Updated Answers to Questions About ISIS

The original PowerPoint and answers to Frequently Asked Questions About ISIS were developed in August 2015 by ING summer intern Salma Abdulkader, a rising sophomore majoring in Political Science and International Affairs at Dominican University of California. The content was revised in November 2016 by ING Staff. The slideshow above is an abbreviated version of the information below, and can serve as an introduction to ISIS, its history, and its recruiting tactics, as well as offering useful tips to combat their message of violence and chaos.
Note: This presentation is the intellectual property of Islamic Networks Group (ING) and is available for non-commercial public use only. This presentation and its content cannot be displayed in exchange for payment in cash or in kind.

Who is ISIS and where did it come from?

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, or just IS or Islamic State. The group is popularly known as Da’-ish in Arabic. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, former Al-Qaeda member in Iraq, is credited with laying out ISIS’ original ideology. Though killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, Zarqawi was the first to move the insurgency in Iraq from a struggle against U.S. troops to a Shia-Sunni war. The demographics of ISIS are diverse; it has members of different ages, ethnicities, and agendas. Former followers of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq make up a substantial portion of the organization. Following U.S. intervention, Baathist supporters who were not put in military prisons went into hiding. When US troops withdrew, the weakness of the interim government left a power vacuum. This was an ideal setting for the creation of ISIS, which at the time of its inception was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Teaming up with former members of Al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch, the former Baathists created what became ISIS. Led by Abu Ayyub Al-Masri, a former Al-Qaeda member, and Omar Al-Baghdadi, a former Baathist, a handful of small insurgent groups joined together to form the Islamic State in Iraq. There is much speculation over who the original leader was, but Omar Al-Baghdadi was identified as the organization’s public face.[1] When both of these leaders were killed in an U.S.-Iraqi air strike in 2010, Abu Bakr-Al-Baghdadi assumed control of a weakened AQI. In June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself Caliph. Rumored to have several college degrees in Islamic studies, he is known as the invisible sheikh, commonly covering his face in order to create an aura of mystery.[2]  In February 2014 al-Qaeda cut all ties with the group, reportedly because of its brutality, and after a falling out between ISIS and another al-Qaeda-related Syrian opposition group, al-Nusra Front.[3] However, the Baathist roots within the Islamic State are very strong; many former Saddam Hussein followers have been known to hold high positions in ISIS’ regime, and ISIS makes use of Baathist intelligence tactics.[4] Today, ISIS has occupied large areas in Iraq and Syria, creating chaos and murdering and terrorizing thousands and driving many more from their homes.

How many foreigners have joined ISIS?

It is estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign recruits, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, have traveled to Iraq and Syria since fighting broke out in 2011. The largest numbers come from the following countries: 6,500 from Tunisia; 2,500 from Saudi Arabia; 2,300 from Russia; 2,200 from Jordan; 2,100 from Turkey; and 1,700 from France. Of these recruits, experts estimate that 20-30% have returned home! Since 2015, foreign recruits have also fallen off globally due to enhanced security measures and the general weakening of ISIS, among other reasons. While considerably fewer ISIS recruits come from the U.S. than from Europe or elsewhere, the number of Americans going to join ISIS has, according to the FBI, dropped to no more than one per month.[5]

Why do people join ISIS?

People join ISIS for a variety of reasons. Through its propaganda and recruitment process, ISIS targets those who are outcasts in their community or minorities in their country or people who have been discriminated against in a Western context. These individuals are usually either men in their mid-twenties who have a history of criminal, radical, or violent behavior or association, or orthodox, traditional Muslims who often have personal radical views. Younger recruits find ISIS’ violent actions combined with the accessible propaganda glorifying ISIS’ victories alluring and exciting. Orthodox Muslims, however, often confuse the Islamic State’s narrative with legitimate traditional Islam and see joining it as a pledge of loyalty to their faith. Others are inspired to fight to defend civilians in the conflict in Syria. Additionally, refugees from the conflict in Syria, often feeling that they have no other choice, swear allegiance to ISIS in exchange for food, shelter, and a promise of safety.[6]

What role does ISIS presently play in Syria?

