Al Jazeera explores the origins and evolution of the world's most feared and powerful insurgent group - ISIL.














The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been a devastating force against those

it battles as well as those it purportedly governs.


Its sudden rise and expansion in 2014 has perplexed many. It has humiliated its enemies, including those in Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran and Washington. Armed with extensive

weaponry, boasting an international fighting force and adept in the art of digital media propaganda, ISIL has become the de facto authority across an area the size of Jordan.


ISIL at a glance



“The moment Saddam Hussein’s statue fell…

it brought all of the security down with it.” – Ashraf Osman

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, United States President George W Bush

claims that Iraq’s continued possession and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)

 - an accusation that was later proved erroneous - and its support for al-Qaeda, made disarming

the country a new priority.


In November 2002, UN Security Council Resolution 1441 affords Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.”


After seeking no further UN resolutions through the Security Council and considering further diplomatic efforts futile, Bush declares an end to diplomacy in March 2003.


Saddam Hussein is issued an ultimatum giving the Iraqi president 48 hours to leave the country.


When he refuses to leave, US and allied forces launch an attack.


Four countries participate with troops - United States (148,000), United Kingdom (45,000), Australia (2,000) and Poland (194) - invading Iraq and deposing the Baathist government of

Saddam Hussein.



With the country shorn of its leader and its government, what began as an invasion, soon turned into an occupation.

The country was run by one person, Saddam Hussein. And you remove that person and not attending to any security, political, economic of the country for more than 100 days, it amounts to

be gross negligence by the American administration there.”


The US led invasion on Iraq took just 6 weeks to bring Saddam Hussein’s 24-year rule to an iconic end.


Labelled Operation Iraqi Freedom by the US, the 2003 invasion of Iraq lasted from 19 March – 1 May 2003 and marked the start of the conflict that later came to be known as the Iraq War.


Coalition forces seize Baghdad after 21 days of major combat operations.



Shortly after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, the new, US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) introduced an extensive de-Baathification process aimed at eliminating the Baath party's influence in Iraq’s political and military affairs.


Despite being a secular leader, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was viewed by the majority Shia Muslims as inherently sectarian. Sunni minority rule saw many Shia Muslims forced out of Iraq under his regime.


During the de-Baathification process, the CPA relied heavily on the expertise of exiled Iraqi Shia Muslims. This resulted in personal bias and political score-settling becoming pervasive throughout the process.


De-Baathification had an enormous impact on cleansing the civil service and disbanding the military, security and other organisations central to public order.


Disbanding the army and setting up the de-Ba’athification commission became a tool of political vengeance in Ahmad Chalabi’s hands. We never recovered from those things because hundreds of thousands of people became unemployed, disillusioned, disenfranchised and took to insurgency.” – ALI KHEDERY

The de-Baathification process meant government forces were stripped of their military capabilities. At the same time, thousands of newly unemployed Iraqi soldiers turned to Sunni insurgent militias, greatly strengthening the anti-government forces.

“Two disaffected constituencies who had been mortal enemies for many years had finally decided that they had some common ground. It was just a variation on the ancient mantra of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’


The de-Baathification policy soon became a tool of political retribution that grew more and more sectarian in its execution.


The improvised nature of Sunni attacks now combined with the Baathist know-how, pushed

the insurgency to a new scale of terror.  But for the US, Sunni violence against Shia targets was not the primary concern.


The more serious element of it was not seen to be the Sunni-based insurgency, but rather the various uprisings associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, who had started to organise the Mahdi Army to defend Shia interests.


By the spring of 2004 there were two insurgencies. There was the Sunni insurgency in the central part of the country and then there was a southern Shia insurgency led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a relatively radical Shia cleric also exploiting the opportunity to try to drag the US into a quagmire, to exhaust it, to humiliate it and to ultimately get it to withdraw.” – ALI KHEDERY

The US invasion of Iraq had spawned two insurgencies, igniting an increasingly sectarian conflict.





“He became like Al Capone or

public enemy number one”

– Ali Al Allawi

No one embraced the apocalyptic vision of a Sunni-Shia war, more than the man used to

justify American aggression - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.


