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ISIS: Background, Structure, Ideology And Strategy

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Brief History

ISIS started as a group with allegiance to Al-qaeda following the 2003 Iraq invasion led by the USA, being referred to as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad by its Salafi Jihadist leader Abu Musab al-zurqawi upon its birth in 1999.

When al-zarqawi swore allegiance to Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, it became widely known as Al Qaeda in Iraq all though this was never its official name , attacks on government forces, foreign soldiers and diplomats and also civilians continued throughout the Iraq war until its merging with the Mujahideen Shura Council, in an apparent attempt to distance AQI from a string of tactical errors on the part of al-Zarqawi.

In 2006 the MSC united with a number of other tribes in order to make the Mitayibeen Coalition with the aim of helping Sunnis escape oppression from Shi’ites and crusader occupiers (presumably western forces), now becoming ISI, the Islamic state of Iraq.

By 2008 ISI described itself as in a period of “extraordinary crisis” most likely due to a large surge in US troops in Iraq in 2007.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was named the new leader of ISI in 2010 and recruited a number of intelligence officers who served under Saddam Hussein, and in August 2011 following escalation in violence and the outbreak of the civil war, experienced Iraqi members were being sent over the border into Syria to establish a presence for the caliphate under the name of “al nusra front”.

On April 8th 2013 al-baghdadi announced that ISI and Al-qaeda were merging into ISIL,also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant, however this was met with dispute by Ayman al-Zawahiri the then leader of Al Qaeda. Proclaiming itself a caliphate in 2014, this demanded its political, miltary and religious to be respected internationally by all of Islam. Despite the idea of its existence as a territorial caliphate and its naming of Islamic state, states and mainstream muslim groups worldwide have violently rejected its existence as a state, including the UN.

ISIS continued in the struggle for sunni strongholds in Syria and Iraq whilst holding Raqqa as its capital up until 2017, when it lost cities of significant including Palmyra, Raqqa, Fallujah and Mosul. After ISIL’s significant losses in 2017 politicians including Britain Chief of General Staff Mark Carleton Smith acknowledged the destruction of the “geography of the so called caliphate”. Donald Trump’s declaration of ISIL’s defeat, and his subsequent withdrawal from the region was answered with disagreement by other western leaders, alongside claims his withdrawal may in fact go on to “jeopardize successes already achieved.

Isis continues to recruit foreign fighters, many from the Western World, however in early 2019 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi boasted of new oaths of allegiance made by groups in territories around Africa and Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, illustrating ISIL’s future intentions in regard to expansion, whilst simultaneously refuting rumours surrounding his death.

In late October 2019, The United States Special Forces branch commonly known as Delta Force led a raid in the Idlib province of Syria, after cornering Al-Baghdadi in a tunnel with the help of military canines, he killed himself by way of an explosive suicide vest. He is said to have killed two of his own children along with himself.

Days after Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s death the propaganda department of ISIS announced that Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi would be succeeding him as leader of the caliphate, he is described by Western media as someone who has been described as being religiously educated and experienced commander of war.


Almost all of ISIL’s military, and intelligence leaders, and most of its council members and emirs, are former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime which was toppled, leaving them without jobs or pensions.

ISIL is headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is the self proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, he is advised by a cabinet of senior leaders whilst provincial matters in Syria and Iraq are controlled by local Emirs, who head autonomous groups referred to as provinces.

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Beneath all of these are councils on a range of matters, from Intelligence, security and the media, to military matters, justice (including executions) and helping foreign fighters.

Aside from these councils is a consultation, or ‘shura’ that has the job of making sure that the decisions made by all of the above comply with ISIL’s interpretation of sharia law. Despite asking in sermons for his followers to advise him if he hesitates, al-Baghdadi makes sure that “any threat, opposition or even contradiction is instantly eradicated”. (Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium via CNN).

Despite complaints of foreign fighters being treated more favourably than native Syrians, it has been reported that Iraqis and Syrians are given greater precedence over foreigners within ISIL’s ranks as the group requires the loyalty of local sunni populations in order for the group to survive.

In recent years there have also been reports that the group contains a multi-level secret service known as “Emni”, that is made up of a domestic/external operations directorate and also an internal police force.


ISIL is a theocracy, this is a system of government in which its agents rule in the name of God, The Islamic state is also neither fully institutionalized or autonomous, making it a quasi, or proto-state. Western media reports state that all 12 of the judges who run the court system in Raqqa are Saudis, furthermore Saudi practices such as the enforced attendance at Salat prayers by religious Police, the destruction of any non-sunni religious buildings and also the wide use of capital punishments are all followed within the so called Islamic state.

The group promotes the use of violence in the name of Islam, however it regards any Muslims who disagree with its religious standings as apostates or non believers (infidels), this includes the Gaza based Sunni group Hamas, who they see as having no legitimate claim to lead Jihad, ISIL followers also see defeating Hamas as their first step toward confronting and eventually defeating the state of Israel.

Religiously it is a Wahhabi group, wahhabism is typically described as a radically conservative, puritanical form of Islam that aims to restore monotheistic worship by followers. Although the terms Salafi and Wahhabi have recently started to become used interchangeably, it Wahhabism has also been described as an ultra-conservative, Saudi Brand of Salafism (Teti).

The Black flag of ISIS is seen to represent their philosophy, as this version of Muhammed’s battle flag in a white circle, reading above it “There is no god but Allah” has been said to present the Group’s intention to restore the caliphate of early Islam, with all the implied religious and political ramifications, whilst condeming the later ones, and the Ottoman Empire in for deviating from what it considers “pure” Islam.


Documents obtained after the death of a former Iraqi intelligence service officials who were regularly described as masterminding ISIL’s strategy showed plans to takeover the North of Syria which would later make possible the groups movements into Iraq. These documents detailed how the infiltration of towns and villages would be carried out using spies who would determine who lived in them, the religious details of all families, more importantly the Imams as well. It is said that in Raqqa following the defeat of Syrian Government forces “first dozens and then hundreds of people disappeared.

Jason Burke, whilst writing on Salafism, wrote that the group’s goal is to “terrorize, mobilize and polarize”. It also tries to mobilise support by gaining favour through large attacks deep in Western territory such as the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, and to polarise Muslims, especially in the West away from their governments, Increasing the caliphate’s appeal, eliminating neutral parties by eliminating them or absorbing them.

The book named “A management of savagery” written by Abu Bakr Naji which describes the key three stages of Jihad (vexation, administration of savagery and lastly empowerment) is said to to have been followed by The Islamic State of Syria and The Levant ( Jamestown Foundation), be it in their online propaganda magazine, or in East Africa in states such as Somalia and Yemen.

Success/Prospects Evaluation

Following the death of Al-Baghdadi, the worldwide danger of ISIS still remains due to the fact that the succession of a leader was already arranged, ISIS will continue to exist across the world as a guerilla fighting organisation, albeit decentralized due to the death of its leader. It is important to note that hundreds of thousands of foreign fighters travelled to live in the Islamic state and pledged their lives to Baghdadi, as to many he symbolised the long awaited return of Islam, however now due to it’s decentralized nature and lack of a widespread, expansive territory, the dream of a caliphate governing an expansive territory is no more.

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Cite this Page

ISIS: Background, Structure, Ideology And Strategy. (2021, September 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“ISIS: Background, Structure, Ideology And Strategy.” Edubirdie, 20 Sept. 2021,
ISIS: Background, Structure, Ideology And Strategy. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
ISIS: Background, Structure, Ideology And Strategy [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 20 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from:
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