While the supposed focus of ISIS in Syria was to overthrow the dictator Assad, it is widely reported that there has not been direct fighting between ISIS and Assad forces. There have in fact been widely known reports and other evidence of trade agreements between the two parties.[7] By fighting alongside groups like the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front, ISIS hopes to gain access to more recruits for its own agenda. When the Free Syrian Army sent a worldwide message requesting aid for their cause, the United States decided to send weapons. However, many of these weapons ended up in the hands of ISIS, becoming a major contributing factor to their current power.[8] Additionally, some of the Western journalists whom ISIS murdered were reported to have been captured initially by Assad forces, another evidence of collaboration between the two forces, raising the question of who is really behind ISIS (according to many Syrians, the Assad regime among others). ISIS is more focused on reaping the benefits of the situation for its own agenda than on overthrowing the Assad government or assisting the Free Syrian Army, unlike the other opposition groups; additionally, again unlike other Syrian opposition groups, it is mainly made up of foreign fighters, not Syrians.

Where does ISIS get its resources and funding?

ISIS taps various sources to finance itself, including methods of self-financing, oil profits derived from refineries and wells ISIS controls in northern Iraq and northern Syria, looting and selling artifacts, taxation of people in areas it controls, and ransoms from kidnapping.[9] Though the Saudi government has publicly condemned the Islamic State, private funding has also been known to come from wealthy Saudi businessmen. Often it is sent through Kuwait, a country allegedly known for being permissive in regard to funding terrorist organizations.[10] Additionally, many of the weapons currently held by ISIS were unintentionally supplied by the United States, which had originally sent them to the Free Syrian Army to overthrow the Assad regime. These resources supplied by the United States were a key component in launching ISIS from a small jihadist group to the biggest growing threat in the Middle East.

What do Muslims think of ISIS?

Muslims worldwide have universally condemned ISIS for its brutality, extremism, and what they consider as “unIslamic” behavior. Those issuing such condemnations have included a coalition of over 100 scholars worldwide, the government of Saudi Arabia as well as the country’s clerics, 70,000 Muslim clerics in South Asia, and the authors and organizers of numerous articles, rallies, and press conferences condemning ISIS’ actions. The most grievous actions condemned by Muslims include beheadings and other brutal killings; kidnappings; enslavement; oppression of women;[11] aggression against Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims who disagree with ISIS; and other atrocities.

The following are examples of condemnations of ISIS:

  • Worldwide condemnations
    • Letter by over 100 Muslim scholars refuting ISIS’ claim to be Islamic[12]
    • Sheikh Shawqi Allam – religious leader of Egypt
    • Sheikh Mustafa Hajji – religious leader of Bulgaria
    • Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein – religious leader of Jerusalem and Palestine
    • Sheikh Na’im Ternava – religious leader of Kosovo
    • Dr. Ibrahim Abu Mohammed – religious leader of Australia
    • Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al Sheikh – religious leader of Saudi Arabia
  • American Muslim condemnations
    • CAIR – Council on American-Islamic Relations
    • ISNA – Islamic Society of North America
    • MPAC – Muslim Public Affairs Council

Other condemnations against terrorism can be found here.

How does ISIS justify its actions in the name of Islam?

ISIS focuses on the idea of “jihad,” defined by them as “holy war.” However, in the Qur’an, jihad (meaning simply “struggle” or “striving” in Arabic) is not used to justify killing innocents or to condone violent behavior; even when used specifically in relation to war. Jihad, according to the Qur’an, is permissible only as defensive action when the Muslim community is directly attacked. Additionally, prophetic sayings and injunctions by the first Islamic caliphs forbid targeting civilians, specifically women and children. Yet ISIS frequently cites Qur’anic verses as justification and  glorifies death from  jihad among its members as martyrdom, to motivate male (and sometimes even the female) members to fight to the death, putting before them the prospect of immediate entry into paradise. In their online magazine Dabiq, the Islamic State regularly quotes cherry-picked Islamic scripture to support their propaganda.[13] Verses are often taken out of context to justify mass killings as ridding the earth of the kuffar, which they define as anyone who is not a Muslim, or even Muslims who disagree with them The magazine is translated into multiple languages to cater to a worldwide audience and regularly reports on the geographical, political, and religious aspects and progress of the Islamic State. Its main purpose is to recruit more militants. According to ISIS, failure to believe in Islam is a crime deserving of death, mutilation, or slavery, in contrast to the Qur’anic injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and Islam’s long history of tolerance of other faiths.

