The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the International Response

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(Disponible en français : La réponse internationale à l’État islamique en Irak et au Levant)

The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and al‑Sham, the Islamic State (IS) and Daesh (in Arabic) – is a militant Sunni jihadist group with transnational ambitions.

Its objective is to expand its territorial control and consolidate its rule as an Islamic state governed by a strict interpretation of sharia law.

ISIL grew out of terrorist groups that were active in Afghanistan, Jordan and Iraq in the late 1990s and 2000s. Between 2004 and 2006, the group was known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. In 2011, the group, now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, began to expand into Syria; in 2013, it broke away from Al-Qaeda and renamed itself ISIL.

ISIL grabbed international attention in 2014 following high profile military-style attacks in Iraq and Syria. In January 2014, ISIL seized the city of Raqqa, which has become its main stronghold in Syria. In June 2014, ISIL swept through northern Iraq, gaining control of Mosul, the country’s second most populous city.

ISIL’s expansion to Syria was enabled in part by the conflict that has engulfed that country since 2011. In Iraq, ISIL capitalized on a deteriorating security situation, growing sectarianism and feelings of political disenfranchisement by the Sunni population.

ISIL has committed extreme violence and human rights abuses, including beheadings, torture and suicide bombings. It has deliberately persecuted religious minorities, and carried out systematic sexual violence against women and girls, including sexual slavery.

The group has also destroyed historic monuments and cultural artefacts. The actions of ISIL have contributed to a humanitarian crisis that is affecting countries in the wider Middle East region, Europe and beyond.

What is ISIL?

A number of factors make ISIL a unique organization and international threat, including its ability to self-finance and recruit. ISIL is estimated to have access to significant financial resources, which it generates primarily through taxation, illicit oil sales, extortion, ransom, the sale of looted antiquities, and smuggling. While reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, one estimate put ISIL’s revenue at about US$80 million per month as of late 2015.

ISIL has drawn in thousands of recruits from across the globe. Estimates of the total number of ISIL fighters vary widely. According to the Soufan Group – a U.S.-based intelligence consultancy organization – between 27,000 and 31,000 people from at least 86 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIL and other violent extremist groups.

The majority of foreign fighters are from Arab countries, with the largest number of nationals coming from Tunisia. About 130 individuals with Canadian connections are believed to have travelled abroad to engage in terrorist activities, many of whom have gone to Iraq and Syria. ISIL has a large and active social media presence, which it uses to recruit and propagate its message.

ISIL proclaimed itself a caliphate in June 2014 and seeks to expand its global footprint. This desire to not only control territory, but also to govern as an Islamic state, is a key characteristic that differentiates ISIL from other terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda.

Countering ISIL

In August 2014, the United States initiated direct military action against ISIL and assembled a coalition of countries to combat the group. That coalition, which is composed of more than 60 countries including Canada, is guided by multiple “lines of effort” that include stopping the flow of foreign fighters to the region, cutting off the group’s financing, addressing humanitarian needs and countering ISIL’s ideological narrative. While about a quarter of the coalition partners have participated in airstrikes, the vast majority have been conducted by U.S. forces.

Cropped map of the Middle East showing coalition airstrikes, from January to December 2015.Sources: Figure prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016. The figure was created using data from the U.S. Department of Defence, Operation Inherent Resolve, 2016; Natural Resources Canada, “The World (2000)Atlas of Canada’s Reference Map Series, scale 1:35,000,000; and United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, “Global Administrative Unit Layer G2015_2014,” GeoNetwork. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Some information is licensed under Open Government Licence – Canada.


On 8 February 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau announced Canada’s new policy for responding to ISIL. The policy committed to ending Canada’s air strike operations in Iraq and Syria; increasing to 830 from 650 the number of Canadian Air Force personnel deployed under Operation Impact; and tripling the size of Canada’s “train, advise and assist mission” in Iraq.

The government also pledged to increase Canada’s humanitarian assistance to the region. Canada previously committed to taking in 25,000 refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria.

At the multilateral level, the United Nations Security Council has been setting the international political and legal context to strengthen international sanctions against ISIL and counter its access to financing and recruits. Notable UN Security Council resolutions targeting ISIL include Resolution 2178 (2014), which addresses the recruitment of foreign fighters; Resolution 2199 (2015), which targets the sources of funding for ISIL; and Resolution 2253 (2015), which strengthens mechanisms to combat the financing of terrorism.


While the security threat posed by ISIL is most pronounced in Iraq and Syria, it also extends to other parts of the region and globe. For example, reports indicate that the group is expanding its control into other countries: senior ISIL commanders are now operating in Libya, and militant groups in Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and other countries have also sworn allegiance to ISIL.

In addition, ISIL has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks that have occurred outside of Iraq and Syria. These included the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt and attacks against civilians in France and Lebanon in November 2015.

Notwithstanding its persistence in Syria and Iraq, ISIL faces numerous challenges. ISIL has no state allies; it is the target of a sustained bombing campaign by the international coalition; and it is confronted on the ground by local forces, such as the Peshmerga (military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan) and Iraqi Security Forces.

ISIL is challenged by other terrorist and militia groups, including the al-Nusra Front, which is an Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. In the face of this opposition, ISIL’s ability to hold the territory it currently controls – or to conquer new territory – is constrained. By December 2015, ISIL had lost roughly 14% of the territory that it had held in January that same year.

At the same time, despite some progress in rolling back ISIL-controlled territory in key areas such as Ramadi (retaken by Iraqi Security Forces in December 2015), a number of challenges remain in defeating ISIL. These include stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, cutting off ISIL’s financing, and delegitimizing the group’s ideological narrative. In addition, the continuing existence of ISIL is linked to the situation in Syria.

ISIL has taken advantage of weak or non-existent political and security institutions in Syria and the general climate of lawlessness and impunity to establish a base in the country and to draw in financing and recruits. Realizing progress in the fight against ISIL will necessitate finding a sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria.

Related resources

Alberto M. Fernandez, “Here to Stay and Growing: Combating ISIS Propaganda Networks,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, U.S.-Islamic World Forum Papers 2015, October 2015.

Bauchard, Denis, Le Moyen-Orient face à Daech : Défi et ripostes, Paris : IFRI, 2014. (Available in French only)

Charles Lister, “Profiling the Islamic State,” Brookings Doha Center, 1 December 2014.

Christopher M. Blanchard and Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, 3 March 2016.

Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.

Jessica Lewis Mcfate, “The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy,” Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 27, May 2015.

Licourt, Julien et Laure Kermanach, De ses origines aux attentats de Paris, le point sur l’État islamique, Le Figaro, 21 novembre 2015. (Available in French only)

What is ‘Islamic State’?BBC News. 2 December 2015.

Zachary Laub, “The Islamic State,” Council on Foreign Relations, 3 March 2016.

Author: Brian Hermon, Library of Parliament

Categories: International affairs and defence

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