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The self-styled Islamic State is an accident of history, emerging from multiple social, political and economic tensions in the Middle East and beyond. It has challenged the territorial divisions imposed on the region following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by carving out for itself a large area of territory. But ultimately, its impact will flow as much from its challenge to established concepts of government, national sovereignty, and national identity.
The Islamic State is most notable for the violence with which it asserts control, but its ruthless tactics will likely prevent the group from ruling effectively and building broader support beyond the front line fighters who protect its security and the authoritarian killers who patrol its streets.
The Islamic State is a highly visible but clandestine organization. Despite the vast amount of publicity and analysis it has generated since 2011, verifiable facts concerning its leadership and structure remain few and far between. The picture is obscured by the misleading propaganda of the State itself and by the questionable accounts of people who claim to be familiar with it. It is a movement that has accelerated fast along the path from terrorism through insurgency towards proto-statehood, but it is also one that for all its bravado seems fearful that it could just as quickly be forced back underground. As a result, this paper relies on the group’s own publications, the observations of defectors, and analysis by others who take an interest in its progress, despite the paucity of information. Nonetheless, The Soufan Group believes that enough is available to draw a useful picture of the evolution of the State, its structure and its operations, even though it may lack clarity and detail.
The paper refers throughout to the organization as The Islamic State, being the name it uses to describe itself. The only alternative would be to call it by its Arabic acronym, commonly transliterated as Da’ish or Daesh (al Dawla al Islamiya fi al Iraq wa al Sham). Clearly, the use of its full name does not imply any endorsement or recognition of its self-description.