Do the actions of ISIS reflect Islamic teachings?

ISIS reflects an extremist interpretation of Islam that Muslims worldwide have declared illegitimate due to ISIS’ atrocious acts of violence toward others. Additionally, intellectuals and world leaders have universally agreed that ISIS should be treated as a political movement rather than a religious one. The political machinations involved in the conception of ISIS and the ways in which it carries out its agenda lead experts to conclude that ISIS may have religious affiliations but is fundamentally a political organization which uses its own twisted version of Islam for its own agenda.[14]

The following is a summary of an open letter by several hundred Muslim scholars and leaders to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, including examples of the violation by ISIS of Islamic teachings as accepted by the majority of Muslims.

Murdering innocents: Its blatant disregard for human life in particular directly contravenes teachings about the sanctity of life and commands to avoid killing innocents or civilians even in warfare, in particular women and children.

Persecuting Christians and Yazidis: Its destruction of churches and attacks against Christians directly violate Qur’anic teachings about the status of “People of the Book,” whose lives and houses of worship the Qur’an and prophetic sayings command to safeguard (Qur’an, 60:8). Yazidis are also one of the religious communities specifically mentioned by the Qur’an as “People of the Book” (Qur’an, 22:17). The fact that this ancient sect – along with Iraqi Christians – has survived in Muslim lands is proof of the generally prevalent tolerant attitude of Muslims towards them and other minority religious groups.

Forced conversions: Converting people by force makes a mockery of religion, which according to widely accepted Islamic teachings should be embraced for God alone, not under duress. The Qur’anic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” clearly states the view on that question embraced by most Muslims, as do other verses that state that God chose to create diversity among people, including religious diversity, and that had God chosen to make every one of the same faith He would have done so (Qur’an, 10:99, 18:29, 13:31).

Torture and mutilation: Mainstream Islamic teachings specifically prohibit torture in any form, as they prohibit mutilating dead bodies or any disrespect of the dead. ISIS’ barbaric acts, which reflect the worst tendencies of humankind, show the true nature of its fighters as criminals, not religious practitioners.

Oppression of women: ISIS’ insistence on women wearing black, all-encompassing garments, including a face veil, is an extreme application of the general commandment to wear modest dress. Their misogynistic attitude towards women, including their insistence on confining them to their homes, at a time when Muslim women across the world are teachers, doctors, scientists, and even heads of state, is a perversion of widely accepted Islamic teachings.

Slaves: One of the goals of Islam, as evidenced in both Qur’anic and prophetic practices about the merit of freeing slaves, was ultimately to end slavery at the time of revelation 1,400 years ago. This view has been universally adopted by Muslim societies and leaders. To revert to a practice that Islam sought to do away with makes a mockery of the principles of justice, equality, and other values and is merely a reflection of the gross misdeeds that are often perpetrated in war, including those against Muslim women in Bosnia and Syria. To do to others what was done to oneself is the antithesis of religion and morality.

Concubines: Particularly noxious is ISIS’ revival of concubinage (taking female prisoners of war as sex slaves). This practice existed in many pre-modern societies, including ancient Greece, Rome, and China, as well as in the United States, where the use of female slaves for sex continued until the end of slavery after the Civil War. Concubines are mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an as an existing practice that reflected a particular time and social order in the greater context of slavery, often as a result of warfare. This practice has long been rejected by Muslims worldwide. ISIS’ attempt to revive it flies in the face of today’s normative Muslim attitudes and practice. It appears that it is being used both as a recruiting incentive and a perverse justification for the horrific reality of wartime rape which has been widely used as a tool of fear and repression in numerous wars in diverse cultures and places, including recently against Muslim women in Bosnia and Syria.

Harsh punishments: The random application of what are known as hudd punishments without the proper context for such application makes a mockery of the entire process. Additionally, all such punishments require the highest level of proof, not the lowest as has been practiced by ISIS and other extremist groups.