Prior to 2003, contrary to American claims, the Jordanian Zarqawi had no formal alignment

with al-Qaeda or its leadership. A year later, with coalition troops in control of Iraq, the once

lone-wolf jihadist had become the figurehead of the Sunni insurgency.

He was trying to portray himself as a Rambo of the Muslim world… Zarqawi revolutionised the ideology of al-Qaeda. See, al-Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri was built on anti-Americanism. Now, Zarqawi in Iraq after 2003 started to introduce the sectarian element of it, which is anti-Shia. And once the sectarian war erupted, then you get a failed, dysfunctional state, and this is the best environment the Jihadist work.”  – MOWAFFAK AL RUBAIE

A year after claiming Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda, the US' falsehood became a self-fulfilling prophecy with Zarqawi centre-stage.

"A man named Zarqawi is responsible for planting car bombs and beheading Americans. He swore his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Our troops will defeat Zarqawi and his likes overseas in Iraq so we do not have to face them here at home.” -


The US president’s rallying words that Zarqawi would be defeated, failed to stop the beheading of US contractor Nick Berg. None of the masked men involved in the killing could be identified. But the video of Berg’s final moments placed Zarqawi as main executioner.


The standard-issue orange jumpsuit, and the staged spectacle of brutality, would now become familiar markers of a new phase in terror, focused around one figure.


Zarqawi was successful in triggering a sectarian war by bombing two shrines in Samarra.

The bombings generated a counterterror led by a large number of groups  affiliated or associated with the Shia militias.


By April of 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq was fighting both an insurgency and a sectarian war leaving the country awash with blood.


“There are bad options and there are worse options”


On May 20, 2006, President Bush’s dreams of bringing democracy to Iraq came true. Nouri al-Maliki became Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister.


Nouri al-Maliki had come to power echoing George W Bush’s warning to

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the new government was ready to meet the challenge of

defeating the Sunni insurgents.


A month after Iraq’s first democratic elections, Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike.

Stepping up to fill the void at the top of al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of its  founders - Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

By October 2006, the group had merged with other Sunni insurgents. Masri announced the formation of a new entity – the Islamic State of Iraq.



“We’re essentially allying with al-Qaeda”

 – Nafeez Ahmed

In September 2006, 30 tribes in the Anbar province formed the “Anbar Awakening”, an alliance to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) militants. Despite initially accepting al-Qaeda in Iraq due to a shared anti-occupation and anti-Shia agenda, AQI’s violently fanatic religious programme ultimately encourages Sunni tribes to unite with US forces.

The collaboration successfully tested in Anbar province – once Iraq’s most violent – was adopted in other AQI-plagued regions, contributing to a dramatic removal of the Islamic State of Iraq’s insurgency.


It seemed like a winning strategy, but in a rapidly failing state, the line between ally and enemy was increasingly blurred.


One of the secrets of the surge was the US government, working with the Sunni tribes across provinces to put them on the payroll, give them a means of earning a living rather than throwing them to the wolves with Ba’athis and al-Qaeda. When we put them on the payroll, nearly 100,000 of them, we saw that with our support and our financing, our weapons, they were able to obliterate al-Qaeda within a span of really months.” – ALI KHEDERY

“Ironically some of these guys were the same guys that were already fighting alongside al-Qaeda in preceding years. ... we were allying with essentially al-Qaeda affiliated groups to fight al-Qaeda on the pretext that they weren’t actually al-Qaeda. But they were only al-Qaeda affiliated. And we were just pouring money into this.” – NAFEEZ AHMED

As the US' focus shifted to building ties with local tribes, the Maliki government was breaking promises made to their leaders.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker went into Prime Minister Maliki repeatedly and said, we have spent billions of dollars supporting them but now they’re Iraqi citizens, they are helping you maintain security and stability, you need to put them on your payroll, he refused, dragged his feet for years. And so when al-Qaeda or others came offering cash, they had no choice but to accept”. – ALI KHEDERY

By the end of 2007, after the death of almost 100,000 Iraqi civilians and over 4,000 coalition troops, the prevailing narrative was of a fatally weakened Islamic State of Iraq.


