ISIS Explained: Your ISIS Frequently Asked Questions Answered

10th December 2015 By ,   0 Comments

By Bobbie Mills and Joel Davidge

Part of the ISIS Explained series.

Part 1: What is ISIS?  //  Part 2: What does ISIS want?  //  Part 3: What makes ISIS powerful?

Part 4: 7 Suggested Ways to Fight ISIS  //  Part 5: ISIS Frequently Asked Questions Explained


So-called Islamic State (ISIS) is in the headlines but we reckon you have plenty of questions about the group. We took a selection of frequently asked questions about ISIS from Answer The Public and answered them…



 What does ISIS mean? Are ISIS, IS and ISIL the same thing?

ISIS stands for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām. The area called al-Shām (which includes Syria) is also known as the Levant, which is why some people call the group ISIL. So, yes, they are the same group. ISIS re-branded as the Islamic State in 2014, hence why some call them IS. Some call them Daesh as we explain in Part One: What is ISIS?

What does ISIS believe? Are ISIS Shia? Are ISIS Sunni?

ISIS can be defined as a Wahhabi Salafi-jihadist group. Yes, we were a little flummoxed when we first heard that too. Let’s break it down. There are two branches of the Muslim faith: Sunni and Shia Islam. Wahhabism is associated with Sunni Islam. So many words – this video will help:

The difference between Sunni and Shia originates way back in the year 632 when the prophet Muhammad died. There was a disagreement over who should be his successor. There have been conflicts between groups fighting in the name of Sunni and Shia Islam over the years, but it’s not true to say that all Sunni and Shia hate each other. Nowadays, the differences between the fighting groups can be described as more political than religious. It’s all about power. Sunnis make up 90% of the Muslim population. The BBC reports that “in countries governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression.”

Some Wahhabists, ISIS included, do not consider Shia to be true Muslims. In “What ISIS Really Wants” Graeme Wood describes how Islamic State regards Shia beliefs as “innovation” which denies the Quran “its initial perfection.” Reportedly, even Al Qaeda find the ISIS founder’s views on executing all Shia Muslims to be very extreme. 

This takes some decoding and we’ve written about it in Part 1: What is ISIS?

What does ISIS really want? Why is ISIS attacking Syria?

ISIS claims to want several things. Most importantly the group wants to create a caliphate. This is an Islamic state run under strict (some might say extreme) Islamic Sharia law. In 2014 ISIS declared that the area it controlled in Syria and Iraq was now a caliphate. We go into more detail in Part Two: What ISIS wants.

What does the ISIS flag say?

ISIS Explained - Frequently Asked Questions; the ISIS flag

The ISIS flag. Credit: Wikipedia

The words on the ISIS flag read “There is no god but Allah [God]. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” This phrase, known as the Shahada, is used by Muslims to proclaim their faith. The writing in the white circle reads “Muhammad is the messenger of God”. According to the Independent this represents the seal of Muhammad. What you might not know: the flag is not unique to ISIS. Other Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have also used versions of it.

Scenes of Reason explored how individuals can hijack the meaning of national flags. It’s worth remembering that ISIS isn’t considered an official state. Activists at Gay Pride created a satirical ISIS flag covered in sex toys. Unfortunately Fox News thought the flag was real, prompting a hysterical news report. What a time to be alive.

Where does ISIS live? What does ISIS control?

For an up to date visualisation of ISIS controlled areas in Syria and Iraq, check out this live interactive map. It includes major events and areas controlled by other groups. Live conflict map showing ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. ISIS explained - Frequently asked questions

Source: Liveuamap

ISIS currently controls parts of Syria and Iraq. It’s difficult to know what it is like to actually live in the so-called Islamic State. Yet in 2015 the Independent pieced together a picture. They interviewed people who had lived in ISIS territory. The newspaper ensured to point out that the people with access to this information were almost all Sunni Arabs. ISIS believes in a radical form of Sunni Islam. Those associated with other versions of Islam or other faiths had all left or were killed by ISIS.

One account from early 2015 said that ISIS fighters live like kings in Raqqa, Syria. According to the Telegraph from 2014, social media posts suggest foreign fighters live in comfortable luxury. Posts read like “a TripAdvisor guide to jihad”. Photographs show men enjoying R&R in swanky villas with swimming pools.

