The battles are many, and the names used are varied. But the goal is one: a Crusader-Rafidite [Shi’a] war against the Sunnis.
—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Make no mistake, we are fighting a religious war.
—U.S. Army chaplain, Mosul, September 11, 2005


Origins and Organizational Structure

The origins of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, formal name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyyah) have roots in Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) failures in securing the nation of Iraq as a bedrock for Salafist militancy. These organizations were largely the genesis of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a central thought leader following his activities in Pakistan. Zarqawi’s scale of influence both strategically and operationally is debatable within the intelligence community, but within the open source realm, as well as the group’s own propaganda, he remains at the forefront of both Jama’at al-Tawhid and AQI historical narratives. Following Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, AQI transitioned its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), seeking to nominally distance itself from the larger Al Qaeda (AQ) organization and appeal primarily to the local Sunni minority groups. This distance was nominal in light of the ISI’s leadership under Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a key member of AQ. Following al-Masri’s death in 2010, the organization continued to operate primarily in Northern Iraq and through cross-border efforts from Syria with facilitation from Iran. ISIL eventually arose from the merging of fighters within Syria and AQI members that had crossed into Syria.


ISIL’s organizational structure is well built and reflects the transition from a series of small groups under a nominal umbrella to a cohesive organization with clear objectives and intent. The group has structured leadership and reflects a series of business processes as functional components of an operational organization seeking results from its militant activities on the ground. Nevertheless, it is in a constant state of flux, particularly as it attempts to fill the governance void in Iraq. Abstractly, the best representation of ISIL is a rhizomatic organization as articulated by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In botany, rhizomes are underground stems of a plant with roots that extend from its core. Deleuze and Guattari explain concepts outside of a strict linear definition that reflected botany’s rhizomes:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”