ISIS, Islamic State or ISIL? What to call the group the US is bombing in Iraq and Syria

Updated by on September 17, 2014, 1:10 p.m. ET
An image of an ISIS fighter with the group’s flag, taken from a YouTube video uploaded by ISIS. (ISIS/YouTube)

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…wait. Stop. I was going to start describing it, but I got hung up on the name. That’s because the question of what to call the militant group operating in Iraq and Syria is extremely controversial.

The most common acronym you hear is ISIS. But the Obama Administration calls it ISIL. A number of major news organizations — including the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, The Guardian, and the Associated Press — call it the Islamic State. And a lot of Arabic-speaking people in the Middle East call it Daesh, sometime spelled DAIISH or Da’esh.

As it turns out, it’s not actually that confusing. There are perfectly good reasons for picking each of these names for the group. Here’s a brief rundown of what each of the names means, and why different groups or media outlets might choose to use each one.

The name ISIS comes from the group’s conquests in Syria

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Territory ISIS controls, as of September 10th. (Institute for the Study of War)

ISIS has gone by quite a few names over the years. It was founded in 1999 as Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. That changed in 2004, when the group’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged an oath to al-Qaeda. Then they were called Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn — or, in English, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

After AQI took over huge swaths of in Iraq in 2006, the organization made a big step towards becoming ISIS: it declared itself a state in northern Iraq, and started calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq. In transliterated Arabic, that’s al-Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyah.

Pay attention now, because here’s where the group becomes ISIS. By 2013, the group had taken a lot of territory in Syria and wasn’t content with just calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq. On April 8 of that year, it began calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham — ISIS. Al-Sham is a difficult-to-translate Arabic term referring to a specific geographic area which includes Syria.

The full Arabic name for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa ash-Sham — which, using Arabic characters, produces the acronym DAIISH. This acronym is often spelled, in English characters, as Da’esh or Daesh. As Lebanon’s Daily Star explains, Daesh is widely used in a derogatory sense, and the group itself despises it. It’s even entered into ordinary language: “daeshi,” according the Daily Star, is now a commonly-used term for a bigot who tries to impose his views on you.

ISIS versus ISIL: what’s in a translation?

So, now we’ve got the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. It’s the last phrase — al-Sham — that creates the English debate between ISIS and ISIL.

al-Sham, in common Arabic usage, often refers to only Syria

Al-Sham is an old Arabic word, referring essentially to a chunk of the western Middle East near the Mediterranean. According to the New York Times, this includes “not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.” That territory roughly overlaps with the territory that Europeans labeled the Levant — which is why ISIS is sometimes translated as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

The problem, though, is that the group itself used ISIS rather than ISIL. Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan also points out that al-Sham, in common Arabic usage, often refers to only Syria — or even just the nation’s capital, Damascus. The Levant region, according to Hassan, is usually called Bilad al-Sham.

So the decision to translate al-Sham as “Syria” or “the Levant,” and hence use ISIS or ISIL, is a judgment call.

The Islamic State is ISIS’ new name

Destroyed ISIS car

Remains of an ISIS vehicle destroyed by US airstrikes (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

But why are so many news organizations shifting to the Islamic State (IS), rather than ISIS or ISIL? Well, in late June 2014, ISIS changed its name yet again — to simply the Islamic State, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya.

The new name is a way of claiming political legitimacy. ISIS is a geographically limited name. But the Islamic State, by contrast, implies that the group is the world’s only Islamic state: that they speak for all true Muslims.

Because the Islamic State is now the group’s official name, and IS its official acronym, many major news organizations are shifting to using it. Technically, it’s now more accurate.

However, it’s also not a name most people use. ISIS is easily the most commonly used term for the group, which is why some journalists are complaining about the name switch. Moreover, using Islamic State or IS frames the group in the universalistic terms it likes. This rankles many Muslims: a coalition of British Islamic groups sent a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to stop calling it the Islamic State.

For these reasons, the Obama administration still uses ISIL. “ISIL is not Islamic … and ISIL is certainly not a state,” President Obama said in his September 10 address on his plan for fighting the group.

Why Vox uses ISIS

So what do we do here at Vox? Our general policy to translate “al-Sham” as Syria and refer to the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria rather than the Islamic State. That means we use the acronym ISIS rather than IS or ISIL.

It comes down to recognition and geographic specificity

It comes down to recognition and geographic specificity. “[ISIS] is easiest to understand, and also most accurately described the group’s de facto status,” my colleague Max Fisher pointed out in an early September post. “Its rhetoric aside, it is focused exclusively in holding territory in those two countries.”

ISIS is the term that most accurately describes the group’s activities. For that reason, Vox uses ISIS — though we’re open to revising that policy in the future.

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ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq

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An Iraqi soldier during a fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq in January 2014. Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) used to have a different name: al Qaeda in Iraq.

US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al Qaeda in Iraq during the post-2006 “surge” — but it didn’t destroy them. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but “fundamentally the same.” In 2011, the group rebooted. ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and, slowly but surely, began rebuilding their strength.

ISIS and al-Qaeda divorced in February 2014. “Over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group’s strongest, most unruly franchise was strained,” Barack Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College, writes. Their relationship “had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology.”

According to Mendelsohn, Syria pushed that relationship to the breaking point. ISIS claimed that it controlled Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda splinter in Syria, and defied orders from al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to back off. “This was the first time a leader of an al-Qaeda franchise had publicly disobeyed” a movement leader, he says. ISIS also defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria, and the tensions led to al-Qaeda disavowing any connection with ISIS in a February communiqué.

Today, ISIS and al-Qaeda compete for influence over Islamist extremist groups around the world. Some experts believe ISIS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally.

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