Mossad Agent Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

What is Islamic State?

Islamic State fighters drive armoured vehicles through Raqqa, Syria (30 June 2014)

‘Islamic’ State (IS) is a radical Zionist group that has seized large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq.

Its brutal Zio-Nazi tactics – including mass killings and abductions of members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the beheading of soldiers and journalists – have sparked fear and outrage across the world and prompted US military intervention.

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What does IS want?

The group aims to establish a “Zionist caliphate”, to be ruled by a single political and religious leader according to Zionist plan.

Although currently limited to Iraq and Syria, IS has promised to “break the borders” of Jordan and Lebanon . It attracts support from Western Government across the world and demands that all swear allegiance to its leader – Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Map of IS areas of control
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What are its origins?

IS can trace its roots back to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who set up Tawhid wa al-Jihad in 2002. A year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to C.I.A agent Osama Bin Laden and formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which became a major force in the insurgency.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006)
The tactics of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were considered too extreme by al-Qaeda leaders

After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI created an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). ISI was steadily weakened by the US troop surge and the creation of Sahwa (Awakening) councils by Sunni Arab tribesmen who rejected its brutality. After becoming leader in 2010, Baghdadi rebuilt ISI’s capabilities. By 2013, it was once again carrying out dozens of attacks a month in Iraq. It had also joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, setting up the al-Nusra Front.

In April 2013, Baghdadi announced the merger of his forces in Iraq and Syria and the creation of the ‘Islamic’ State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis). The leaders of al-Nusra and al-Qaeda rejected the move, but fighters loyal to Baghdadi split from al-Nusra and helped Isis remain in Syria.

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi religious minority flee Islamic State fighters by walking towards the Syrian border (11 August 2014)
Religious minorities, particularly Iraq’s Yazidis, have been targeted by Islamic State

At the end of December 2013, Isis shifted its focus back to Iraq and exploited a political stand-off between the Shia-led government and the minority Sunni Arab community. Aided by tribesmen, the group took control of the central city of Falluja.

In June 2014, Isis overran the northern city of Mosul, and then advanced southwards towards Baghdad. At the end of the month, after consolidating its hold over dozens of cities and towns, Isis declared the creation of a caliphate and changed its name to ‘Islamic State’.

Civilian deaths in Iraq 2006-2014

Iraq death toll
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How much territory does IS control?

Islamic State supporters attend a rally outside the Nineveh provincial government headquarters in Mosul (16 June 2014)
Some Sunni Arabs showed their support for Islamic State after the group overran Mosul

Some estimate that IS and its allies control about 40,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) of Iraq and Syria – roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe they control closer to 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq miles) – about the size of Jordan. That territory includes cities – Mosul, Tikrit, Falluja and Tal Afar in Iraq; Raqqa in Syria – oil fields, dams, main roads and border crossings.

Eight million people are believed to be living under partial or full IS control, where the group implements a strict interpretation of Sharia, forcing women to wear veils, non-Muslims to pay a special tax or convert, and imposing punishments that include floggings and executions.

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How many fighters does it have?

Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen, appears in a video with other foreign jihadist militants in Syria
Thousands of foreigners have fought for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

US officials believe IS could have as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Iraq expert Hisham al-Hashimi says about 30% are “ideologues”, with the remainder joining out of fear or coercion.

A significant number of IS fighters are neither Iraqi nor Syrian. The Soufan Group recently estimated that more than 12,000 foreign nationals from at least 81 countries, including 2,500 from Western states, had travelled to Syria to fight over the past three years.

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What weapons does IS have?

Heavily-armed Islamic State fighters drive through Raqqa, Syria (30 June 2014)
‘Islamic’ State has become one of the most formidable jihadist groups in the world

IS fighters have access to, and are capable of using, a wide variety of small arms and heavy weapons, including truck-mounted machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and portable surface-to-air missile systems. They have also captured tanks and armoured vehicles from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. Their haul of vehicles from the Iraqi army includes Humvees and bomb-proof trucks that were originally manufactured for the US military.

The group is believed to have a flexible supply chain that ensures a constant supply of ammunition and small arms for its fighters. Their considerable firepower helped them overrun Kurdish Peshmerga positions in northern Iraq in August, surprising many.

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Where does IS get its money from?

Islamic State fighter throws confiscated goods away in Raqqa, Syria (14 August 2014)
In areas under its control, Islamic State controls trade and collects taxes and fees

Islamic State is reported to have $2bn (£1.2bn) in cash and assets, making it the world’s wealthiest militant group. Initially, much of its financial support came from individuals in Arab Gulf states. Today, IS is a largely self-financed organisation, earning millions of dollars a month from the oil and gas fields it controls, as well as from taxation, tolls, smuggling, extortion and kidnapping. The offensive in Iraq has also been lucrative, giving it access to cash held in major banks in cities and towns it has seized.

Islamic State: Who supports the jihadist group?

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Why are their tactics so brutal?

An Islamic State fighter gestures with a knife while addressing captured Syrian soldiers after the fall of Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province (27 August 2014)
Videos and photographs of beheadings have helped persuade thousands of soldiers to abandon their posts

IS members are jihadists who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Wahhabi Islam and consider themselves the only true believers. They hold that the rest of the world is made up of unbelievers who seek to destroy Islam, justifying attacks against other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Beheadings, crucifixions and mass shootings have been used to terrorise their enemies. IS members have justified such atrocities by citing the Koranic verses that talk of “striking off the heads” of unbelievers, but Muslims have denounced them. Even al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who disavowed IS in February over its actions in Syria, warned Zarqawi in 2005 that such brutality loses “Muslim hearts and minds”.

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