Confusion abounds regarding the name of the terrorist group responsible for three video-taped beheadings of Western hostages in the past month, and whether ISIS, ISIL and Islamic State are one and the same. All three terms are heard on worldwide news and many people are uncertain whether there is one militant group or three. Some media outlets refer to ISIS. President Barack Obama and other media outlets call it ISIL. The militant group itself apparently prefers Islamic State. If all three are the same then the question arises as to why they are referred to by three different names.
The group was established in 1999 by Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Initially called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, it transformed its name into “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” once it became a part of the Osama bin Laden network in October 2004. Names grew out of this beginning as the group continued to redefine itself. In June 2014 the current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that the group had set up an Islamic State encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria.
The first three words of the original Arabic name translate as the Islamic State of Iraq, while the last word, “al-Sham,” pertains to either Syria or an undefined region around Syria. Hence the name becomes ISIS. However, that undefined region around Syria has historically been known as the Levant, an area that includes Lebanon, Israel and Palistine, Joran and Syria. Using the term Levant to describe the area leads to the name ISIL.
In June things got even more complicated as ISIL announced that it was dropping the last two letters of either of the acronyms in favor of the name Islamic State. While al-Qaeda is composed of networks that connect with a fundamental base, the Islamic State has the goal of actually having a physical state with expanded borders.
Leading Muslim groups, the Association of Muslim Lawyers and the Islamic Society of Britain, have reacted to this change by calling for the terrorist group to change the name. The Muslim associations say that it is neither Islamic nor a State, and has no standing with faithful Muslims. They do not want the name to encourage people to join the organization. Leading Muslims in the UK have encouraged British Prime Minister Cameron to use the name “Un-Islamic State.”
NBC news anchor Chuck Todd said that President Obama uses the name ISIL because the last letter of ISIS stands for Syria. The Obama administration says that it uses ISIL as it believes the last word “Levant” is a more accurate translation of the Arabic name. President Obama has made it clear that the group’s rebranding as Islamic State is not respected by the White House. He made two points clearly: that ISIL is neither Islamic nor a state.
Theories abound as to why the President insists on using the name ISIL. A suggestion made by NBC’s Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, is that the Obama administration would prefer that Americans not associate ISIS with Syria. Another theory, this one by Fox News’ Harris Faulkner, is that Levant is a bigger territory, including many more countries than just Syria. One of these countries is Israel, leading to some conclusions that the President is disrespecting Israel by using the name ISIL. In the past, the term Levant has been used by Islamic militants as a demonstration of their ambitions to take over the Jewish state.
ISIS, ISIL or Islamic state, both Cameron and Obama have pledged to destroy the terrorist group and “what it stands for.” Bill Power, co-editor of The Wall Street Journal Stylebook, summed up the feelings of even the most confused when he stated that “obviously all that really matters is the terrible things they’re doing and what we’re going to do about them.”
By Beth A. Balen
See also Guardian Liberty Voice, Syria: What is ISIS?