September 11, 2014
The Islamic State: Q&A
What is the Islamic State?
How is it related to Al Qaeda?
The Islamic State (IS) is a transnational Sunni Islamist
insurgent and terrorist group with more than 10,000
fighters across Iraq and Syria. Its forerunner is Al Qaeda in
Iraq (AQ-I), which was formed in 2004 to combat the U.S.
military presence in Iraq. In April 2013, group leader Abu
Bakr al Baghdadi announced his intent to merge his forces
in Iraq and Syria with those of the Syria-based Jabhat al
Nusra, under the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL/ISIS). (Al Baghdadi reportedly was detained
by U.S. forces in Iraq from 2005 to 2009). Jabhat al Nusra
and Al Qaeda leaders rejected the merger, underscoring
growing tensions among Sunni extremists in the region. In
June 2014 ISIL declared the establishment of an Islamic
caliphate stretching from Aleppo province in Syria to
Diyalah province in Iraq and changed its name to the
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri publicly severed ties
with the group in February 2014. Since then, IS leaders
have stated their view that their group "is not and has never
been an offshoot of Al Qaeda," and that, viewing
themselves as a state and a sovereign political entity, they
have given leaders of the Al Qaeda organization deference
rather than pledges of obedience. A number of media
reports suggest possible competition between the Islamic
State and Al Qaeda for prominence and support. Al Qaeda
affiliate Jabhat al Nusra reportedly has had occasional
direct clashes with the Islamic State in Syria, and some
figures from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
have reportedly voiced support for the Islamic State.
What areas does it control?
In September 2014 public remarks, National
Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stated that
the Islamic State poses an “immediate and direct threat” to
American personnel in Iraq. In August, IS militants
beheaded two American journalists captured in Syria. Olsen
also stated that “we have no credible information that ISIL
is planning to attack the U.S.,” but he highlighted potential
threats posed by foreign fighters with Western passports.
According to Olsen, as many as 12,000 foreign fighters
have travelled to Syria, including more than 1,000
Europeans, and more than 100 U.S. citizens.
The Islamic State operates in northeastern Syria and
northwestern Iraq, reportedly controlling towns and cities
along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—including Mosul and
Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria. In Iraq, the Islamic
State has reportedly capitalized on disaffection among key
Sunni Arab individuals and groups (such as tribes and
former Saddam Hussein regime elements) to lead an
insurrection against the country’s Shiite-controlled central
How is the Islamic State financed?
What has the United States done in Iraq
to counter the Islamic State?
The Islamic State is thought to be largely self-financing,
relying on oil sales and criminal and extortion networks.
Group members reportedly sell heavy and light crude oil
from oil fields under their control to local merchants or
traders who smuggle the oil across the border or in some
cases sell it back to the Syrian government. In both Syria
and Iraq, the Islamic State derives revenue by imposing
“taxes” on local populations and demanding a percentage of
the funds devoted to humanitarian and commercial
operations in areas under its control, including farms and
local businesses. In addition, it has looted banks and
demanded protection money from Christians and other nonSunnis who wish to remain on land controlled by the
Islamic State. The group also obtains funding by ransoming
and releasing hostages, particularly from European
countries. External financial support for the Islamic State
and other extremist groups in Iraq reportedly has come
from a network of private individuals located primarily in
the Arab Gulf states. The Islamic State takes in as much as
one million dollars per day from illicit oil sales, smuggling,
and ransom payments.
What, if any, threat does it pose to the
At the request of the Iraqi government, the U.S. has
conducted airstrikes and provided military advisors,
intelligence support, and weapons sales. In June,
President Obama authorized the deployment of 300 U.S.
military personnel to serve as advisors, assess the Iraqi
Security Forces (ISF), and gather intelligence on the
Islamic State. An additional 820 military personnel have
been sent to help secure the U.S. Embassy and other U.S.
facilities in Baghdad and Irbil (capital of the Kurdish
Regional Government [KRG] in northern Iraq), to protect
evacuation routes such as the international airport in
Baghdad, and to operate surveillance aircraft. On
September 10, President Obama announced that he would
expand airstrikes in Iraq and send 475 military advisors to
Iraq to provide training, intelligence, and equipment to Iraqi
and Kurdish forces.
On August 7, 2014, President Obama stated that he had
authorized targeted airstrikes against Islamic State
positions. Virtually every day since August 8, U.S. combat
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The Islamic State: Q&A
aircraft and armed unmanned aerial vehicles have struck
Islamic State heavy weaponry, checkpoints, and other
positions. In notifying Congress, the President has
communicated the following as objectives for the airstrikes:
“stopping the advance on Erbil [aka Irbil] by the terrorist
group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),
supporting civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar, supporting
operations by Iraqi forces to recapture the Mosul Dam, and
supporting an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance
to civilians in the town of Amirli, Iraq.”
