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is proof thereof. Veterans of the fighting in Syria who return to their countries of origin in the Middle East are liable to become “carriers” of terrorism and subversion, whether at ISIS instigation or on their own initiative, thereby contributing to political instability in their own countries (as has already happened in Darnah in eastern Libya, taken over by a jihadi network which expressed its support for ISIS).
The American Campaign against ISIS and the ISIS Response
ISIS’s dramatic successes in the summer of 2014 were a strong blow to American foreign policy in Iraq. America’s objective was to establish a democratic Iraqi regime that would fight terrorism and provide the country with a stable administration. That proved to be completely unrealistic. The Iraqi army, in whose establishment the United States invested enormous resources, was exposed as weak, as was the Shi’ite-affiliated central regime in Baghdad supported by America. Moreover, the Americans regarded the rapid establishment of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq as threatening the stability of Middle Eastern countries (among them Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Gulf States). In addition, there was a significant rise in the number of foreign fighters who fought in the ranks of ISIS and other jihadi organizations in Syria and Iraq and who might endanger the security of America and other Western countries when they returned to their countries of origin.
During the first three years of the Syrian civil war the United States did not attach great significance to ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, and tended to regard them as part of the general chaos created in Syria and Iraq after the regimes in both countries disintegrated. The change in American policy began in the summer of 2014 with the fall of Mosul, the declaration of the Islamic Caliphate and the significant increase in the number of foreign fighters. The media-documented slaughter and executions carried out by ISIS horrified and enraged American and Western public opinion and also contributed to the change in American policy.
The United States altered its policy from underestimating ISIS to demonizing it and representing it as a significant regional and international threat. The change in concept required an American response, which was given in two stages: the first (June — August 2014) consisted of “pinpointed” responses intended to support the local forces in Iraq in halting the momentum of ISIS attacks. The pinpointed responses mostly involved sporadic aerial attacks, the dispatch of a small number of advisors and providing besieged minorities with humanitarian aid. However, it quickly became clear that pinpointed responses were ineffective and did not provide a satisfactory answer to the challenges to American interests posed by the successes of ISIS.
For that reason, the second stage was formulated as a comprehensive strategy for a campaign against ISIS, as noted in a speech given by President Obama on September 10, 2014. The objective of the new strategy was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS in the following ways: massive aerial bombings in Syria and Iraq; reinforcing the local forces in Syria and Iraq (the Iraqi army, the Kurdish forces, the so-called moderate rebel organizations in Syria); damaging the sources of ISIS’s power (especially its financial resources); improving the United States’ and the international community’s deterrent capabilities against the foreign fighters and deepening international collaboration against them. President Obama and spokesmen for the American administration repeatedly stressed that the new strategy did not include sending a significant ground force to fight in Syria or Iraq, the so-called “boots on the ground.”
To implement the strategy, in a relatively short period of time the United States established an international coalition of Western and Arab countries. The Western allies (most importantly France and Britain) participated in the aerial attacks on Iraq while some of the Arab states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain) joined the aerial attacks on Syria. By the end of October 2014 the United States and its allies had carried out 632 aerial attacks against ISIS’s military and economic infrastructure in Syria and Iraq (286 in Syria and 346 in Iraq). The attacks have continued into November.
In ITIC assessment, the new American strategy suffers from a series of weaknesses, which are detailed in this study. The main among them are that its political objectives, both declared and undeclared, seem unrealistic; it is extremely difficult to destroy an organization with a Salafist-jihadi ideology such as ISIS; there are limits to what military force can achieve against jihad organizations in general and ISIS in particular; the local forces in Syria and Iraq that America is counting on are weak; and the coalition is heterogeneous, composed of countries with different interests and internal constraints that are liable to make it difficult for them to provide the United States with effective support.
Beyond the inherent weaknesses in the American strategy, societal and political situations in Syria and Iraq are complex and fluctuating. They cannot be fundamentally changed through military action, limited or even extensive. That is because ISIS and other Salafist-jihadi terrorist organizations arose from the chaos in security and the societal and political disintegration of Syria and Iraq, and because of the drastic changes caused by the regional upheaval. Iraq and Syria are a swamp in which ISIS and other jihadi organizations thrive. Rooting out ISIS will be impossible until the swamp has been drained, and that is currently not on the horizon.
