ISIS militants have taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

9 Facts You Should Know About the Islamic State (Formerly Known As ISIS)

ISIS flag courtesy of Wikipedia.

Militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are exploiting the porous border between the two countries.

Here are 8 facts you should know about the ISIS militants that just declared a restored caliphate across Iraq and Syria.

1. They are multi-national Sunni jihadists


facts about ISIS

Photo courtesy of the blog Consortium of Defense Analysts.

ISIS miltants number approximately 7,000 to 10,000. They are Sunni fighters from many different nations – including as many as 1,000 Chechens.

In Iraq, about 35% of the population are Sunni muslims, making them a religious minority. The remainder are mainly Shia, and this divide has been increased by the current authoritarian, sectarian Shia government.

See our explainer on Sunni-Shia tensions for more here.

2. ISIS militants controls a de facto, Islamic, sharia-law state between Iraq and Syria

Things about ISIS

Map courtesy of Wikpedia. Modified by Curiousmatic. Dark red indicates areas controlled by the Islamic State, light red indicates areas the organization claims but doesn’t control.

The group’s Arabic name is Dawlat al-Islam fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAASH), which translates into “The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.”

It’s also sometimes referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an antiquated term for Greater Syria. After declaring itself a caliphate, however, the organization is now only known as the “Islamic State.”

In just three years, ISIS militants have managed to establish what some are calling a de facto state bridging the two countries.

In addition to warfare, ISIS hosts ice cream fun days for children and has put out a call for doctors and engineers to join them.

3. The organization is led by the enigmatic Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi


Photos of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi courtesy of the blog Consortium of Defense Analysts.

Not much is known about al-Baghdadi, except that he was in U.S. custody in 2004. He was arrested along with several other al-Qaeda militants, and was considered no more than a “street thug.”

After his arrest, however, he appears to have gradually risen through the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, eventually creating his own off-shoot called the Islamic State in Iraq.

Al-Baghdadi appeared in his first-ever video earlier this year, delivering a sermon in the captured city of Mosul:

4. ISIS militants are known for brutal tactics against both its enemies and civilians

The fear tactics used by ISIS militants includes suicide bombings, beheadings and crucifixions (warning: graphic photo).

5. al-Qaeda renounced the group in 2013

ISIS evolved out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an anti-U.S. insurgent group. When it changed its name to ISIS and announced that it would expand its operations Syria, however, al-Qaeda leadership disowned the group.

6. A large amount of its funding comes from a savvy business strategy

Map courtesy of International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence fellow Aaron Zelin.

ISIS militants sell oil from wells that it captures, which funds its activities. At one point it even even sold oil to the very regime it was fighting in Syria. The group also produces and sells electricity, robs banks for gold, and sells plundered antiques.

7. After routing the Iraqi army, it’s acquired some heavy weaponry

Militants have seized humvees, tanks, and reportedly even helicopters after the Iraqi security forces fled Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

8. Its operations in northern Iraq have galvanized Kurdistan…

As chaos erupted following ISIS militants’ rapid advance in northern Iraq, Kurdish forces seized the oil-rich Kirkuk region. Rather than attack, the militants may be seeking a truce.

9. … and brought unlikely agreement between the U.S. and Iran

Both countries – historic rivals –  have issued statements of support for Iraq, and the latter has sent in two Revolutionary Guard units to protect Baghdad.

It’s highly unlikely that the U.S. will send ground troops – but it has already targeted ISIS militants with air strikes to halt their advance towards Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Ole Skaar