State of Jihad: The Reality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

May 21, 2014

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Out of the crucible of the Syrian civil war and the discontent in Iraq’s Sunni regions, something new is emerging.  The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is no longer a state in name only.* It is a physical, if extra-legal, reality on the ground.  Unacknowledged by the world community, ISIS has carved a de facto state in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq.  Stretching in a long ellipse roughly from al-Raqqah in Syria to Fallujah in Iraq (with many other non-contiguous “islands” of control in both Iraq and Syria), this former Al Qaeda affiliate holds territory, provides limited services, dispenses a form of justice (loosely defined), most definitely has an army, and flies its own flag.  The United States has reacted to this reality indecisively, with policy split in half by the official, if no longer functional, internationally recognized border between Syria and Iraq.  But the reality of a de facto jihadist state is not a state of affairs that can be long tolerated.

This is an interesting evolution for ISIS.  ISIS is, of course, the linear descendant of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was formed in the immediate aftermath of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death and is now led by Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi.  In 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq published a veritable “Federalist Papers,” titled “Informing the People about the Islamic State of Iraq.”  In this document, the author, Uthman Bin Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, claims that the state existed despite having no contiguous territory, despite providing minimal services (“Improving their [the people’s] conditions is less important than the condition of their religion”), and despite not having a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force—the traditional sine qua non of a state.

Al-Tamimi claimed that instead the Islamic State of Iraq was based around pseudo-feudal alliances, “pure” ideological goals, and judicial proceedings.  This was a controversial position, even and especially within the jihadi movement.  Foreshadowing the conflict between ISIS and Al Qaeda today, the jihadi community was deeply divided over the legitimacy and wisdom of declaring a state, not least because of confusion over whether a “state” would be accountable to Al Qaeda’s central leaders or vice versa.  Drawing mostly on the Prophet Muhammad’s experience in Medina, al-Tamimi argued—primarily to a jihadi audience—that despite the jihadi state’s tangible weaknesses, it was legitimate.

The ISI was a significant entity for jihadis starting in 2006. But from a Western perspective, while al-Tamimi’s arguments were interesting, they were not particularly meaningful.  It was never taken seriously other than as the nominal political wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Despite its internal philosophical justification, the Islamic State never held significant amounts of territory, and what little they did control was not contiguous.  Further, from 2006-2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was dangerous, but did not resemble an army.  They were accomplished terrorists, spies, saboteurs, and murderers, but seldom fought as organized units using traditional military tactics.  Especially after the U.S. Surge and Awakening movement defeated the ISI tactically and effectively suppressed the group, the Islamic State of Iraq’s lasting impact on the wider jihadi movement barely registered a ripple as a priority for Western policymakers.

When we fast forward to 2014, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq’s descendant—has taken a very different form.  Without disavowing its founding documents, ISIS controls territory on a grand scale, and appears far more capable of securing it.  In Syria, ISIS greatly overshadows its rival group the Al-Nusrah front, the official Al Qaeda franchise that also allies with the Free Syrian Army.  And, ironically, Iraq is now without an official Al Qaeda branch, with ISIS’ only real competitors coming from the neo-Baathist JRTN and the more nationalist 1920 Revolutionary Brigade.

At its core, the most fundamental difference between Islamic State of Iraq and ISIS today is power: ISIS has a real army (indeed, as once said about the Prussians, it may be less a state with an army than an army with a state) and contains a much more robust capability to defend and expand its territory in both Iraq and Syria.  Before beginning its open offensive in Anbar province in Iraq, ISIS had been fighting against the forces of the Assad regime in Syria (and their Hezbollah/Qods Force auxiliaries).  It is obvious from the very sophisticated tactics displayed against the Iraqi security forces this year that ISIS learned a great deal from this traditional, if dispersed, urban combat.  U.S. government officials have testified that ISIS is now equipped with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, and .50 caliber sniper rifles.  From their safe havens inside their de facto state, ISIS cadres are able to continue to recruit, train and equip their highly motivated volunteers, and push them against both the Baathist Assad regime in Syria and the elected Shi’a majority government in Iraq (where, in both cases, they also often work and fight alongside more indigenous jihadist groups).