However, ISIS has its own inherent weaknesses, which are examined in this study. If the United States learns to exploit them the campaign against ISIS may have positive results, although perhaps less far-reaching than expected by President Obama. The American-led military, economic and political campaign, if continued with determination, may eventually weaken (although not destroy) ISIS; its spread throughout Syria and Iraq may be halted (with the campaign of Baghdad still on the agenda); and the Iraqi army and local organizations/militias within Syria and Iraq hostile to ISIS can be strengthened. The campaign against ISIS may also improve the way the United States and its allies deal with the foreign fighters who return to their countries of origin.
As to ISIS’s responses to the American campaign, ISIS has publicly beheaded five abductees, three American and two British. On September 21, 2014, ISIS called on its supporters around the globe to use a variety of methods to kill civilians in the United States and its allied countries. It is possible that a number of terrorist attacks, including the vehicular and shooting attacks in Canada, the planned beheading of Australians and attacks in other countries were the first responses to the call.
The Israeli Aspect
The establishment of ISIS is part of the larger picture of the establishment of global jihad organizations in Syria and Iraq, such as the Al-Nusra Front. For Israel the situation holds several threats and dangers:
- The Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula might be turned into active terrorist fronts: As of today, the Golan Heights are controlled by rebel organizations, the most prominent of which is the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. While ISIS does not currently have a significant presence there, the dynamics can easily change the Golan Heights from a relatively quiet area into an active terrorist front where the Al-Nusra Front may be dominant. In the Sinai Peninsula ISIS-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (which has become the Sinai province of the Islamic State) is expected to launch terrorist attacks against Israel, although its strategic priority is its campaign against the Egypt regime.
- ISIS support for jihadi organizations and networks in the Middle East, especially the countries bordering on Israel: ISIS is a terrorist organization with semi-state capabilities: it has advanced weapons and technology captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies; it earns enormous amounts of money from oil fields and other resources; it has supporters in the Middle East and worldwide who help it enlist foreign fighters; it has an advanced media network which brands ISIS and the global jihad. To date those capabilities are mainly exploited for internal purposes (fighting enemies in Iraq and Syria). However, they may filter into jihadi organizations and networks in the Middle East, including countries and entities bordering on Israel, and strengthen the operational capabilities of local jihadi organizations.
- Terrorist attacks in Israel and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad: In the foreseeable future ISIS strategy will continue focusing on gaining a firmer foothold in Syria and Iraq. However, in view of the American aerial attacks and the competition between the jihadi organizations, ISIS may encourage or initiate attacks within Israel from inside the country or from its borders, or against Israeli and/or Jewish targets abroad. They may receive help and support from the veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq who returned to their countries of origin and/or from local operatives and networks that support ISIS.
- Cooperation between the United States-led coalition and Iran: Despite Iran’s basic hostility towards the United States, and despite Iran’s subversion of American interests in the Middle East, it might collaborate with the United States against ISIS and global jihad in Syria and Iraq, the common enemy. Such collaboration might occur at Israel’s expense and harm its vital interests (for example, Iran’s concessions on the nuclear issue). In addition, collaborating against ISIS might increase Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq, and might also strengthen Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon, possibly strengthening the Iranian-led radical camp in the Middle East.
There are potential dangers both to the West and to Israel in regional politics caused by the subversive potential of the increasing strength of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria and Iraq. The influence of a strong Al-Qaeda and global jihad in those countries might filter into the entire Arab world, including pro-Western countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which so far have shown themselves strong enough to survive the regional upheaval. It might also give more power to the global jihad organizations and networks in countries peripheral to the heart of the Middle East which have failed regimes (such as Libya and Yemen) or weak regimes (such as Tunisia).
ISIS (sometimes ISIL) is an acronym for The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. Once the Caliphate was declared ISIS began calling itself the “Islamic State (IS)” or the “Caliphate State.” However, this study refers to the organization as ISIS, the term usually used by the international community, the Arab and Western media, and even by “Islamic State” supporters.
