Isis vs Isil vs Islamic State: What do they mean – and why does it matter?

What is behind the three different names for the Islamic State militants?

Helen Lock
Sunday 14 September 2014 18:57 BST
The jihadi flag of the Islamic State (IS)
The jihadi flag of the Islamic State (IS) (AFP)

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Louise Thomas

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The beheading of British aid worker David Haines has highlighted once again the brutality of the extremists operating in the Middle East for a jihadist group that claims to have set up a caliphate called the “Islamic State”.

In the aftermath of the killing, the British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain must “drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy Isil and what it stands for”. Similarly, President Obama has said the US is preparing to “deal with a threat from Isil”.

Others still refer to the group as “Isis” - posing an issue for the various companies and brands around the world that already used the acronym or took it from the ancient Egyptian goddess of the same name.

The group itself declared in June that it wants to be known as the "Islamic State". So what is the difference between the three different acronyms, and why does each of them carry such political resonance?

The militant group was established by the Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999 when it was initially known as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. It then became known as "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" after becoming part of Osama bin Laden’s network in October 2004.

Since then, the group has operated under numerous guises until its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, officially declared it had set up an Islamic State across parts of northern Iraq and Syria on 29 June 2014.

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this territory is “the Levant”, which is broadly why Mr Obama and Mr Cameron use the acronym “Isil”.

Nonetheless, some in the US media claim that the President is using “Isil” to avoid using the word “Syria” which is what the “S” stands for in Isis. They say that talking about “attacking Syria” is tricky for the US government, after Mr Obama refused to send troops into the country to intervene in the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad.

President Barack Obama has consistently referred to the group as Isil
President Barack Obama has consistently referred to the group as Isil (Reuters)

The Washington Post reports NBC News anchor, Chuck Todd, as saying: “Obviously we refer to it at NBC News as Isis. The Obama administration, and the President, say the word Isil. The last “S” stands for Syria, the last L they don’t want to have stand for Syria.”

In response, the Obama administration has said that it uses the acronym Isil as it believes the word “Levant”, which is what the “L” stands for, to be a more accurate translation from the Arabic name.

In the UK, leading Muslims have written to Mr Cameron calling for politicians to “refuse to legitimise” the militant group and its current name, instead asking they use an alternative form such as “the Un-Islamic State”.

And adding to the controversy is an American woman called Isis Martinez, who has petitioned the American media to try and persuade them to avoid the use of her first name.

The three acronyms:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis)
The original name for the group in Arabic was Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. The first three words translate to the Islamic State of Iraq while “al-Sham” refers to Syria or an undefined region around Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil)
The undefined region around Syria is historically referred to as the Levant; it includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and Jordan. This name shows that the militants want their area of control to go beyond Iraq.

Islamic State
The militant group announced in June that they were dropping the last two letters of their acronym and instead should be referred to as just Islamic State. However, in reaction to this leading Muslims have called for the name to be altered to discourage people from joining it. “It is neither Islamic, nor is it a State. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims, nor among the international community of nations” the letter signed by the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of Muslim Lawyers, said.

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