The Origins of the Islamic State

From early terrorist beginnings to the current Islamic State War



The Islamist Jihadist group now known as The Islamic State, had its origins in the radical Sunni Jihadist movement fostered by Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaida group.  What is now called The Islamic State has had many names as it evolved from a minor off-shoot of al-Qaida to become the central belligerent in the current regional Middle East War.


In 1989, a Jordanian-born Islamist militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, like many other Jihadist militants, travelled to Afghanistan, intending to fight against the occupying Soviet Union.  Arriving too late to participate in the fighting (the Soviets withdrew from that war in 1989), Zarqawi instead befriended Osama bin-Laden, who had been instrumental in recruiting and supplying Jihadists from the Arab nations who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.  Soon after meeting bin-Laden, Zarqawi returned home to Jordan in the early 1990s and founded a local militant group called Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Sham) in 1991.  (NOTE: the word "Sham" is Arabic for the region encompassing, generally, modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel.  In English, Sham is often translated as the word Levant).

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Arrested in 1992 for militant activities involving weapons and explosives, Zarqawi was released from a Jordanian prison in 1999.  He continued his active militancy, and was implicated in the "Millennium Plot" to bomb Jordanian hotels and several targets in the United States.  Zarqawi fled Jordan, returning to Afghanistan where he again connected with bin-Laden.  The al-Qaida leader provided money and resources for Zarqawi to open up a militant training camp in Afghanistan.  It was during this time period that he set up the group Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), also known by the initials JTJ.

Following the al-Qaida attack on the United States, American forces invaded Afghanistan, Zarqawi and his group fought alongside al-Qaida and the Taliban against American forces. After being wounded in the Afghanistan War, Zarqawi left Afghanistan, reportedly moving between Iran, Iraq, and Syria.  Zarqawi and his followers had camps in Iraq and in Syria, and his presence in Iraq (which most likely was not with the permission of Saddam's government), was one of the justifications for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, as his group was considered (rightfully so) as an off-shoot of al-Qaida.

Following the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Zarqawi and his JTJ became the best known and most violent of the Sunni resistance groups, quickly earning a reputation for brutality, JTJ used suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, video-taped beheadings of foreigners, bombings of Shi'ite mosques, and many attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces.


On October 17, 2004, JTJ pledged allegiance to bin-Laden and al-Qaida, and changed its name to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, but is best known by the name al-Qaida in Iraq.


In January, 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq joined with five other Sunni groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council, to further coordinate their resistance to the U.S. forces and to the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government.


 The United States attempted to kill or capture Zarqawi multiple times, and June 7, 2006, a targeted U.S. airstrike destroyed Zarqawi's safe house in the Iraqi city of Baqabah, killing him and others.

In October of 2006, the Mujahideen Shura Council re-organized and renamed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), now led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, due to the death of Zarqawi.  The Islamic State of Iraq continued the tactics begun by Zarqawi, with beheadings and bombing attacks on civilian targets.  This newly named group retained allegiance and connections with al-Qaida.

After the death of al-Masri in 2010, al-Baghdadi became the sole leader of ISI and, in conjunction with al-Qaeda, sent Abu Mohammad al-Golani to Syria in 2012 to start a Syrian branch of  al-Qaeda to take part in the new Syrian civil war.  This Syrian branch of al-Qaida became known as Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham (Support Front for the People of the Sham).  The shortened version of the name, The Nusra Front, is the best known name for this group.

On April 8, 2013, al-Baghdadi declared that his group, al-Qaida in Iraq, had merged with the Nusra Front to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (known both as ISIL and ISIS). Al-Golani disputed this merger, and appealed to the leader of the main branch of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri (who had taken over following bin-Laden's death), to resolve the dispute.  The al-Qaida leader sided with al-Golani and the Nusra Front, and told al-Baghdadi to confine his activities to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham then broke away from al-Qaida, launching attacks on the Nusra Front in Syria.


On June 29, 2014, al-Baghdadi declared himself the leader of a worldwide caliphate (claiming authority of all the world's Muslims), and renamed his group as The Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, The Leader of the Islamic State

Thus, we can trace the lineage of the current Islamic State from the beginnings of al-Zarqawi's Jund al-Sham to the JTJ, to al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mujahedeen Shura Council, to the Islamic State of al-Sham to the Islamic State.  So, while the American intervention in Iraq that began in June, 2014 to stop the military advances of the Islamic State was the first official action against the current Jihadist organization, in reality, the U.S. has been fighting this group since the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan in a military sense, even though the U.S. and her allies have been targets of the terrorist activities of this group since 1999.  Looked at through the prism of the history and origins of the Islamic State all the way back to the beginning of Zarqawi's terrorism in 1999 and 2000, and his leadership of Jund al-Sham in the Afghanistan War, the U.S. has been battling this organization since before the start of the so-called "War on Terror."