What’s in a Name? Islamic State, IS, ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, Oh My!

By Colonel Mike Angley

What difference does it make what one calls this particular terror group? The short answer is: PLENTY! If you’ve watched enough political news you’ve no doubt heard many names for the SAME terror group. The Islamic State, a shortened named for the militant group, is oftentimes abbreviated as IS. But at various times it’s referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or simply Daesh (or Da’ish). President Barack Obama and his administration officials almost exclusively use the term ISIL, seemingly stressing the ‘L,’ as if intentional (trust this author, it’s purposeful, more below). Most pundits and reporters use the acronym ISIS. And every once in a while, Secretary of State John Kerry will call the group Daesh. Why does one group have so many names and what are the nuances between them? Let’s break it apart, starting with some history.

Rise of the Islamic State. Most terrorism analysts agree that the roots of IS took hold in 1999 when a group calling itself Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad formed in Iraq and pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda (the group responsible for the terror attacks of 9/11). It was largely dormant and ineffective until 2014, three years after the last major US troop withdrawal from Iraq. Despite many warnings from the Intelligence Community (IC) that this terror group was waiting in the wings to consolidate power and wage an offensive, President Obama ordered a major troop reduction that set the stage for the rise of IS just as his IC predicted.

In early 2014, the group began a series of offensives in Iraq that weakened the central government. In June of that year, it declared itself the Islamic State and took control of the key city of Mosul. Over the course of the next few months and to the present day, IS has been on the rampage, seizing control of large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria and conducting increasingly brutal acts of terror that horrify the world. Despite the carnage, President Obama infamously referred to the group as the ‘JV Team’ (junior varsity), a comment meant to downplay its significance. To many, the JV Team reference only raised concerns that the President was either out-of-touch with the reality of the group or wanted to dismiss his own complicity in its rise because he ignored the IC’s warnings about a premature troop withdrawal from Iraq.

No matter what you call it, the Islamic State (the group presently uses IS or ISIS almost interchangeably) claims to be a worldwide caliphate granting unto itself authority over all Muslims politically, religiously, and militarily. It follows a Salafist jihadist view of Islam and is aligned with the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. It has shown no limits to its evil, sick and ruthless acts: beheadings, drownings, people set on fire, child rapes, sex slaves, and torture are just a few examples. The Islamic State operates in at least 18 countries and has shown it is capable of exporting its violence across multiple continents.

So why all the names? Part of the problem is that the group itself has changed its name back and forth a handful of times, creating confusion. After declaring itself the Islamic State, or IS, it also began using the moniker the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, leveraging its gains in that region. Then there was a relatively brief period of time it declared itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but changed back to ISIS shortly thereafter. The term Daesh is used largely as a pejorative by people in the Arab world who reject the IS worldwide caliphate claim. To ISIS, the term Daesh is the equivalent of the N-word and often raises its ire when used. Secretary of State John Kerry, when not calling it ISIL, will use Daesh. He often does that in speeches when he wishes to communicate to the Arab world official US displeasure with the group following a terror attack.

Problem with the term ISIL. The author saved this point of discussion for last for a good reason. As noted in the preceding paragraph, IS once called itself ISIL, but reverted back to ISIS or IS soon thereafter. Despite the reversion in its name, ISIL has stuck like glue Super Glue on steroids with the Obama administration, but why? After all, if even the group itself no longer uses ISIL, why would Team Obama insist on a discarded name?

The answer lies in the word Levant. The Levant is an historical region that includes present day Israel. When IS called itself ISIL, it was boldly presuming to have influence over Israel much as its other monikers variously assume authority over all Muslims, Iraq, and Syria. Although the group stopped using the term for a variety of political reasons, the Obama White House has not. Many observers believe the administration uses ISIL solely to offend the Israelis. It sends mixed signals. President Obama may publicly appear to condemn the terror group, but by using the name ISIL he simultaneously elevates its stature by tacitly acknowledging the group’s authority over the Jewish State. Some see it as a dog whistle to the Islamic community that the President remains displeased with Israel, and the recent anti-Israel vote in the United Nations which the White House approved by abstention only exacerbates these perceptions.

So, what’s in a name? Apparently quite a bit. What one calls this group may reflect where one stands politically or religiously. There is one name this author is anxious to see it called; however, and that’s HISTORY. President-Elect Trump has made it clear that he will bring the fight to the militants, and it does not appear he plans to use pin-pricks and girly slaps like the current regime. His selection of retired Marine Corps General James ‘Chaos’ Mattis (only a privileged few have earned the honor of calling him ‘Mad Dog’), a veteran of the Iraq War, as the next Secretary of Defense is an indication that Mr. Trump is serious and the terror group’s days – hopefully – are numbered.


Colonel Michael (“Mike”) Angley is retired from the United States Air Force, a published thriller author, and a conservative writer who fashions himself as Attila the Hun with a laptop. Mike wrote for Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Big Peace blogs before the Breitbart consolidation, receiving superb feedback and kudos for typically weaving in pop culture references with his far right perspectives. He enjoys writing about military affairs, national security issues, and politics and is an avid Second Amendment advocate. When he’s not writing, he’s busy annoying liberals with FaceBook posts and Twitter tweets that point out the obvious flaws and fallacies of the left.

During his 26-year USAF career, the Colonel was a Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The OSI is a sister agency to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and has an identical mission that includes felony-level criminal, fraud, and narcotics investigations as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations. His USAF experiences spanned multiple regions around the globe with five command assignments and duties at foreign, regional, theater and national levels.

He is a seasoned counterintelligence and counterespionage officer from the Cold War era, and if you ask him he’ll tell you the spy-vs-spy days were indeed the heady, glory era of espionage. During the latter half of his career he focused on counterterrorism missions in the Middle East and the Far East and operationalized many of today’s concepts for this unique arena while working the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and a few other “choice” locations. When Colonel Angley retired in 2007, he was a Senior Supervisory Special Agent and was in command of all worldwide OSI matters at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, CO.

Mike Angley is also a published, award-winning author of three thriller novels in the “Child Finder” trilogy. His debut novel, “Child Finder,” received a glowing review from the Library Journal which placed it on its Summer Reading list in 2009. “Child Finder” and its companion sequel novels all won various awards from the Military Writers Society of America (MWSA) and the Public Safety Writers Association. In 2012, Mike was named MWSA’s “Author of the Year,” largely for work on his third novel, “Child Finder: Revelation.”

As an avid user of social media, Mike can be found and friended on Facebook (mike.angley) and followed on Twitter (@MikeAngley). His website is www.mikeangley.com. Following his USAF retirement, Mike and his family stayed in Colorado Springs, CO where they enjoy daily, majestic views of Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains.

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