ISIS refers to the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria," and ISIL refers to the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." Both acronyms point to the exact same thing - a jihadist militant group hell-bent on implementing an Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East. The irony is that according to Quartz, the group's real name is al dawla al islamiyye f'il iraq w'al sham. So where the heck did ISIS and ISIL come from!?
What's The Difference Between ISIS And ISIL?
Notice that both ISIS and ISIL start with the same phrase: the "Islamic State in Iraq and.." This is because the literal translation of al dawla al islamiyye f'il iraq w'al sham is in fact the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The problematic word in that phrase (the one interpreted by some as the Levant and others as Syria) is al-Sham.
This term is troublesome because it possesses multiple meanings. One one hand, al-Sham is a subset of Bilad al-Sham, which means Levant. The Associated Press reports that Levant "refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt." In classical Arabic and Islamist literature, however, al-Sham simply symbolizes Syria.
Is Either ISIS Or ISIL More Correct Than The Other?
Some news agencies (namely Reuters, the Associated Press and the Agence France-Press) have been using the acronym ISIS, while others (namely American outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post) have stuck to ISIS. Meanwhile, the White House prefers ISIL. Is either one correct?
Technically, the American news agencies might be the ones with the upper hand. According to the Washington Post, Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan penned a blog post in which he stressed the difference between Bilad al-Sham and al-Sham. Technically, the latter simply points to Syria, which means using the acronym ISIL really makes no sense whatsoever.
Plus, ISIS is considered a fair and equitable acro for the Islamist State in Iraq and al-Sham, which to many is considered the best translation of the group's original Arabic name.
Why Does The Obama Administration Continue To Call It ISIL?
The Obama administration's hellbent desire on referring to ISIS as ISIL has become almost comical. During an interview with MSNBC correspondent Chuck Todd, for instance, President Obama kept referring to the organization as ISIL, even as Chuck Todd referred to it as ISIS:
President Obama: "I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL."
Chuck Todd: "Obviously, if you're going to defeat ISIS, you have used very much stronger language."
So why does Obama continue to keep doing this? Many believe Obama avoids using the term ISIS because it specifically associates the terrorist group with just Iraq and Syria versus the entire Levant. Doing this therefore rightfully or wrongfully conflates the threat that ISIS poses to the world. Others think differently. For instance, according to Mediate, Fox News host Harris Faulkner recently suggested that perhaps Obama refers to ISIS as ISIL as a means of "tipping his hat" to ISIS, in that the Levant refers to a larger region than simply Iraq and Syria.
So What Then Exactly Is ISIS?
ISIS (or ISIL to some) is a terrorist organization that spawned during the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the tutelage of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is and has always been composed of various insurgent factions. However, its leadership (and its name) have changed countless times since 2003. It wasn't until al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in 2006 that the group began to identify itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Seven years after al-Zarwai's demise and two years after the start of the Syrian Civil War, the group officially adopted the name ISIS (or ISIL).
What Does ISIS Want?
This is the one question for which we have no definitive answer. We know for certain that ISIS took advantage of the sectarian conflicts in Syria (rebels vs Assad) and Iraq (Sunnis vs Shiites) to gain a foothold in each country. What the group plans to do with this new-held power still remains to be seen.
Some believe ISIS wants to wrench control of the Middle East away from the United States. Others allege that it wants to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Some even say that it is simply trying to establish strongholds from which it could carry out future terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.
One thing is for certain: ISIS (or ISIL) is not going away anytime soon.
Is There Anything Else To Know About ISIS?
In June, ISIS announced that it had decided to drop the last two letters from its name and just go by the Islamic State instead. This makes perfect sense given ISIS's end goal, which is to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate. However, President Obama contains to refer to the newly designated Islamic State as ISIL.