The reality is likely to be very different. A report by King’s College London describes how former ISIS fighters were put off by the brutal tactics of the group. Others were bored and missed home comforts like electricity. The report also said members quit the group because of corruption and because they were sick of fighting with other Islamic groups. Last year ISIS supposedly executed 120 of its own members for running away.

Where did ISIS come from? Where and when did ISIS begin?

The world didn’t start taking notice of ISIS until 2014, but the group was kicking about in 1999 under a different name. The group used to be a chummy affiliate with another Islamist group called Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is the group that was headed by Osama bin Laden, who plotted the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.

As we cover in Part 4 ISIS began as a group of Sunni resistance fighters. They went by the catchy name of Jam’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. A radical, political and eventually violent version of Islam had been growing across a number of countries since around the 1970s, from Algeria to Afghanistan.

At this point the US and Russia (then called the Soviet Union) were engaged in a “Cold War” rivalry. SoR broke down this difference in political ideas. The Russians were big on communism, whereas the US favoured capitalism. The US government supported radical Islamist groups like Al Qaeda as convenient fighters against Russian communist influence in the Middle East. It is through this funding and US-alliances against communism that Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and what would later become ISIS got their first seed money.

In 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq, Jam’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The collaborative group became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. 

Explore: The Iraq War wasn’t just about 9/11



Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) continued to join with several smaller Iraqi insurgent groups and several Sunni Islamic groups. AQI then declared the establishment of the Islamic State within Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). The group still retained its original ties with the original Al Qaeda, even though they no longer shared a name. Over the next few years, as the US military operations in Iraq continued, ISI suffered a few major losses, including members of its leadership, but managed to recover each time.



Syria slid into civil war and ISI took advantage of the unstable situation. It sent members to create a version of ISI in Syria. This organisation in Syria became known as the al-Nusra Front, led by a Syrian known as Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Now there were three organisations:

  • Al Qaeda who had been fighting in Iraq, led by Osama bin Laden.
  • ISI (formerly “Al Qaeda in Iraq“) who claimed to have established an Islamic State in Iraq.
  • Al-Nusra, made up of members of ISI who established a version of ISI in Syria.


The leader of ISI declared that al-Nusra would be merging with ISI under the name Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS). ISI started calling themselves ISIS. The leaders of al-Nusra and Al Qaeda said there would be no merger between ISIS and al-Nusra. This power struggle continued until Al Qaeda cut its ties with ISIS completely in February 2014. ISIS still called themselves ISIS regardless of whether Al-Nusra wanted to join or not. Al-Nusra became an enemy of ISIS and the two factions are still fighting.


ISIS proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate and renamed itself Islamic State. This is when the world sat up and started to pay attention to ISIS. A caliphate is a state run according to Islamic law. It’s governed by a caliph – someone recognised as a political and religious successor to the Prophet Mohammed. You can read more about what the caliphate in Part 2: What ISIS wants.

By this time, ISIS had established its own presence in central and northern Syria and parts of Iraq. It was now fighting one-time ally al-Nusra and other groups. Journalist Sarah Birke explored the differences between these two groups in “How al-Qaeda Changed the Syrian War”. For a summary check this Wikipedia article. ISIS also faced attacks from the US-trained Free Syrian Army, who oppose President Assad’s regime.




Who ISIS is killing? Who does ISIS target? Why is ISIS killing people?

As covered in Part 2: What ISIS wants ISIS is committed to killing “apostates” or unbelievers. If you’re not on board with their version of Islam you’re in trouble. As President Obama reminds us, the vast majority of ISIS’ victims are Muslims.

ISIS is also responsible for terrorist attacks across the world designed to strike fear into its enemies. The NY Times links ISIS to over 50 terror attacks around the world. It’s estimated in 2015 ISIS was responsible for around 1,000 civilian deaths outside of ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS Explained: ISIS frequently asked questions. NY Times graphic showing ISIS attacks around the world

Source: NY Times

The Western world was shocked by the attacks on Friday 13th November 2015.  Islamic State conducted series of attacks across Paris, the French capital city. It’s estimated 129 people were killed and around 99 seriously injured.

What you might not know: on the same day ISIS coordinated a bomb attack on a funeral in Baghdad, Iraq. At least 21 were killed. The day before an ISIS bomb killed 43 people in Beirut, Lebanon. We should also point out that, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the vast majority of Syrian civilians killed in the first half of 2015 were killed by their own government forces, with ISIS responsible for about 1,000 of some 80,000 deaths.