In preparing this study the ITIC dealt with a number of challenges:
- Turning a large amount of information into a comprehensive picture: When ISIS became a regional and international threat, individual bits of information became a daily flood. One of the challenges in preparing this study was turning them into a comprehensive research whole that examined the various aspects of ISIS’s rise: its historical and causal background; its Islamic and Salafist-jihadi roots; its objectives; its military, political, administrative and financial capabilities; and the Iraqi, Syrian, Middle Eastern and international environments in which it operates.
- Frequent changes in the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria: During the past half year dramatic developments occurred in Iraq and Syria, with the regional upheaval in the background. In addition, ISIS is basically a dynamic organization, continually seeking to change the status quo both in the areas in which it operates against a large number of local enemies, and against the international campaign currently being waged against it. That forced the ITIC staff to update the study continually, understand the significance of tactical developments and examine and reexamine the situation on the ground. That situation is still in flux, so this study may be considered an interim report, which will have to be updated in the future.
- The need to integrate information from various disciplines and fields: ISIS cannot be analyzed and examined only as a terrorist organization operating within a local national framework. A study of ISIS necessitates integrating various fields of knowledge, among them the history of Islam (including the Sunni-Shi’ite schism); the Salafist-jihadi movement from which ISIS sprang; the changes in Al-Qaeda and the global jihad; the developments in the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the various aspects of the Middle Eastern upheaval. In preparing the study the ITIC used the existing literature and studies, and received support from experts in the various fields.
- Problematic sources of information: In preparing the study we used primary sources from ISIS and other jihadi organizations. ISIS frequently posts information on the Internet about itself and its activities, but it is self-glorifying propaganda meant to sully the reputations of its rivals, threaten its enemies and deflect accusations. There is also a vast amount of information posted by ISIS’s many rivals, which tend to defame the organization and sometimes manipulate the extent of its potential threat. In preparing this study we used investigative reports from correspondents (some of them Western) who had been allowed into areas under ISIS control. However the information to which they were exposed was sometimes directed and supervised by ISIS and intended to serve its political and propaganda objectives. Because of the awareness of the problem and because of the lack of trustworthy sources of information, all sources were treated carefully and critically.
Extremely valuable sources of information used in preparing this study were the continuing reports and basic research work published by experts and think tanks working in various disciplines and following ISIS and the developments in Syria and Iraq (primarily in the United States, Britain and Israel). Other important sources were reports from news agencies and the global media following ISIS and the developments in Syria and Iraq. We also used open source reports issued by intelligence services and governmental agencies in the Western and Arab countries struggling against ISIS (although such reports may have certain biases). For background information previous ITIC studies and bulletins were useful regarding the establishment of organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria (For a list of bulletins see the Appendix).
This study contains the following sections:
- The roots of ISIS
- ISIS ideology
- Main characteristics
- Military measures taken by ISIS in Syria and Iraq (updated to mid-November 2014)
- The significance and main implications of ISIS’s achievements in Syria and Iraq
- The American campaign against ISIS and the ISIS response
- The Israeli aspect
Section One: The historical roots and stages in the development of ISIS
- Historical background
- Establishment of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the beginning of the campaign against the United States and its allies
- The establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and expanding the campaign against the United States and its allies
- Rebuilding the force of the Islamic State in Iraq and the increase in its activities after the withdrawal of the American army
- Dispatching suicide bombers: the operational trademark of the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq (in its various forms)
- The expansion of ISI into Syrian territory, the establishment of ISIS and its growing strength
Section Two: ISIS’s ideology and vision, and their implementation
- ISIS as an Islamic Salafist-jihadi organization
- The borders of the Islamic Caliphate established by ISIS: vision and reality
