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Islamic State: its Origins.

Presented by Sidney,

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The Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich is a center of competence for Swiss and international security policy. It offers security policy expertise in research, teaching, and consultancy and operates the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).


The Neo-Caliphate of the “Islamic State”. 2014/12






The IS is descended from a group set up by Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi and his followers joined the Ba’athist-led insurgency against the occupation forces. In 2004, he formally aligned with Osama bin Laden (with whom he previously had had differences) and named his group “al-Qaida in Iraq”. After Zarqawi was killed by the US in 2006, the group adopted the name “Islamic State of Iraq”. This was changed once again in April 2013, as the group established a direct presence in Syria, to the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” and finally in June 2014, to “The Islamic State”. – Four month after the split with al-Qaida.

From an early stage, the group embarked on a sectarian agenda, much to the discomfort of al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan, which advocated Shi’ite-Sunni unity against the West. Between 2003 and 2007, the IS attacked Shi’ites despite advice from the core leadership to concentrate on foreign soldiers. By 2007, resentment against the group had permeated even the Sunni community of Iraq, resulting in a popular tribal uprising against the group. Since the IS drew heavily on foreign jihadists for its operations, it lacked a strong local network and suffered very severe losses of personnel ! (Today, the IS is thought to recruit at least 50% of its core combat strength from abroad, with 25% coming from Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Over 3000 EU nationals are believed to be fighting with the group.)

However, between 2008 and 2010, the group developed an indigenous cadre of leaders who were intimately familiar with Iraqi demographics and were capable of long-term planning. This cadre was a combination of Ba’athists and Salafists, who had been incarcerated together in US-run prisons. The most famous of these was Camp Bucca, in which at least nine top members of the IS were detained.

Ba’athists, many of whom had previously served in the Iraqi military, brought a professional understanding of military tactics and administrative bureaucracy to the IS, while Salafists brought a degree of ideological fervor that few other insurgent groups possessed !