ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

What’s in a Name?: IS, ISIS, ISIL, Da’ash

The title of this book uses the term ISIS and that will be the way that the group in question will be referred to throughout this book. This chapter explains the meaning of that acronym and all of the other names used by ISIS in its less than two decades of history. It has used a few names, and the U.S. and Western media have used several others over the years as well. All of this will be explained and clarified over the next couple of pages. This chapter is not the history of ISIS though there will be some history as the various names and explanations are given. The history of the organization will come in the chapter “The History and Operations of ISIS: Iraq to Syria to Iraq Again.” The names used will be given in both English and Arabic. This is done to express the importance of language, history, and culture in all things necessary to understand ISIS.

The first name was Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad (JTJ) (جماعة التوحيد والجهاد) or Group of Monotheism and Jihad. This name was used from about 1999 to 2004 and applied to the group as it existed in Afghanistan and then early on in Iraq. The significance of this name was to draw people’s attention to the importance of the pillars of Islam. (See entry on Islam, Five Pillars later in this book.) The first pillar is to acknowledge the importance and oneness of God. He is THE God and THE ONLY GOD, which is what tawhid means. The second point of significance was to remind Muslims of the importance of waging holy war against those who are opponents of Islam. This is one meaning of the word jihad (جهاد). (See entry on Jihad later in this book.) ISIS is and was from the beginning a group dedicated to waging a violent struggle against those who believe differently than it does.

The second name Tanzim Qaedat al Jihad fi Bilad al Rafidayn aka al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (تنظيم قاعدة الجهاد في بلاد الرافدين) or Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia was taken as the group allied itself with al-Qaeda. At this time, the group did not use the name Iraq, but used the land between the two rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) or Mesopotamia as its location designation. The U.S.-led coalition regularly referred to it as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI for short. Note that it maintained the reference to jihad or the struggle of holy war in its title. This name existed from October 2004 to October 2006.

On January 15, 2006, an announcement was made stating the organization of the Mujahedeen Shura Council (مجلس شورى المجاهدين في العراق) that served as an umbrella organization for a variety of salafi-jihadi groups then operating in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was the main member of this group.

The third name is Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) (دولة العراق الإسلامية) and it was adopted with an announcement on October 15, 2006. This title provides the first specific reference to Iraq and reference to an Islamic State, which was not the same as the designation of a caliphate, but still important. For the hard core followers, it is this date that it references as the founding of its state. It used this name until April 2013.

The fourth name came as a result of the group moving its leadership to Syria and expanding its area of operations and authority. The name is the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام). It announced this new name on April 8, 2013. This is when it became ISIS. Note that it uses the Arabic word al-Sham and not Syria or the Levant. Al-Sham is a term used in Arabic that can have multiple meanings: 1) the city of Damascus, Syria; 2) the area of greater Damascus, Syria; 3) the modern state of Syria; or 4) greater Syria that includes all of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and portions of Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt. (See entry on al-Sham (Levant) later in this book.) This was often mistranslated to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but ISIS never used the English or Arabic word for Syria in its name. The name, from its perspective, implies much broader influence than Western government and media often gave it credit for.

Shortly after ISIS took this designation, the U.S. government elected to use the term ISIL to refer to the group. ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Levant is a French word derived from Latin that means rising. Literally, it is the place where the sun rises or the east. The French have long used the term Levant to refer to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea or the area currently including the states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and, at times, parts of Egypt and Turkey. This term is very close in meaning to al-Sham, but it is a European word and not an Arabic one, and as such it has never been used by ISIS to designate its group.

In the Middle East and among Arabic speaking people, the group is typically referred to as Da’ash (داعش). Da’ash is an Arabic acronym for ISIS. It means exactly the same thing. Oftentimes one sees this written as Da’esh or Da’ish. These may be more accurate in the spelling as the “I” stands for Iraq. The problem is that the proper pronunciation is Da’ash and not Da’eesh, which is how most people pronounce it when reading the word written as Da’esh or Da’ish. When used in this book, this name will be spelled “wrong” so that it will be pronounced “right.” Over time, the term Da’ash has developed a negative connotation as several different groups have been critical and produced satirical cartoons and videos mocking those who they call Da’ashis for being backward and out of touch with civilization and modernity. If members of ISIS refer to their group as Da’ash, they are subject to harsh discipline. As stated in the next paragraph, it is the State to its followers.

The fifth name the group used is the Islamic State (IS) (الدولة الإسلامية). It took this name with a statement announcing the establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014. This is the way members of ISIS refer to their group—Islamic State or the State.

The group being described in this book, though it has had many names, has always maintained a consistent ideological perspective and demonstrated behavior. Because of this consistency in thought and for simplicity’s sake this book will consistently use ISIS to designate the group from here on out.