- The Caliphate in Islamic history
- Annulling the existence of the nation states in the Middle East
- The roots of ISIS’s hostility to the United States, the West and Western values
- The concept of takfir (denouncing a person as an infidel thereby enabling his execution) and its implications
- Beginning the implementation of the vision: declaring the Islamic Caliphate
- Al-Baghdadi’s calls for jihad and his vision of the Islamic takeover of the world
- Al-Baghdadi’s public appearance at the Great Mosque in Mosul
- Initial responses to the declaration of the Islamic Caliphate
- ISIS flag and its Islamic significance
- The Islamic roots of ISIS’s desecration of gravesites and shattering of statues
Section Three: ISIS’s military achievements in Iraq in the summer of 2014 and the establishment of its governmental systems
- Attacks in northern Iraq: successes (June — August)
- Containment and halting (second half of August — September)
- Renewal of attacks: possible preparations for campaign against Baghdad (end of September — October)
- The executions of prisoners and killing of ethnic and religious minorities
- The establishment of a governmental system in Mosul
- The establishment of an educational system in Iraq
- The establishment of a judicial and enforcement systems in Iraq
- Symbols of rule: issuing passports and the intention to mint coins
- Enlisting new operatives into the ranks of ISIS
Section Four: ISIS establishes itself in eastern and northern Syria
- Al-Raqqah: ISIS’s “capital city” in Syria
- ISIS takeover of the Al-Tabqa military airport
- The campaign for Ayn al-Arab (Qobanê) and its implications
- ISIS’s efforts to gain a foothold in the rural areas around Aleppo and the border crossings
- Enlisting new operatives into the ranks of ISIS
- Omar the Chechen, a prominent figure in the ranks of ISIS in northern and eastern Syria
- Establishing enforcement networks in northern and eastern Syria
- Attacks and harassment of Christians and other minorities
- ISIS’s educational system
- ISIS’s judicial system
Section Five: ISIS’s capabilities: the number of its operatives, control system, military strength, leadership, allies and financial capabilities
- Estimate of current number of ISIS operatives
- The top institutions of the Islamic State
- The administrative division
- ISIS weapons and their sources
- The use of chemical weapons
- The leadership
- Sunni allies
- Economic capabilities
Section Six: Exporting terrorism and subversion to the West and the Arab world
- The situation on the ground
- Historical background: exporting terrorism from Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his heirs
- Foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS
- Illustration of the threats posed by foreign fighters: the terrorist attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels as a case study
- ISIS activity in Lebanon
- The cooperation between ISIS and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt
- Support and solidarity with ISIS in other Arab states and entities
- Support and solidarity with ISIS in Asian states
- Dozens of Israeli Arabs who joined ISIS and manifestations of support among Israeli arabs
Section Seven: ISIS’s propaganda machine
- ISIS media
- ISIS online magazines and websites
- Forums and websites
- The West and Muslim communities in the West as important target audiences
- The campaign for the support of Muslims around the globe (2014): “A billion Muslims support the Islamic State”
Section Eight: The American campaign against ISIS
- The United States’ underestimation of ISIS
- The change in the perception of the threat posed by ISIS and formulating an American response
- The limited American response (June — mid-September 2014)
- Formulating a comprehensive strategy for a campaign against ISIS (beginning with the speech given by Barack Obama on September 10, 2014)
- Establishing the international coalition
- Limitations raised by the UN regarding the legitimacy of the campaign
- Aerial attacks in Syria and Iraq within the new strategy
- The Khorasan terrorist network: another target for American attacks
- Initial assessment of the aerial attacks’ impact
- The American campaign ISIS: implications and chances of success
- Evaluation of ISIS’s weaknesses
Section Nine: ISIS response to the American campaign (update to mid-November 2014)
- Overview of ISIS’s approach towards the United States and the West
- Psychological warfare (June 2014)
- Abduction of Western hostages
- Exploiting abducted correspondents for propaganda: John Cantlie
- Carrying out threats: beheading four abducted Western nationals
- ISIS call to kill Westerners and the initial response (the situation on the ground updated to the end of October 2014)
 Links to all the nine sections:
You can read section 1 — “The historical roots and stages in the development of ISIS” — here.
You can read section 2 — “ISIS’s ideology and vision, and their implementation” — here.
You can read section 3 — “ISIS’s military achievements in Iraq in the summer of 2014 and the establishment of its governmental systems” — here.