ISIS explained: ISIS frequently asked questions. IRIN news piechart showing Syrian civilian deaths and who caused them

Source: Irin News


Why is ISIS destroying history / antiquities / Palmyra?

ISIS hit the headlines in 2015 by destroying ancient temples at the UN world heritage site in Palmyra, Syria. According to Dr. David Roberts at King’s College London, destroying artefacts and historical sites fulfils a number of objectives. Firstly destroying places like Palmyra rejects a “nationalist agenda”. Basically, ISIS wants loyalty from people who live in areas the group controls. ISIS sees sites of ancient cultural heritage as a challenge to their rule, as they are linked to the national identity of a country. Secondly, they see these sites as false idols which must be destroyed. Third, running a caliphate is expensive. ISIS needs cash and selling antiques brings in a lot of money, go figure. Fourth, acts like these create instant media coverage – something which ISIS craves.

Is ISIS Islamic?

This question is being asked but let’s be clear: this is obviously a pretty controversial topic and we’re keeping away from taking sides. A better question might be “Why do people keep asking if ISIS is Islamic?” Violent acts have been carried out in the name of other religions yet we don’t often question whether these religions teach war.

So, onto the question of whether ISIS is Islamic. ISIS claims to represent the purest of pure forms of Islam, and yet many Muslims and religious leaders around the world have stated that ISIS does not represent Islam at all. To hammer the point home over 100 Muslim scholars wrote an open letter listing 24 essential aspects of Islam that ISIS has violated. These include not killing journalists and prisoners, not misinterpreting Islamic Sharia law and not torturing people.

In his article “What ISIS Really Wants” writer Graeme Wood explores how some ISIS supporters have very deeply held religious beliefs. He writes that “the reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” Wood interviews Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel who says the claim that ISIS is not Islamic is “preposterous”. Haykel argues that ISIS uses the same religious texts as other Muslims to justify its actions. Who’s to say which take on Islam is the true version? He concludes that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

Wood’s article drew large amounts of criticism. Writer Caner K. Dagli asked “on what grounds do non-Muslim journalists and academics tell Muslims that their judgment that ISIS does not take a full and fair view of the Quran … while these non-Muslims retain the right to judge how “serious” ISIS is in its understanding of core Islamic texts?” However, it’s certainly an interesting topic to debate.


Who is ISIS’ leader? Which ISIS leader was killed?

ISIS Explained - Frequently Asked Questions; Abu Bakr Baghdadi the head of ISIS

Abu Bakr Baghdadi. Credit: Flickr.

The current leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In 2014 he was named as the group’s caliph, which is the leader of the caliphate. ISIS was originally founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006 by US airstrikes. Al-Zarqawi’s successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri was killed, along with another key figure, in a joint US-Iraqi raid near Tikrit in Iraq. At this point it was reported by the US armed forces that the group’s leadership had been “neutralised”, with 42 of the top leaders having been killed or captured.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader, was appointed new leader in May 2010. It later emerged through accounts from ISIS defectors that al-Baghdadi managed to replenish the group’s leadership with former Iraqi military and intelligence who had served under Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi leader toppled by the US invasion of Iraq.


Where do ISIS get their funding? Where did ISIS get Toyota? Where do ISIS weapons come from?

The group gains large amounts of money from selling oil. Tracking who buys this oil is difficult as it is sold on the black market. However Russia and other countries accuse Turkey of buying ISIS oil. ISIS is also responsible for kidnappings, human trafficking and the selling of sex slaves. According to the US treasury ISIS made $20m in kidnap ransoms in 2014. The group also relies on “donations” from unknown individuals. Stopping this flow of cash is regularly suggested as an alternative method of combating the group. We covered the financials of ISIS in Part 3: What makes ISIS seem so powerful?

In 2014 ISIS took control of large areas in Iraq. Reuters reports that ISIS seized 2,300 armoured vehicles, 40 tanks and 74,000 guns from the Iraqi government. Want to know the awkward part? This equipment was given to the Iraqi army by the USA. What about the Toyota vehicles seen in ISIS propaganda videos? ISIS is now mega rich, so Jonathan Schanzer, a former tracker of terrorist finances for the U.S. Treasury, believes they are buying Toyota jeeps through car dealerships, just like we would.

