The beheading of US journalist James Foley earlier this week thrust IS (the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS or 'The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant') into the international spotlight.
IS has long been on the radar of Western anti-terror organisations but the rise of the group in recent months peaked last week with the barbaric beheading of James Foley but many have been left wondering; who exactly are IS?
IS is a jihadist group which occupies a growing amount of land in the heart of the Middle East. It is a self proclaimed caliphate, declaring religious authority over muslims all over the world.
It is believed that the group was founded around 2000, albeit under a different name.
Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (abrreviated to JTJ) was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan around 2000. He was supported a number of foreigners and local Islamist sympathisers. According to reports, he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat. He networked extensively in the region including with other radical groups such as Ansar al-Islam. al-Zarqawi's operatives were responsible for the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan in 2002.
Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, JTJ developed into an expanding militant network for the purpose of resisting the coalition occupation forces and their Iraqi allies.
According to Wikipedia, the stated goals of JTJ were: (i) to force a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq; (ii) to topple the Iraqi interim government; (iii) to assassinate collaborators with the occupation regime; (iv) to remove the Shia population and defeat its militias because of its death-squad activities; and (v) to establish subsequently a pure Islamic state.
In July 2005, al-Zarqawi wrote to Ayman al-Zawahiri (previous head of Al-Qaeda) outlining a four-stage plan to expand the Iraq War to include expelling US forces, establishing an Islamic authority in the region and expanding conflict to Iraq's secular neighbours and engaging in the Arab–Israeli conflict.
In January 2006, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) created an umbrella organisation called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), in an attempt to unify Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Its efforts to recruit Iraqi Sunni nationalists and secular groups were undermined by the violent tactics it used against civilians and its extreme Islamic fundamentalist doctrine and the organisation failed.
AQI continued to attribute its attacks to the MSC until mid-October 2006 at which point Abu Ayyub al-Masri declared the formation of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
By late 2007, violent and indiscriminate attacks carried out by rogue AQI/ISI elements against Iraqi civilians had left the group's image in tatters and public support for the group decreased substantially. In a major blow to AQI, many former Sunni militants who had previously fought alongside the group started to work with the American forces.
On 16 May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed the ISI's new leader. He quickly moved to reestablish and strengthen the group declaring the start of a new offensive in Iraq called Breaking the Walls, which would focus on freeing members of the group held in local Iraqi prisons.
The Breaking the Walls campaign culminated in July 2013 with the group carrying out simultaneous raids on Taji and Abu Ghraib prison, freeing more than 500 prisoners, many of them veterans of the Iraqi insurgency.
In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following month violence between demonstrators and security forces lead to a gradual militarisation of the conflict.In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began sending Syrian and Iraqi ISI members, experienced in guerilla warfare, across the border into Syria to establish an organisation inside the country.
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that Al-Nusra Front had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name "Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham".This was later denied by the leader of Al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani.
In June 2013, Al Jazeera reported that it had obtained a letter written by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, addressed to both leaders, in which he ruled against the merger and appointed an emissary to oversee relations between them and put an end to tensions. In the same month, al-Baghdadi released an audio message rejecting al-Zawahiri's ruling and declaring that the merger was going ahead. In October 2013, al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of ISIS, putting Al-Nusra Front in charge of jihadist efforts in Syria. Al-Baghdadi, however, contested al-Zawahiri's ruling on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence and the group continued to operate in Syria.
In February 2014, after an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIS.
On 29 June 2014, ISIS removed "Iraq and the Levant" from its name and began to refer to itself as the Islamic State, declaring its occupied territory a new caliphate and naming Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph.
The IS has been ramping up its activities in recent months. So far this month, the IS has continued its campaign of genocide against the Yazidis. A recent offensive in Northern Iraq left 30-50,000 Yazidis with the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Many of the women have been taken and sold as sex slaves.
On the 14th, brochures urging Muslims to leave Britain and join ISIS were handed out to shoppers in Oxford Street in central London.
On the 19th of August, James Foley was beheaded by a British IS militant in Syria.