You can read section 4 — “ISIS establishes itself in eastern and northern Syria” — here.
You can read section 5 — “ISIS’s capabilities: the number of its operatives, control system, military strength, leadership, allies and financial capabilities” — here.
You can read section 6 — “Exporting terrorism and subversion to the West and the Arab world” — here.
You can read section 7 — “ISIS’s propaganda machine” — here.
You can read section 8 — “The American campaign against ISIS” — here.
You can read section 9 — “ISIS response to the American campaign (update to mid-November 2014)” — here.
Studies and bulletins issued by the ITIC about the establishment of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria and Iraq (September 2013 — July 2014)
- Expressions of support in the Gaza Strip for the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), which is affiliated with the global jihad (July 16, 2014)
- American Citizen of Jordanian/Palestinian Extraction Exposed as a Suicide Bomber in the Ranks of the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda Branch in Syria (June 11, 2014)
- The terrorist suspected of carrying out the shooting attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels has been identified as a French Muslim jihadist. (June 10, 2014)
- The Deputy Commander of the Army of Immigrants and Supporters Called on Muslims in Ukraine and Crimea to Wage Jihad against Russia (May 22, 2014)
- The Phenomenon of Foreign Fighters from the Arab World in the Syrian Civil War (May 13, 2014)
- Involvement of Operatives Who Returned from Syria in the Terrorist Campaign against the Egyptian Regime (May 5, 2014)
- Foreign fighters from various countries and regions in Asia, fighting against the Syrian regime, most of them in organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad (April 15, 2014)
- Sheikh Sami al-Uraydi: Portrait of a Jordanian cleric who serves as a senior religious authority for the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch (February 24, 2014)
- The Al-Nusra Front recently carried out a suicide bombing attack in Aleppo, using a British foreign fighter. (February 19, 2014)
- Al-Qaeda’s Repudiation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria — Overview and Implications (February 17, 2014)
- Using suicide bombers as weapons: The leading modus operandi in the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria’s struggle against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon (February 11, 2014)
- Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria (February 3, 2014)
- Israeli Arabs and Palestinians Join the Ranks of the Rebels in Syria, Mainly Organizations Affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad (January 19, 2014)
- Israeli Arabs and Palestinians Join the Ranks of the Rebels in Syria, Mainly Organizations Affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad (January 5, 2014)
- Foreign Fighters in Syria (January 1, 2014)
- The rebels in Syria include a few dozen operatives from the Salafist-jihadi organizations in the Gaza Strip. (December 8, 2013)
- Operatives from the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, together with other rebel organizations, have taken over the large oil field in Deir ez-Zor (December 3, 2013)
- Mass-casualty double suicide bombing attack carried out at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. (November 27, 2014)
- The Al-Nusra Front played a major role in the rebel takeover of a large Syrian army arsenal southeast of Homs. (November 14, 2013)
- Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qaeda, urges jihadist forces fighting the Assad regime in Syria to unite in a common struggle to establish an Islamic Caliphate. (October 16, 2013)
- The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is an Al-Qaeda Salafist-jihadi network, prominent in the rebel organizations in Syria. It seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic Caliphate in Greater Syria, a center for regional and international terrorism and subversion. (September 17, 2013).
 According to a CIA report issued publicly, there are between 25,000 and 31,500 ISIS operatives. In the estimation of a Centcom commander, ISIS has between 9,000 and 17,000 operatives.
 British correspondent John Cantlie, who was abducted by ISIS, claimed in an ISIS propaganda video issued in October 2014 that eight million people lived in regions controlled by the organization. The number seems exaggerated.
 A senior IDF officer serving on the Golan Heights told correspondents that the with the exception of Mt. Hermon, 95% of the border between Israel and Syria was controlled by various rebel groups. The dominant group is the Al-Nusra Front, which conquered the region of Quneitra two months ago (Haaretz.co.il, September 22, 2014).
 In Arabic Al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi al-‘Iraq wal-Sham. The English translation of “Al-Sham” is “greater Syria” and therefore we prefer it to “the Levant.”