Failures of policy and foresight that had dogged the US occupation had supposedly been overcome. But at that same moment, they were being repeated at Camp Bucca.





“What Camp Bucca and other military facilities ended

up being were luxury radicalisation centres...”


Built at the start of the occupation, Camp Bucca’s first detainees came from the notorious

Abu Ghraib prison. The US military held up Camp Bucca as an example of how a model

detention facility should be run.

But the US policy of indiscriminately rounding up large swaths of Sunni men, brought ordinary Iraqi civilians together with radicalised individuals. It allowed for those radicalised elements to promote and recruit for the insurgency.

The Americans by that point had reached a thinking - ‘We came here as liberators and now we’re occupiers. How do we trust anyone here? So we wanna get them all together, we want to sequentially vet them and decide who’s against us and who we can work with.’ That was the intention but the effect was something completely to the opposite.  There were large numbers of people who weren’t against them in the first place when they went into Bucca who were very much against them when they were released.”


On September 17, 2009 Camp Bucca closed down with thousands of prisoners released back into their towns and villages. More than 100,000 detainees had reportedly passed through Camp Bucca.


While the insurgency regrouped under the glare of Camp Bucca; across the border in Syria,

the fate of two nations was being forged away from prying eyes.


“There were indications that there were secret meetings between the Assad regime, former Iraq Baathi officers and then individuals, jihadists who would one day rise to head ISIL.” - ALI KHEDERY

President Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with jihadists, was all about short-term security

at a time of heightened paranoia. For the jihadists too, Assad and the Baathists were simply a means to an end.

I went and met President Assad twice. And presented him with material evidence, documents, satellite pictures, confession, all sort of evidence that his security forces were involved in actively in transporting Jihadists from Syria to Iraq. And also, there were training camps with names and locations. He was in total denial of that. I remember telling him that this will in no time, it will backfire on Syria.” – MOWAFFAK AL RUBAIE

The alliance between Baathists and jihadists conspired in secret, while insurgents plotted

in prison.


A troubling perfect storm had been brewing since the US invasion of Iraq, but by 2009,  the worst of the turbulence had supposedly been weathered. The Sunni insurgency was considered beaten.


The newly created Islamic State of Iraq was given a breather.


The August 2009 Baghdad ministry bombings proved that the US troop surge and so-called ‘Awakening’ of Sunni tribes, hadn’t stopped the Islamic State of Iraq from striking at the

heart of Iraqi power.


In the deadliest attack in Iraq since 2007, two suicide car bombs targeted the Ministry of Justice and the Baghdad Provincial Council building. 115 people were killed and at least 721 injured.


In April 2010, the incumbent leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed by a joint operation between the US and Iraqi forces.


It wasn’t long before a new leader emerged to head the Sunni insurgence - a man

the Americans knew all about.


“Baghdadi was somebody that the Americans

thought that they could work with.”


Arrested in Fallujah by US forces in February 2004, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was detained at the

US-run Camp Bucca prison as part of the mass internment programme.


Baghdadi’s links to Sunni insurgent groups were known to the Americans, but what they discovered, was just how useful he could be to them.


Baghdadi was somebody that the Americans thought that they could work with.  They had this combustible environment of people who hated them. So imagine a situation where a figure with clerical authority can come to them and say, 'Well, no. I can sort this out for you.  Just leave it with me.'  That took a massive burden off their hands.”  – MARTIN CHULOV

The man who had been brought to Camp Bucca as a known insurgent, played the part of peacemaker. It was enough to convince the US authorities, that he no longer posed a threat.


In the six years after his release, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq, continued with

a campaign of sporadic, but deadly bomb attacks.






“ISIL is the product

of genocide in Syria.”


What began as a peaceful protest against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, mutated into an armed insurrection.

An uprising became a civil war and the Islamic State of Iraq seized the opportunity to enter the frayed edges of another sectarian battleground.


For President Assad, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, was a lifeline he could

ill-afford to lose.

