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ISIS as a Terrorist Organisation

ISIS as a Terrorist Organisation

ISIS as a Terrorist Organisation


ISIS stands for Islamic state of Iraq and Syria which denotes a militant group that was founded in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq as a branch of Al Qaeda. It was later on renamed as ISIS by its founder who was a long serving leader in charge of the Iraqi division of Al Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was known for his brutal methods of conducting militant activities in his domain. The Al Qaeda leadership was against his approach and that’s why many a times he fell out with its top leadership (Ali, 2015). Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was reportedly killed in 2006 through an American airstrike. All the same he left behind a legacy of well-equipped Jihadi fighters with military expertise on the battleground. ISIS began to gain ground as well as supporters when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. The US invasion led to the rise in sectarian violence and the infamous Shia-Sunni confrontation. The larger Sunni community in Iraq was repressed and gravely suffered under the Shia rule of Nouri Al-Maliki who was pro-American Prime Minister supported by the US forces( Fawaz, 2014).


The ISIS expansion was further fuelled by the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the subsequent Syrian civil war. The group went to recruit as many young people as possible. The group took advantage of the situation in that the youth were unhappy with the way President Bashar alAssad together with his government, were unfairly treating them. The president had come up with a somewhat harsh policy toward his citizens which the provoked young to opt to join the ISIS so that they can fight the Syrian army from there. The Syrian government had in fact banned any protest or opposition by declaring a total war on them. The Syrian population was angered by their governments’ mistreatment and even though they staged protest, they were mostly weak and fragmented. Everyone who was involved in the Syrian war, was doing it for their own interest including the foreigners. The citizens felt hopeless and they wanted to regain their civic rights, revenge for the atrocities committed against them as well as get protection. ISIS presented itself just at the right time and so many Syrian youth went on to join it in masses.

The ISIS is actually part of the global jihadist movement because its ideology. It was created out of a merger between the Iraq based Al-Queda affiliates and the defeated Iraqi Baathist government of Saddam Hussein (Fawaz, 2014: 1). The ISIS group poses a great challenge to international security and order. Surprisingly despite its brutality, ISIS continues to successfully expand its membership from a global recruitment. Measures to counter the ISIS have been discussed by world leaders in many international forums. From as early as 2014 the US forces together with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have been fighting to bring down ISIS in its strongholds of Iraq and Syria (Ali, 2015: 4). However despite the concerted efforts by the world leaders in fighting the ISIS menace, very little success has been realised. Available literature shows that the ISIS group has been in existence for over a decade now. But in the last five years or so it has just emerged from nowhere and grown tremendously to become a terrorist organisation posing a great challenge to international security. According to Fawaz (2014: 3) the group operates as a self-declared Caliphate in many parts of Iraq and Syria with a status of a state.

The Nature of ISIS

Although ISIS is part of other global terrorist group it has distinctive characteristics which make it different. To begin with, the ISIS is not territorially bound. This is to say it is not confined to a particular nation or region rather it has its membership drawn from many countries across the world. According to (Gambhir, 2015) ISIS is a potential threat to countries from all over the world due to the fact that its activities are not confined to a particular region. Documented literatures shows that ISIS recruits and fighters are of different nationalities drawn across the globe. According to Interpol reports there has been a tremendous increase in the number of foreign recruits joining the ISIS group. In fact as per these reports, in the last five years, the group has successfully recruited over 25,000 people from over 100 countries of which 4,000 are foreigners. Furthermore the ISIS group has about 8 million people under its control.

Many terrorist organisations allow for cooperation with other militant groups or gangs as long as their agenda is achieved. That’s why the Taliban and Al Qaeda is known to have many militant affiliates in the areas they are operating. ISIS on the other hand has a different approach when it comes to seizing power. As per the Clarion Report (2015) the ISIS group prefers a more direct approach. A good example is the power struggle between Nusra and ISIS (Chaliand and Blin, 2007). While Nusra prefers using a gradual approach in attaining power, that’s not the case with ISIS. Nusra cultivates open relations with other factions and has always expressed its willingness to work with them. The ISIS is less tolerant to anybody who is considered to be expressing a different belief or a non-believer. It’s a great propagator of sectarian violence. The ISIS believes in forceful seizure of territories and building a state in which sharia will be enforced almost immediately.

Another feature of ISIS is its belief in brutality. The group is well known for carrying out ethnic cleansing, beheadings, massacres and other brutal outrages. For instance it has set a record in carrying out ethnic and religious cleansing among the Shias, Yazids and Kurds in Syria and Iraq and Syria (White, 2014). Unusually, the group also approves the physical and sexual abuse of children and women which is not typical of other terrorist organisations. Torture and killing of those perceived to be anti-ISIS, Muslims of other sects and non-believers is common place. This explains why sectarian violence is a way of life in Iraq. From media report it is reported that half of the population in Syria has in fact fled from their homes to neighbouring countries.

