What is ISIS?


Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), is responsible for the horrific beheadings of two American hostages. What is Islamic State, and what are its objectives? (BBC)

Use our resources to learn more about conflict in Iraq.

Discussion Questions

  • The BBC article says that Islamic State is as dangerous as al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11. What are similarities between the two groups?
    • Both Islamic State and al-Qaeda are terrorist organizations. This means they both use violence to pursue their political agendas.
    • Both groups define themselves as Islamic fundamentalist organizations. This means they have a strict, conservative interpretation of the Muslim faith, and support shariah—religious law based on the Quran and other Islamic sources.
    • Both groups have their roots in the Middle East. In fact, Islamic State originated as a branch of al-Qaeda (al-Qaeda in Iraq).
    • Both groups are international. Islamic State has attracted a startling number of foreign recruits, including fighters from the United States, Europe, throughout the Arab World, and the Stans. al-Qaeda is an international organization with a global terrorist vision and also has recruits from all over the world.



  • Former names of Islamic State include “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” and “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers.” What do these names tell you about the organization?


  • The group that eventually became Islamic State evolved after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Do you think founding members of Islamic State are former Baath Party loyalists who lost their positions when Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled?
    • No. Islamic State members are Islamic fundamentalists seeking shariah. Saddam Hussein was a secularist, meaning his government was not a religious one.


  • Islamic State has territorial aspirations in Syria. Do you think it is aligned with Syrian rebels fighting the government in Syria’s savage civil war?
    • No. Islamic State has taken advantage of Syria’s civil war (with rebels and government fighting each other) to gain territory.


  • The United States and Iran may be put in an unusual, uncomfortable alliance in opposing Islamic State. Why would Iran oppose the caliphate?
    • Iran may be threatened by the possible extension of the proposed caliphate into its northern territory.
    • Iran is a Shi’ite government, while Islamic State is Sunni. This is a critical political division within Islam.
    • The brutal Iran-Iraq War is within living memory of many Iranians.


  • Take a look at this excellent map of Syria and Iraq, with territory controlled by Islamic State in grey. Where else do you think Islamic State might have a presence?
    • Syria_and_Iraq_2014-onward_War_map
      Click to view this map’s source page, which is regularly updated. This page will also allow you to enlarge the map to see the names of individual cities, towns, and regions. Map by Haghal Jagul, courtesy Wikimedia. (Last updated August 24, 2014) This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
    • Palestinian Territories
    • Lebanon


  • How does Islamic State fund itself?



  • Why is Islamic State executing Western hostages? Read the short “analysis” section for some help.
    • Islamic State is opposing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, the heartland of the caliphate. “Unable to hit back militarily against America’s jets, Islamic State has responded with a form of information warfare that it knows will horrify most people in the West.”


  • Analysts say Islamic State should be approached less as a terrorist organization than a militia. What’s the difference? Why would experts advise this approach? Read this article for some help.
    • Militias are well-organized, well-funded non-professional militaries of a recognized political entity. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain,” says one expert.