While we have little sympathy for the Assad regime and recognize the shortcomings of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi state in which the U.S. government has invested vast resources is gravely threatened—in terms of stability, not their imminent overthrow—by the ISIS army, which seeks to further expand its territory.  However, aside from U.S. interests in Iraq, there are at least three further issues generated by the de facto ISIS state.

First, ISIS’ expansion and rejection of Al Qaeda’s central leadership represents a new evolution in jihadi extremism.  The near-extinction of Al Qaeda’s core—the organization constructed by Osama bin Laden and now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri—has created space for new and more extreme forms of jihadi militancy.  In 1999, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi challenged Osama bin Laden’s ideological direction because he considered Al Qaeda too accommodating to Shia Muslims.  Fifteen years later, Zarqawi’s ideological and organizational descendants have the power to confront Al Qaeda’s leadership more thoroughly. At the core of Zarqawi’s ideology were two ideas: that commanders close to battle had ultimate political authority and that purity in the movement was paramount.  In its interaction with Al Qaeda, ISIS embodies both ideas and, not surprisingly, has quite famously been expelled from Al Qaeda, ostensibly for insubordination, but perhaps also for acting like the sovereign state that is has de facto become.

Second, the existence of ISIS as a de facto state presents an incredible challenge in terms of safe haven for terrorists with transnational ambitions.  While ISIS remains focused on immediate and local threats at present, it has made no secret of its longer term ambitions to strike against the United States and Europe.  Its predecessors struck outside of Iraq more often than commonly acknowledged.  ISIS is said to have at least hundreds of members carrying EU passports, both second and third generation children of immigrants from Islamic countries and also native European converts (see reports by the London-based ICSR on Western foreign fighters in Syria).  ISIS has created a multi-ethnic army; almost a foreign legion, to secure its territory.  These cadres—trained, indoctrinated, networked, equipped and funded—will doubtless present a challenge for Arab and Western security services in the coming years, all the more so if not dealt with in the very near future.

Finally, this new reality presents a challenge that rises above a mere counter-terrorism problem.  ISIS no longer exists in small cells that can be neutralized by missiles or small groups of commandos.  It is now a real, if nascent and unrecognized, state actor—more akin in organization and power to the Taliban of the late 1990s than Al Qaeda.  Unless ISIS collapses on itself, which is a long tradition in jihadi circles but looks increasingly unlikely, neutralization of the group will require significant ground combat by someone, with the support of airpower.  Such an outcome is increasingly likely as the flow of funds and recruits to ISIS continues despite conflict with Al Qaeda and other militants in Syria.  To date, the geographic location of ISIS and the reticence of Western governments to be involved in the nominal territory of either Iraq or Syria (though for very different reasons for each), coupled with the weakness of both the Iraqi and Syrian armies (and the latter fighting against numerous opponents of varying alliance with the West), has prevented an effective challenge to ISIS.

And yet ISIS presents a clear and present danger to American and European interests.  The group does not have safe haven within a state.  It is a de facto state that is a safe haven.  Arguably, ISIS presents an even more vibrant incubator for international terrorism than did pre-9/11 Afghanistan.  It would be the greatest of historical ironies if just at the moment when the operation in Afghanistan to banish Al Qaeda safe havens is concluded, an even more dangerous sanctuary emerges in the deserts between Baghdad and Damascus.


* ISIS is also known as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and is also referred to by its Arabic acronym, DAASH—all are equivalent terms for the same organization.


Dr. Douglas A. OIlivant is a Managing Partner and the Senior Vice President of Mantid International, a global consulting firm with offices in Beirut, Baghdad and Washington D.C.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.

Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.


