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1.4. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

Last updated: June 2022

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a successor of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni resistance movement against US-occupation after 2003. It is a Salafi jihadist militant group, designated by the UN and internationally sanctioned as a terrorist organisation, whose goal is the establishment and expansion of a caliphate. ISIL is strongly rooted in a strictly conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, with a literal reading of the Quran and the Sharia as penal system, and a complete rejection of any other interpretation of Islam, like Shia or Sufi. Takfirism is ISIL’s ideological basis for their attitudes and actions towards other Muslims, for example in order to eliminate political opponents or others not conforming with their rigid interpretation of Islam. In its campaign to ‘purify’ its territory according to its takfir doctrines, ISIL targeted Shia, as well as ethnic and religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidi, Shabaks, Kaka’i, and Kurds [Targeting 2019, 2.1, 2.2; Security 2019, 1.1.2].

ISIL controlled significant territory in Iraq but was declared militarily defeated in December 2017. The military campaign to eliminate ISIL has significantly reduced the group’s operational capabilities and ISIL has not held territory in Iraq since its military defeat, however, it continues to operate as a more traditional insurgent group. [Security 2019, 1.1.2]

The estimated number of ISIL adepts in Iraq and Syria ranges from 2000 to 10.000 persons divided in 2000 – 5000 fighters and the rest to be supporters or members of sleeper cells. ISIL controls no territory in Iraq. The group reportedly remains active but is considered very weak despite its sufficient combat capabilities to threaten security and stability. ISIL focuses on maintaining and expanding its rural sectors of support, rebuilding complex explosives networks such as Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device production cells, while the focus in urban areas is the reorganisation of the fighters in small mobile subgroups. Strategically, the group aims to undermine critical infrastructure projects such as electricity grids, highways and oil refineries to keep media coverage and relevance. They try to inflame sectarian grievances by targeting for example a holy Shia site in Khazraj in Salah al-Din and by attributing some of its attacks to Iranian backed militias. [Security 2022, 1.3.1]

ISIL used bombings, indirect fire, IEDs and ambushes as methods of attack. They mainly rely on hit and run operations but were able to carry out two suicide attacks in Baghdad in 2021 due to the exploitations of the security gap created by the PMF’s strive to push out the ISF from certain neighbourhoods. ISIL targets security forces, mukhtars and other community leaders, individuals who are providing evidence of ISIL movements/membership to security actors as well as critical infrastructure. To a lesser extent they set up fake checkpoints and conduct abductions of civilians and security officers to bring in the money. [Security 2022, 1.3.1]

Sources reported that the systematic disenfranchisement of the Sunnis and the shifting of power between communities, provided fodder for non-state actors and extremist groups such as al-Qaida and ISIL to exploit grievances to gain community support along ethno-sectarian lines [Targeting 2022, 2.1].

In regions under its control ISIL introduced its own judicial system based on a strict interpretation of the Sharia. Penalisation under this judicial system also resulted in severe human rights violations [Targeting 2019, 2.1, 2.2; Security 2019, 1.3.2,; Security 2020, 1.2.5].

ISIL is held responsible for a wide range of human rights violations, inter alia:

forced conversions

  • forced displacements

  • abductions

  • systematic and widespread killing of those not in conformity with their ideology

  • sexual violence, including sexual slavery

  • human trafficking

  • penalisation under ISIL’s parallel justice system

  • etc.