“They’re probably going right into the dealerships and purchasing them, and not identifying as ISIS. Who would?”

Where do ISIS fighters come from? Who does ISIS recruit? How does ISIS recruit youth?

ISIS is thought to have around 30,000 fighters. The CIA estimate that 15,000 are from foreign countries (not Syria or Iraq). The majority of ISIS fighters are thought to be from predominantly Muslim countries like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. However one of the group’s successes has been encouraging people from the West and all over the world to travel to Syria to fight. By the last estimate around 700 Britons have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. For an extensive breakdown of the ISIS command chain and where fighters come from we recommend this excellent explainer by the New York Times.

Frequently Asked Questions about ISIS: Where does ISIS recruit from. Screenshot of infographic in the New York Times

Where ISIS fighters come from. Source: New York Times

As we explored in Part 3, ISIS fighters join for a variety of specific reasons. The original resistance fighters in Jam’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (which later became ISIS) were fighting against governments in Jordan and Iraq which they saw as un-Islamic. People living in ISIS controlled areas are being indoctrinated to the ISIS version of Islam. Others are attracted by the pay cheque: ISIS fighters receive £350 per month.

Some think Western interference in the Middle East produced more ISIS fighters. Before the 2003 Iraq war the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. This ruling party was a group of Sunni Muslims, even though Sunnis were a minority in Iraq. In 2003 the US and the UK entered Iraq and took out Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. They handed over power to a Shia government. Jacobin Magazine describes how the “de-Ba’athification policy implemented by US occupation forces” meant that anyone who had been a member of the Ba’ath Party was dismissed from their job, denied public-sector work, and barred from accessing their pensions. Many analysts say this was a massive mistake as being a member of the party was necessary if you wanted a job. Lots of Sunnis felt unrepresented in the political process and so joined ISIS to fight the authorities.

Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times that “Islamic State has been adept in exploiting the alienation felt by many young Muslims”. The group “offers to give meaning, whether in this life or the next, to meaningless lives.” This would seem to be true in the West as well as the Middle East. According to The Nation many young ISIS fighters are not fuelled “by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders”. It’s just that ISIS is the first group to offer “these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”




How does ISIS use social media?

Part of ISIS’ recruitment success is thanks to the group really understanding social media. Its media centre creates propaganda videos and a monthly magazine, Dabiq. These are produced in English, suggesting they are focused on a Western audience. Social media posts also emphasise the stability of life in the Islamic state, referencing water pipes being fixed and new dental practices being opened. For more on ISIS’ strengths check out Part 3: What makes ISIS seem so powerful?


Are ISIS terrorists? Is ISIS a threat to the UK?

MI5 defines terrorism as an action or a threat designed to intimidate the public or to influence the government for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological goal. We (like most media outlets) describe ISIS as a terrorist group, but also use the terms “militant” and “extremist”. However it may be reductive to just think of the group as merely terrorists. As the National Journal describes “the group looks and acts more like a government with a military than a traditional terrorist group.” This week, leaked documents revealed ISIS’s detailed plans for the Islamic State.

Others would even dispute that ISIS are terrorists. As writer Gerald Seymour puts it: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Now that you’ve read our series explaining ISIS we’ll leave you to decide what you think.

The current UK threat level for international terrorism is severe. Whilst this isn’t solely because of ISIS, the group’s actions probably have an effect on it. After ISIS attacked Paris several newspapers reported claims that the UK is next to be targeted. In August it was reported that ISIS soldiers were in Britain and preparing for an attack. For obvious reasons it’s very difficult for us to verify the likelihood of these claims coming true. Whilst trying to convince MPs to bomb ISIS in Syria Prime Minister David Cameron stated that Britain was in the top-tier of ISIS targets. However Cameron also says the security services foiled seven planned terrorist plots* in the UK in recent months. It’s worth pointing out that attacks in the UK may not be directed by ISIS. Many are “copycat” events. Are we safe or not? That’s the million dollar question.

*It’s unclear whether these attacks were linked to ISIS.



ISIS Explained: how much do we really know?

As we explain in the introduction to this series, our understanding of ISIS is constantly changing. We’ve done our best to compress some of the main ideas, but some things don’t have a rough and ready straightforward explanation. We thought we’d try anyway. Hopefully this series does a little to decode some of the myths and questions surrounding ISIS. Think we missed something? Let us know

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