Correction: This article originally erroneously listed Ansar al Islam and the Islamic Army in Iraq as active nationalist insurgent groups.  The authors thank Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi for the correction.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

12 thoughts on “State of Jihad: The Reality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

  1. I can assure you that ISIS will focus more on crushing the Arab puppet regimes and rousing up the whole Islamic World to finally end the tyranny of Israel and Iran…..No such attacks against the west will happen because logically there is no such thing in the teachings of Islam to randomly attack areas or people and what benefit will they gain if they attack USA or Europe? and if ever such attack happens then expect that either its an inside job by the respective government or a real attack was carried out by ISIS to the respective country’s military for retaliation against that country invading Muslims lands which we are all aware of… come Muslims are called Terrorists in their own native lands while foreign invaders from the other side of the world are the ones called as heroes?

      1. Yankees got kicked out of Vietnam with a bloody nose way back in the 50s. Then Somalia,then Iraq and Now they are leaving Afghanistan. But they will never learn the lessons.
        Their ego does not allow them to keep out of other countries because they believe they are global policemen. Even though now sinking slowly but they will not change their ways. They will try to pit Muslims against Muslims to help Israel. But their evil will not succeed. Now Shias have openly come out against Muslims. It is good that they are open enemies now instead of stabbing us in the back. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Believe it or not, this comment, as originally written, was much ruder and crazier and has been edited slightly – RE].

    1. oh?! so the teaching of Islam said to behead other muslims, rape their women and kill their children? and your friends in ISIS decided to end the tyranny of Israel and Iran by fighting in Syria and Iraq!
      Clearly who join these groups, is extremely narrow minded and blinded to the point they don’t see anything other than blood to accomplish what their leaders told them to do.

      1. Ammar, when people are going to stop listening to news, they will eventually know the truth. You cannot say that ISIS group members are doing what you have said or mentioned in the TV channels. If you monitor them closely and understand the real issue, you wouldn’t say that.

        What ever you see in TV is exactly the opposite of what’s really happening.

  2. ISIS (or ISIL ) certainly changed strategic thinking by invading Mosul with 1300 fighters today. That is not tactics of insurgents. Fits your state actor thesis.

  3. Doug and Brian, Nice article. A couple thoughts.

    – It’s a big area, but in Anbar anyway, 90 percent of the people live along the river. There is just nothing to sustain these guys out in the desert. They aren’t tribesman and don’t have the skills to survive without some infrastructure. The environment also allows us to better refine and focus our collection operations.

    – They are larger and more conventional than AQI. Effective C2 will require them to talk. That should make them vulnerable.

    – We still have tribal contacts in Fallujah, Ramadi, Al Qaim, etc. We could re-establish collection and operational facilitation if required.

    – Sooner or later ISIS’ excesses will make them their own worst enemy. They are better than AQI by facilitating some services for the people, but Anbari’s won’t live under a repressive religious regime for long.

    – I think if we target the leadership, over time, the wheels come off. Leadership instability causes friction within the ranks, especially as they have to reach deeper and deeper to find guys to put in charge.

    Enjoyed the article.

  4. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is in direct contravention to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain, France and Czarist Russia. The imperialists were seeking to extend their colonial agenda in expectation of the demise of the Ottoman Empire. In so doing, a European style settlement was erected by which borders were drawn with a complete disregard for clannish associations, tribal affiliations, religious differences and ethnic passions.

    Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seems intent on overturning the above arrangement. A colonial arrangement; an imperialist arrangement. A holdover situation from the world’s most important event in human history in the last 100 years . . . World War I. For the modern Middle East is a product of World War I/Colonialism. Vietnam is a product of World War I/Colonialism, in reference to an earlier comment on the U.S, being booted out of Southeast Asia.

    But the current state of affairs was imposed on the indigenous peoples of the Middle East in a manner most foul and perfidious. And right now, we are witnessing a backlash to a century old colonial arrangement.