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Al Qaeda in Iraq: Profile

Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)


Al Qaeda in Iraq operates under the umbrella of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), a coalition of militant groups that boast a long track record of fighting the US troops. The worst days of violence in Iraq may be over, but the deadly ISI remains a major destabilizing factor for Iraq and the wider region.

See an overview of other Al Qaeda branches in the Middle East


Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images

Al Qaeda in Iraq is based in the country's north-west, an area populated predominantly by Sunni Arabs, who held top government positions under former president Saddam Hussein. ISI thrives on local resentment of the Shiite-dominated government in the capital Baghdad, blamed for lack of economic development and jobs in this part of Iraq.

ISI's traditional base are small Sunni towns in the Anbar province, but its unofficial capital is now Mosul, Iraq's third largest city. Since late 2011, ISI has been extending its operations from Anbar into neighboring Syria.

Find out about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites.

Leadership & Organization

ISI has its roots in the Sunni Islamist insurgency that emerged after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when dozens of armed groups declared a jihad, a holy war, against the new Shiite government and all foreign troops. Indiscriminate attacks on Shiite civilians triggered a de facto civil war in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, which reached its peak in 2006/07.

  • The 2005 merger: Main Sunni jihadist groups formally joined forces under the ISI umbrella. Although not all of these groups were affiliated with Al Qaeda, ISI leadership under the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed 2006) swore its allegiance to Osama bin Laden, making the militant coalition an official Al Qaeda branch in Iraq.

  • Loss of local support in 2007/08: US troops successfully recruited leading Sunni Arab tribes into the so-called “Awakening Councils” to fight against Al Qaeda, after religious extremists alienated the local population with their brutality and fanaticism. ISI lost ground in the Anbar province and became increasingly reliant on foreign jihadists.

  • The comeback in 2011/12:Iraqi security forces won the war against the militants, but many Sunnis now feel sidelined by the government. ISI is tapping into this discontent, linking new recruits with old militant networks under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Read more on the history of the Iraqi conflict.

Goals & Strategy

As hinted by its name, ISI wants to establish an Islamist state encompassing all of Iraq, based on Al Qaeda’s strict interpretation of the Sunni doctrine. It’s a tall order, given that the Shiites account for more than 60% of the population (and Kurds for another 20%).

ISI’s more immediate and more realistic objective is to regain its former strongholds in Anbar province and establish clear territorial control with parallel government structures. To this end, it tries to reignite sectarian conflict and destabilize the Iraqi state.

  • Funding: Research by RAND National Defense Research Institute in late 2010 showed that more than 50% of the funds came from selling stolen goods, including construction equipment, generators, and electrical cables. Reuters has reported that ISI runs an extensive racketeering network in the city of Mosul, worth millions of dollars.

  • Propaganda: The media outreach has a strong sectarian tone, posing ISI as a protector of Iraqi Sunnis against both the Shiite Iran and the US. This gives ISI a distinctly local brand, although the group still threatens to strike at targets in the US.

  • Tactics: ISI specializes in the use of improvised explosive devices and car bombings. The group typically launches a wave of coordinated attacks to the most lethal effect, targeting Shiite officials, government buildings, security forces, and Sunnis who refuse to cooperate with the militants.

Biggest attacks

Coordinated wave of attacks across Iraq killed more than 100 people on 23 July 2012.

Recent activities

Violence has increased sharply since the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011, with at least one large-scale attack per month. ISI is systematically subduing local government structures in its north-eastern strongholds, while trying to discredit the central government by orchestrating regular bombings in Baghdad.

US intelligence officials believe ISI operatives are establishing terrorist cells in Syria, using their bomb-making expertise to attack government forces.

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