Notably according to (Gambhir, 2015) this brutality is as a result of the ruralisation of ISIS operations in its strongholds. Unlike Al-Qaeda and Taliban who have a leadership that is composed of the social elites and accomplished learned technocrats, the theological and intellectual ranking of the ISIS force is poor. That is why the ISIS group is very popular among the less economically empowered communities such as the Sunni in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq and all over the world. Closely related to the above point is that this group believes in total war. A Gambhir further notes, the group disregards conciliation of any manner. Dissimilar to other terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda, it doesn’t rely on religion to justify its operations. Abu Mohammed, Baghdadis second in Command once reiterated that ‘The only law I subscribe to is the law of the jungle’ (Fawaz, 2014: 2)

The ISIS is a modern terrorist group and this can be seen in the way it carries its operations using technology. The group uses available social media platforms to carry out recruitments, trainings, spread propaganda and even plan for attacks. This social network is what keeps intact the large membership. The use of technology is advantageous to the group because it allows for the spread of to a larger audience. According to Ali (2015: 10) in order to have an influence in the western world, the group’s online promotional material usually composes of images of ‘ISIS’s females fighting in Syria while holding guns and putting on the niqab. Most importantly, ISIS’s communication strategy is such that its propagandist material is presented in a well-articulated manner. For instance, modern techniques are employed to present the material in such a sophisticated manner with some degree of truth in it. This is why they score highly as compared to other terrorist organisations as far as access to a wider audience and credibility is concerned.

The use of women by ISIS in spreading its propaganda across the globe is very evident. This is unlike other terrorist organisations who have kept women out of limelight as far as their operations are concerned. It’s like the ISIS uses women as a tool for publicity. In fact the use of women by ISIS for propaganda purposes is tactical. Just as White (2014) reiterates ignoring the role of women in fighting terrorism is a tactical flop. And ISIS is a good case in point. The group understands that placing women in its propaganda material will automatically guarantee a coveted place in media coverage and headlines especially by journalists from the Western world. Since journalists are not allowed into ISIS-controlled territories, the use of the social media platforms works efficiently in spreading propaganda materials in a much faster way. Again such a means ensures that a wider audience is reached while remaining in control of the content that is posted.

Terrorists’ organisations are very particular about the flow of information to their audience. But the ISIS strategy of doing it really differs largely from other terrorist organisations. According to Ali (2015) documents that historically terrorists groups such as the Al Qaeda and Taliban have kept a relatively open relation with journalist. Occasionally they would hold interviews with worlds top journalists especially from the west so as to speak about coveted topics. This relationship with journalist was seen as a useful and trusted pathway to deliver propaganda to its audience. The journalists will be allowed entry into exclusively controlled territories or speaking about coveted matters of the organisation.

To what extent is ISIS a terrorist group?

Despite the publicity that the ISIS has received in the media globally, it largely remains a mystery group whose real intentions are unclear even to the world leaders. For instance in 2014, a special operations officer for the US confessed that his government doesn’t understand what the ISIS movement is all about and even its ideology is not known yet (Bunzel, 2015). As aforementioned the group was founded in Iraq by a former Al Qaeda leader. And so when the group changed its name to ISIS, the common people thought that the Al Qaeda branch had simply changed is label. The real intentions behind the change of the name were unforeseen to many. It actually signalled the start of a new era of forming a new state in Iraq which will be governed by sharia law and in which any other contrary faith will not be condoned. Many did not envision the group transcending the borders which has become a reality now.

A terrorist organisation differs from other militant groups because of its clearly defined Ideology. Even though some scholars like Fawaz (2014) have criticised ISIS as lacking in ideas and ideology, others like Bunzel (2015) document that even though the ideology is not known to many, still the organisation is driven by some kind of ideology. Truth be told many of the recruits who join terrorist organisations like ISIS do so because of various reasons and not necessarily because they believe in its ideology. The central leadership of these groups which is mandated with the responsibility of coming up with policies appears to being driven by some ideology.

Banzul (2015) asserts that the debate on whether the ISIS group has a well-defined ideology or not should be understood within the context of whether it professes jihadism or has a brotherhood dimension. The leaders of the Islamic state group have openly declared their support for jihadism especially through the online platform. According to (Chalian and Blin, 2007) jihadism is a typical Sunni Islam ideological movement which comprises of media outlets, global Muslim scholars, websites and social media platforms supporters. The movement has gone as far as establishing a jihad scholarship something scholars are serious scrutinising. Notably the movement bases its belief on extremist and limited readings from the Quran which have been elaborated and adopted by its supports and members. The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, is an exclusively Sunn political movement whose main aim is to seize power by capturing the state (Bunzel, 2015). The movement emerged as a response to the growing influence of western values and ideals in the Muslim dominated Egypt. Basing on this account then one can argue that ISIS prescribes to a similar mission which makes it ideologically driven. Notably the Muslim Brotherhood is not as rigorous as the Jihadist as far as doctrinal inclination is concerned. The Muslim brotherhood differs from ISIS in that it is more tolerant to other sects.