Since the Islamic State-led capture of Mosul in June, the
United States has announced sales of over 5,000 additional
HELLFIRE air-to-surface missiles to Baghdad. Deliveries
of U.S.-made F-16s and Apaches, purchased in 2011 and
2012, are reportedly in their early stages. After the Islamic
State move toward Irbil, the Administration reportedly
began supplying mostly lighter weaponry and ammunition
directly to the peshmerga (Kurdish militia) through the
Central Intelligence Agency. That channel is a means of
adapting to a general policy that requires all U.S. Foreign
Military Sales (FMS, run by the Defense Department) to be
provided to a country’s central government.
During early August 2014, the U.S. military conducted
airdrops of food and water to those trapped on Mount
Sinjar. In late August, the U.S. military airdropped
humanitarian aid to the town of Amerli (in eastern
Salahuddin Province), inhabited by ethnic Turkmen Shiite
Muslims. IS fighters had precipitated crises in both areas,
but their hold on these areas was largely broken by U.S.
airstrikes with ground support from the ISF, peshmerga,
and—in the case of Amerli—Shiite militiamen.
President Obama has repeatedly ruled out direct U.S.
combat deployment, stating that U.S. troops cannot fix the
underlying political problems that appear largely to have
driven the IS-led Sunni insurrection in Iraq. The
Administration reportedly supported efforts among Iraqi
national parliamentary leaders to bring about the
resignation of longtime Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, in
the hopes that his successor Haydar al Abbadi can help
entice Sunni Arabs to reject IS control while encouraging
them and Kurds to accept a continuing central government
role in the regions they predominantly inhabit.
What are potential U.S. actions against
the Islamic State in Syria?
President Obama on September 10 delivered a speech
laying out a strategy to defeat Islamic State forces, stating
that the U.S would not introduce combat troops in Syria but
would instead work with a coalition of regional and
Western states to strengthen local partners fighting IS
forces on the ground. The President did not rule out U.S.
airstrikes in Syria, saying, “I will not hesitate to take action
against ISIL, in Syria as well as Iraq.” The President noted
that the United States had “ramped up our military
assistance to the Syrian opposition,” which he described as
the best counterweight to extremist groups. He called on
Congress to provide additional authorities and resources to
train and equip Syrian fighters.
What has the Administration requested
to date, and what is the status of its
requests in Congress?
The Administration’s June 2014 request for FY2015
Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds included a
request for funds and authorities for a proposed $1.5 billion
Syria Regional Stabilization Initiative (RSI), $500 million
of which would support an overt training and equipment
program for select Syrians. On September 10, President
Obama reiterated his request to Congress for “additional
authorities and resources to equip these [vetted Syrian
As of early September, congressional consideration of this
request had merged with congressional consideration of a
proposed continuing resolution to fund government
operations after September 30, 2014. It remains to be seen
whether a version of the Administration’s requested
authority and funding will be included in a proposed
continuing resolution, whether it may be considered as an
amendment to such a continuing resolution, or whether
Congress might consider the proposal independently. Some
congressional committees already have acted on the
President’s June 2014 request for funding and authorization
for the train-and-equip mission.
The Senate Armed Services Committee reported version of
the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (Section
1209 of S. 2410) would authorize the Department of
Defense, with the concurrence of the State Department, to
train and equip vetted members of select Syrian opposition
forces for limited purposes through the year 2018.
Section 9015 of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s
version of the FY2015 Defense Appropriations bill (H.R.
4870) would authorize assistance, including the provision
of defense articles and defense services, to appropriately
vetted elements of the Syrian opposition, for, among other
purposes, “protecting the United States, its friends and
allies, and the Syrian people from threats posed by terrorists
in Syria.” Under this section, the committee specifies that
up to $500 million may be used for a support program. The
Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee considered
and rejected a proposed amendment that would have
stripped the authority and funding for the Syria program
from the bill.
For additional information, see CRS Report R43612 The
“Islamic State” Crisis and U.S. Policy, coordinated by
Kenneth Katzman, and CRS Report RL33487, Armed
Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, coordinated
by Christopher M. Blanchard.
Carla Humud (Coordinator), email@example.com, 7-7314
Christopher M. Blanchard, firstname.lastname@example.org,
Kenneth Katzman, email@example.com, 7-7612
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