ISIS is a Salafi-jihadist group that has conducted and inspired terrorist attacks worldwide, resulting in thousands killed or injured. In 2004, an Iraqi extremist network led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi merged with al-Qa‘ida to form ISIS’s predecessor group, al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI), which Zarqawi led until his death in 2006. Now-deceased amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the group in 2010 and began to expand its operations into eastern Syria in 2011. In 2013, AQI changed its name to ISIS; and in 2014, the group separated from al-Qa‘ida, declared itself a caliphate, and took over vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
In 2019, an international coalition ejected ISIS from its last stronghold in Syria, although the group continues to operate clandestinely there and in Iraq. Despite losing many of its leaders and its territory, ISIS remains capable of conducting insurgent operations in Iraq and Syria while overseeing at least 19 branches and networks in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Some of ISIS’s most prominent branches and networks are detailed in separate entries on this site.
Based primarily in northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq
Approximately 8,000-16,000 in Iraq and Syria
TACTICS AND TARGETS
ISIS uses targeted killings, IED attacks, ambushes, military-style assaults, kidnappings, and suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria. The group also encourages adherents worldwide to conduct operations in their own countries using readily available weapons, and it has previously deployed operatives abroad to execute attacks. ISIS mostly attacks military targets and civilian defense forces in Iraq and Syria. The group also frequently targets government personnel and infrastructure, in addition to foreign aid workers and civilians who ISIS perceives are working against it or are opposed to its interpretation of Islamic law.
FOREIGN TERRORIST GROUP DESIGNATION
The US State Department designated AQI, ISIS’s predecessor, as a foreign terrorist organization in December 2004—a designation that remains in effect for ISIS. Several ISIS leaders have also been named Specially Designated Global Terrorists, including former leaders Hajji ‘Abdallah in 2020, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2011, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2003.