According to the Clarion Project Report (2015) ISIS prescribes to the ideology of Salafist-jihadism. The Salafist thought promotes the unadulterated form of Islam as preached by Mohammed the only prophet of Allah. Moreover, for them there is no difference between state and religion. It is a one side interpretation of the sharia is what inspires its activities and leadership at large. The leadership usually makes decisions based on this interpretation. The decisions are then forcefully implemented in the ISIS controlled territories. The said ideology shares some similarities with that of other terrorist organisations such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The only difference lies in the how and when a caliphate should be formed. The Taliban and Al Qaeda stand is that; as much is the end result of the captured of a state is to establish an Islamic state that should be treated as a long term goal and not an immediate objective to be realised

Literature on terrorism documents the tactical nature of such organisations. For a terrorist organisation to work efficiently, they normally have some crude tactics that they use to contain western imperialism as they spread Islamic doctrines (White, 2014). The main goal of ISIS is to seize and take control of Iraq and Syria. After which they can now expand their control to the neighbouring countries where Sunnis inhabit. One of the main tactics that this particular terrorist groups uses is the use of sectarian violence especially in Iraq. It has turned the Sunnis against the Shiite leading to widespread violence, massacres and disruption of public order. Brutality is another tactic that is commonly used by ISIS. It’s well known for posting videos of the transgressors that were murdered. This is a tactic to instil fear in the populace and make them bow to their rule (Fawaz, 2014: 3)

Another feature which qualifies the ISIS to join the league of terrorist organisations is its ability to finance itself. It’s considered to be richest terrorist organisation in the world today. Its main source of finance is oil smuggling which approximately brings returns of one million dollars per day. Other sources include the taxes from the areas under their control, the ransom they get from kidnappings as well as extortion (Ali, 2015).

In terms of structure, the ISIS has a well organised structure with a clear chain of command. At the top of the structure is its leader called Baghdad who is a self-proclaimed Caliph. In order to run the organisation properly he has appointed military commanders, advisors, and ministers. The group has such a sophisticated organisation structure just like other well established terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. A part from military activities the group goes further to building institution as a pathway to building a state. They provide services such as health care education and water supply (Gambhir, 2015).

Chaliand and Blin (2007) assert that human rights abuse is typical of many terrorist organisations. ISIS brutality is well known and it cares less to kill whoever is against it. In addition to the enemies they meet in the battle field, they are known to massacre Muslims of other sects such as Shiites and even Sunnis who deem rebellious. The Clarion report of (2015: 27) gives examples of whereby “Soon after Mosul fell and the Islamic State’s army stormed south towards Baghdad, videos were released by the Islamic State’s media department boasting of massacres they had perpetrated. Human Rights Watch said that at least 560-770 people were massacred in Tikrit over a three day period, but the Islamic State boasts of 1,700. The soldiers they executed were Shiites who had been freshly recruited into the Iraqi army and who had barely finished training”.


The ISIS is indeed a grouping that is posing a real threat to international peace and security. Its existence and operations has made way to international discussion platforms. Although at first it aims and activities were unknown to many, it has gained publicity in the last five years. In this paper I have presented some of the characteristics of the ISIS which draws it apart from other terrorist organisation. For instance it’s use of technology to spread propaganda, its use of women as a propaganda tool, the strong stance against allowing journalists into its territories among others. The paper further presents an argument on the extent to which ISIS qualifies to be a terrorist group. Because of the enlisted reasons, the group shares some of the characteristics of mainstream terror groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.


Ali, M. (2015) ISIS and Propaganda: How ISIS Exploits Women, Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, University of Oxford

Bunzel, C. (2015) From Paper state to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic state. Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper No. 19: Washington DC

Chaliand G and Blin A (Eds) (2007). The History of terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda. University of California Press: London

Fawaz, A. (2014). ISIS and the Third wave of Jihadism. The journal of Middle East and Africa, Vol 6

Gambhir, H. (2015). ISIS’s Global strategy: A War Game. Institute for the Study of war. Middle East Security report No. 28: Washington DC

The Clarion Project (2015). The Islamic State. Accessed at

White, J. (2014). Terrorism and Homeland Security (8th Edition). Boston, MA: Wadworths