The rise of the Islamist factions played into his hands and gave him the opportunity to use the same kind of dangerous rhetoric that the West has used in the War on Terror. Saying we’re fighting terrorists and using it to crack down, in a very brutal way, and, you know, obviously he was killing hundreds of thousands of civilians indiscriminately.” – NAFEEZ AHMED

“There were figures released by Jane’s Defence Weekly which revealed that six percent of the Syrian regime’s air strikes actually aimed at ISIL targets.


 The rest of them aimed at either the opposition or communities that support the opposition.” - MARTIN CHULOV


“ISIL came at a great time for the Syrian regime because  the supporters of the regime, Iran and Russia, were always saying these are terrorists, these are not opposition.”


While Syria descended into civil war, Iraq opted to give Nouri al-Maliki a second term in office.

At the beginning of 2012, with US troops having left Iraq, Maliki moved to arrest Sunni members of his own government, accusing them of terrorist activities.


Having failed to address legitimate Sunni grievances, Maliki’s purge of Sunnis from his cabinet would play its part in pushing civil unrest to the brink of civil war.


Government crackdowns on Sunni protests in Falllujah and Ramadi, led to the cities becoming

sites of resentment that became very attractive for the jihadists who were ascendant just across

the  border in Syria.


There was some ISIL infiltration at these protests, and so Maliki used that as an excuse to carry out a military operation, a raid on one of these protest sites in Hawija in April 2013. The Iraqi Special Forces basically machine gunned dozens of people. That’s really when the civil war, the insurgency was fully reignited.” – ALI KHEDERY

The Islamic State of Iraq now waged war across two fronts, Iraq and Syria.

Its strategy in Iraq remained guerrilla insurrection and suicide bomb attacks, while in Syria, it was to move to a whole new level of warfare.


While the Western media focused on recruits from their own nations, the Islamic State of Iraq attracted thousands of seasoned fighters from Central Asia, North Africa and across the Middle East.


Recognising no other authority above his own, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dismissed the authority of al-Qaeda, and claimed the Syrian insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra, as part of his own organisation.


The new entity would have a new name - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL.


And Baghdadi’s state-building mission began in Syria.


“The city of Al-Raqqah of Syria was the first significant, recognisable name that they took… they controlled it fully and they were able to start instilling their very demonic way of rule”


In January 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant moved back across the border to Iraq, to take control of Fallujah.


Just six months after overwhelming Iraqi Security Forces in Fallujah, ISIL set its sights

on Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.


Failures of governance since the 2003 US invasion, had left Mosul vulnerable to a new invading force.


“I asked one Iraqi four-star general, he recently retired, why the army collapsed so quickly at Mosul, and he said, "Corruption, corruption, corruption.”


5 to 600 ISIL forces drove their trucks into the city of Mosul six divisions of the Iraqi army, roughly 120,000 men, melted like the snow. ISIL were able to seize six divisions’ worth of strategic weaponry, all of it US-supplied, all of it modern. They had at least 250 Humvees, 200 troop carriers as well.  They had 30-odd N-1 Abrams tanks and enough weaponry to supply any modern army for many years.” – MARTIN CHULOV

We spent nearly $200 billion on the Iraqi army this when, when, when the real war against ISIL started after, after Mosul. There wasn’t

a single plane in the air force, they had, they had to go and, and lease some from, from Iran. There was nothing frankly between them and Baghdad. They came within about eight miles from my house and the people who stopped them, if truth be told, were the Iranian generals and the Shia militias.” – ALI ALLAWI

A day after seizing Mosul, and now armed with US weaponry, ISIL marched on Tikrit, taking another Sunni-majority city.


The group with pretensions of being a caliphate, now had its own territory across two countries, and very soon, it would proclaim its very own caliph.


ISIL and The New Great Game

“The amount of oil that ISIL were able to sell, was up-upwards of around $3-4,000,000 per day.” – MARTIN CHULOV

By mid-2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant controlled territory equal to the size

of Jordan.

On the June 29, 2014 the would-be caliphate now unveiled its self-appointed

Caliph - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It began as an insurgency against US occupation in Iraq,

but now, insurgent groups from across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia pledged

their allegiance to ISIL.


