The Rise of ISIL: Part I

British PM David Cameron recently described ISIL as a ‘desperate’ organisation ‘that’s losing territory’ and ‘losing ground.’ Let’s take a look at this organisation and where it all began…


Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also referred to as Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or by the Arabic acronym Daesh, has rapidly established a pseudo-caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria since potently emerging in early 2014. ISIL has exploited regional instability and sectarian tensions to transform itself from an Al-Qaeda affiliate to a semi-political state controlling swathes of territory. At the peak of its territorial expansion ISIL ruled over a population of approximately 10 million Iraqis and Syrians.

ISIL adheres to a hybrid blend of Wahhabi/Salafi jihadism; an extremist Islamic ideology propagated by Sunni groups including al-Qaeda and also state-sanctioned Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia. The group, for most of its history, was a subordinate of Al-Qaeda. However, since ISIL terminated its relationship with Al-Qaeda in early 2014, and through its initial military successes and high international profile, the group has managed to transform itself into the largest terrorist organisation operating in the Middle East, in the process marginalising Al-Qaeda.

ISIL, denounced by the United Nations and Amnesty International for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been able to effectively recruit radicalized Sunni men from all over the world. ISIL’s ability to attract adherents from disparate regions and different nationalities, combined with its ability to attract the allegiance of militant groups formerly associated with Al-Qaeda has facilitated its rapid expansion.


The Birth of ISIL

Originally formed in 1999 by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Salafi jihadi, under the name Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad (JTJ), the group operated independently in Iraq until officially aligning itself with Al-Qaeda in October 2004. The group then became informally known as Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (AIQ) and staged suicide attacks on Shia mosques and civilians, Iraqi government buildings, and American and foreign diplomats and soldiers in the years after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Al-Zarqawi, in conjunction with al-Qaeda’s plan for continuing the war in Iraq and exploiting the post-invasion regional instability, attempted to expel US forces from Iraq and to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region. Al-Qaeda’s mission was to utilise sectarian conflict in Iraq, largely stoked by its own operatives and groups, in order to spread the turmoil into surrounding countries.

The group was eventually merged with several similar Sunni insurgent groups operating in the region. This merging process resulted in a loose-knitted organisation called the Mujahedeen Shura Council (MSC). The death of the group’s founder, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, in a US airstrike on June 7, 2006 led to the appointment of Egyptian insurgent Abu Ayyub al-Masri as leader. Shortly afterwards the group again merged with similar Sunni insurgent groups, and six Iraqi Sunni tribes, and announced on October 13, 2006 the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL). This political entity, more of a militant insurgency as opposed to a consolidated and functioning state, was comprised of the six Sunni Arab dominant governorates in Iraq. Abu Omar al-Baghadi was declared its emir, whilst Abu Ayyub al-Masri functioned as its Minister of War.


ISIL and the 2007 Troop Surge

The group, newly calling itself ISIL, intended to systematically seize control over central and western Iraq and transform the region into a Sunni caliphate. Early in 2007, the group continued to grow, as its mission effectively resonated with disaffected Sunni tribesmen, and at its peak controlled parts of the governorates of Al Anbar, Baghdad and Diyala in Iraq. The group effectively stoked sectarian tensions in the region, and exploited the political vacuum created by the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Iraqis that had terrorised the region since Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime was toppled in 2003.

The fragility and fragmented nature of ISIL allowed American forces to temporarily placate the group in the American troop surge of 2007. The troop surge, implemented by US President George W. Bush, managed to quell ISIL forces and other Sunni and Shia militant groups, and to also restore a semblance of order to the country.

The US troop surge, improved cooperation between US and Iraqi government forces, and a backlash against ISIL and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups by Sunni Iraqis and Shia militant groups led to a temporary decline in the group’s fortunes. The death of ISIL’s two key leaders and military strategists, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghadi, in a coordinated US-Iraqi raid near the city of Tikrit on April 18, 2010, further hampered the group’s operations. The troop surge effectively cut off Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, including ISIL in Iraq, from the parent body’s leadership in Pakistan. By June 2010, 34 of the 42 key leaders and financiers of ISIL had been killed or captured.

However, the placation of the group by US-Iraqi operations, and the stabilisation of the post-Hussein Iraqi government, only temporarily hampered the operations of ISIL and other Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq.


A Change of Tactics

The re-emergence of ISIL in the region began with the appointment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq on May 16, 2010. Al-Baghdadi immediately changed the group’s recruitment strategy, from its initial focus on recruiting foreigners to its leadership, to luring into the ISIL’s former Baathist military and intelligence officers who had served during Saddam Hussein’s tenure. Many of these men had served time in US prisons and were alienated by the anti-Baathist policies of the US forces and the Shia-dominant new Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki.

ISIL forces were bolstered by the military expertise and training of former intelligence and military personnel from the Hussein regime, which consequently facilitated the transformation of the group from a fragmented insurgency to a powerful political and militant force. ISIL in conjunction with other Al-Qaeda affiliated militant groups increasingly returned to the regional strongholds they had held prior to the 2007 troop surge. In 2012 and 2013, ISIL continued to increase its violence against Iraqi civilian and government targets, as the number of car bomb attacks continued to rise to levels not seen since 2008.


The Secession of ISIL from Al-Qaeda

The rising prominence of ISIL led to conflict with Al-Qaeda leadership. In 2011, Al-Baghdadi had sent trained Syrian and Iraqi ISIL militants into Syria to establish a foothold in the region and to exploit the political chaos gripping the country as it fell into a Civil War. The militants formed a group called Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliate designed to fight both Assad government forces and secular militant groups.

A rupture was instigated between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL when the latter, under the hegemony of al-Baghadi, attempted to merge the two entities into a unified organisation titled the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.’ Resistance by Jabhat al-Nusra leaders, who preferred subordination to Al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, led to a permanent rupture between the two groups. Al-Qaeda and ISIL both fought for control of the affiliate in an attempt to shore up their own strategic interests.

The tussle for power between ISIL and its parent-body Al-Qaeda continued to unfold throughout 2013 as al-Zawahiri banned the merger despite al-Baghdadi’s persistent efforts to wrest back control of Jabhat al-Nusra from Al-Qaeda leadership. Al-Zawahiri’s call for the disbandment of ISIL and the termination of its operations in Syria were ignored by al-Baghdadi and his forces.

The strife culminated in Al-Qaeda disavowing its relationship with ISIL causing the groups to divide permanently. Despite al-Baghdadi’s loss of control over Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL continued to have a strong military presence in both western Iraq and Syria. The newly-independent ISIL group continued to expand into Syria as it wrested control of territory from the US-supported Free Syrian Army and other Sunni militant groups. A surge of foreign fighters joining ISIL in early 2014, which contributed to the sudden territorial expansion of the Islamist group despite opposition by Al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

The transformation of ISIL from an Al-Qaeda affiliate to an independent militant group, and eventually to a semi-state, was cemented by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate on June 29, 2014. Al-Baghdadi assumed the title of Caliph Ibrahim and consequently claimed both religious and political hegemony over all Muslims throughout the world.


To see the progression of ISIL occupied territory, you can access an interactive map here.



I am a freelance writer, and a graduate of Sydney University and Oxford University, where I specialised in Semitic languages and literature. My writing focuses chiefly on religious/ethnic tensions and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. I enjoy constructive debates so please feel free to comment on my contributions!

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