You would be forgiven for not quite knowing exactly how to refer to the most recent terrorist group to emerge out of the conflicts and instability in the Middle East.

It has been referred to as ISIS, ISIL and The Islamic State by various global leaders and media outlets with seemingly no commonly agreed consensus.

So, here is the breakdown to help you decipher who and what people are talking about.

Who are the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL?

A Sunni jihadist group active in the Middle East.  Their power base and current operations are mainly centred in Iraq and Syria.

They are a self-proclaimed caliphate.  Caliphate translates to the word “succession” in English.  Essentially, they claim to be the religious authority of the entire Muslim faithful and a sovereign state.

Although unrecognized as a state, their aim is to bring most Muslim-inhabited regions into a political union.

Evolution of the Name

The group originated in 1999 as Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. 

The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad – (JTJ).

In 2004, it became Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn.

The Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia

• Due to it’s loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda it was more commonly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq – (AQI).

In January 2006, in the aftermath of US and British involvement in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura Council was formed.

October 2006 saw the birth of the current group, after it had merged with several more insurgent factions, and was named Dawlat al-ʻIraq al-Islāmīyah.

Islamic State of Iraq – (ISI)


Prior to 2013, the group operated predominantly in Iraq.  However, following it’s expansion into Syria it adopted the name al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham – and this is where the confusion begins.

al-Sham is the Arabic word to describe the region of the Levant (meaning “where the sun rises”) or Greater Syria.  Geographically, this is the eastern crescent of the Mediterranean comprising the countries of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and part of southern Turkey.

ISIS is an acronym when al-Sham is translated simply as Syria – The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

ISIL is an acronym when al-Sham is translated as the Levant – The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.  This term is predominantly used by the U.S. and U.K. governments.

There is a clear reason for the use of these more specific, geographic definitions, according to the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen.  Simply referring to the group as the Islamic State would seem to validate their claims to regional, political and religious authority.  Western governments are also keen to separate this extremist movement from the religion of Islam in the main.

Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) is the current word of the moment for this group and is widely used by prestigious media outlets such as the Associated Press, Reuters and The New York Times.

This is the self-designated name of the Islamic State and was officially announced on June 29 by the Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani.

There are opponents to the usage of this term who claim it is misleading.  For many, the name implies the membership of all Muslims but it’s actions are far from Islamic.  It follows a selective, strict and literal interpretation of the Koran which excludes many followers of the Islamic faith.




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