The self-declared ‘Islamic State’ of Iraq and the Levant would ally modern communications with age-old rule by fear to govern and grow.

“They're a bunch of psychopaths who love  to decapitate and mutilate people.”


“This is the most socially mediated conflict in history without doubt.” – SHIRAZ MAHER

This sort of projection of terror by ISIS through the social media, through the internet, through YouTube, I think in a way that was never being done before, created a climate of fear which demoralised their opponents whether they were army or Syrian or− they were the Iraqi army or Kurds. So, they ran away even before the first shots were fired.” – PATRICK COCKBURN

In August 2014, with ISIL’s march across northern Iraq and eastern parts of Syria seemingly unstoppable, a long-awaited, international military response finally arrived.


Twelve years on from declaring a so-called ‘War on Terror’, an American president, leading

a multinational coalition that included the Gulf countries as well as Turkey, once more announced a new campaign to combat the same scourge.

As initial air strikes centred on the oil-rich Kurdish region where Western oil companies

had multi-billion dollar investments, the coalition’s bombing failed to make a

significant impact against ISIL.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant hadn’t been destroyed or degraded. A united coalition, was being exposed as a patchwork of conflicted interests, and ISIL’s usefulness to its supposed enemies, was proving its greatest asset.


It was a contradiction, and opportunity, that Turkey found impossible to resist.



Turkey’s national interests remained focused on preventing Kurdish sovereignty – at any price.


As ISIL took control of oil and gas fields in both Syria and Iraq, Turkey played its part in keeping the black gold flowing.


ISIL made full use of the resources in its control. And it found that mortal enemies were also willing buyers.

“ISIL commandeered the oilfields of eastern Syria to sell crude to the Syrian regime, which it used for its own war effort, but it’s also been able to smuggle large amounts of oil across the border into Turkey, that has sustained the ISIL war effort as well. There were figures in 2014 that the amount of oil that ISIL were able to sell, both to the Turks and the Syrians, was upwards of around

 $3-4,000,000 per day


“ISIL is sitting here… surrounded by enemies. How is it getting its oil out? Most of this oil is actually being shipped in a very simple way in trucks which are literally just travelling across the border. And one of the most conspicuous routes is between Syria and Turkey where you actually have these convoys of trucks just transporting this oil within broad daylight.”


A US-led coalition force supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, bombed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from the skies. But on the ground, ISIL maintained its control as well as its resources.


The rise of ISIL exposed the unresolved rifts in the region’s politics. Enemies of old were being drawn deeper into a new web of tangled interests.


In October 2015, both Russian and American fighter-jets dropped bombs on Syria, both with

their own objectives, both claiming ISIL as their number one target.


Russia, like Iran, sought to preserve its ally President Assad, while the US-led coalition stirred for regime change.


Syria was stuck in the middle of a fight for regional control.

Less than a month before snap elections in November 2015, a suicide bomb attack at a peace rally in Ankara, devastated the Turkish capital. Nearly 100 dead in its capital city, bore testament to Turkey’s contradictory policies.


The heavy price Turkey was warned it would pay, for its part in the chaos across its borders,

was now exacted on its own citizens.  Amid rumours of state complicity, the Turkish government, honed in on a familiar suspect. Without claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIL was front and centre in yet another deadly maelstrom.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is becoming further entwined in a widening web, with allies and foes competing, and coalescing, for their own interests. NATO countries jostle with Russia and Arab states resisting a resurgent Iran, while all the time they all insist they’re fighting ISIL.


And all the while ISIL stands its ground and dares to rise.

 “It’s been 14 years since 9/11.

It’s been 12 years since the invasion of Iraq.

It’s been a year since Mosul fell…

Trillions of dollars have been spent, tens of thousands of lives,

have been lost, what is the excuse?

There is none.”





DIGITAL ADAPTATION OF 'Enemy of Enemies: The Rise of ISIL'

Writer/Producer - SANJIEV JOHAL

Digital producer - ALI RAE