Jihad: Jihad is meant to protect the oppressed against aggression, not to furnish a pretext for aggression against others. Driving people out of their homes and massively killing and destroying are not jihad but pure aggression. Such actions can in no way be characterized as jihad, which means striving to inculcate moral character.

Declaring a Caliphate: It is an Islamic principle that one who seeks leadership should not be given it. Additionally, one cannot merely declare oneself to be a caliph, which is a term adopted after the death of the Prophet Muhammad for those who succeeded him as heads of state in a pre-modern context. This term continued to be used in the various dynasties which followed until the early 20th century, when the Ottoman caliphate was abolished. A true caliph as it’s been understood would need to be chosen by consensus of Muslim communities worldwide based on merit and reputation, not by force.

What can we do to counter ISIS?

Counter extremist narratives by referencing Muslim scholarly condemnations of ISIS.

Use ING material to push back against distortions of Islam and Muslims by teaching about what ISIS is, in contrast to the practice of ordinary Muslims and widely accepted teachings of Islam.

Involve Muslim youth in the INGYouth program and inspire them towards religious literacy and interfaith engagement.

Participate in interreligious work that builds bridges between different faiths.



[1] Anjarini, Suhaib. “The Evolution of ISIS.” Al-Monitor. November 1, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2015.

[2]Profile: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.” BBC News. Accessed July 22, 2015.

[3] Sly, Liz. “Al-Qaeda Backs Away from Radical Fighters in Syria, Iraq.” Washington Post. February 3, 2014. Accessed July 22, 2015.

[4] Nance, Malcom. “ISIS Forces That Now Control Ramadi Are Ex-Baathist Saddam Loyalists.” The Intercept. Accessed July 22, 2015.

[5]Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq.” The Soufan Group, December 8, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2016.

[6] Barrett, Richard. Maher, Shiraz. Pantucci, Raffaelo. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, “Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Threat at Home and Abroad?” Speech,, London, April 10, 2014.

[7] Baker, Aryn. “Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS.” Time. February 26, 2015. Accessed July 22, 2015.

[8] Swann, Ben. “Truth in Media: The Origin of ISIS.” Ben Swanns Truth In Media. March 3, 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.

[9] Ashley Fantz, “How ISIS makes (and takes) money,” CNN, Updated Thursday,  February 19, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2016.

[10] Boghardt, Lori Plotkin. “Saudi Funding of ISIS.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. June 23, 2014. Accessed July 22 2015.

[11] Mackey, Robert. “Woman Hides Camera to Reveal Life Under Islamic State Rule.” The New York Times. September 25, 2014. Accessed July 22 2015.

[12] The page www.Lettertobaghdadi.com has been suspended, but a summary of the letter can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_to_Baghdadi.

[13] Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, February 15 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.

[14] Isquith, Elias, and Charles Lister. “’The End of the World’: Why America Misunderstands ISIS — and What You Really Need to Know.” Saloncom RSS.  April 1 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.


Anjarini, Suhaib. “The Evolution of ISIS.” Al-Monitor. November 1, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2015.

Baker, Aryn. “Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS.” Time. February 26, 2015. Accessed July 22, 2015.

Barrett, Richard, Shiraz Maher, and Raffaelo Pantucci. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. “Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Threat at Home and Abroad?” Speech, London, April 10, 2014.

Boghardt, Lori Plotkin. “Saudi Funding of ISIS.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. June 23, 2014. Accessed July 22 2015.

Isquith, Elias, and Charles Lister. “’The End of the World’: Why America Misunderstands ISIS — and What You Really Need to Know.” Salon.com RSS.  April 1 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.

Nance, Malcom. “ISIS Forces That Now Control Ramadi Are Ex-Baathist Saddam Loyalists.” The Intercept. Accessed July 22, 2015.

Mackey, Robert. “Woman Hides Camera to Reveal Life Under Islamic State Rule.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 25, 2014. Accessed July 22 2015.

Profile: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.” BBC News. Accessed July 22, 2015.

Sly, Liz. “Al-Qaeda Backs Away from Radical Fighters in Syria, Iraq.” Washington Post. February 3, 2014. Accessed July 22, 2015.

Swann, Ben. “Truth in Media: The Origin of ISIS.” Ben Swanns Truth In Media. March 3, 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.

Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, February 15 2015. Accessed July 22 2015.