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Some answers about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which on Tuesday seized control of the Iraqi city of Mosul, has become one of the most powerful terrorist groups in the world. Here are a few details about it.

Q. What is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?

A. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been designated by the United States as an international terrorist organization. It operates in Iraq and Syria and has as its goal the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, or state, in the area now occupied by Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and sometimes as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

Q. What is its relationship to al Qaida?

A. ISIS was once considered an affiliate of al Qaida, but the two groups have broken over ISIS’ role in Syria. Al Qaida has criticized ISIS for being too brutal and has complained that ISIS’ zeal to establish an Islamic state has distracted from the current push to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Last year, al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri ordered ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, to withdraw his forces from Syria. Baghdadi ignored the order.

Q. Which is more powerful, al Qaida or ISIS?

A. There is no simple answer to that question but ISIS’ recent military victories and its control of a swath of land larger than many countries in the Middle East suggest that its military power, if not its influence, now exceeds al Qaida’s. It has fielded a conventional army that has bested the Iraqi military and has resisted assaults in Syria by al Qaida’s affiliate there, the Nusra Front. While ISIS’ radical philosophy has been denounced by many jihadis as too bloodthirsty, its military success is likely to win it new adherents. Lastly, unlike al Qaida, whose strength is dependent on “affiliates” that operate in different countries, ISIS is centrally controlled.

Q. What is the U.S. stake in ISIS’ advance?

A. The United States first clashed with ISIS in 2004 in Iraq when the group was known as al Qaida in Iraq. Over the ensuing years, the group killed hundreds of American service members, attacked embassies and continues to issue threats against the United States and the West. The establishment of a radical Islamist state in the areas ISIS claims would allow terrorists to organize only a short distance from Israel and Europe. Additionally, ISIS’ military prowess now threatens the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, whose administration the U.S. has backed with weapons, fighter jets and other defense equipment, and threatens to dominate the Syrian rebel movement, especially those so-called moderate rebels who have allied themselves with the United States and whom ISIS has denounced as Western puppets. Thousands of foreigners, including hundreds from the West, are thought to have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS; the United States and other Western nations are concerned that they will engage in terrorist activities when they return to their homelands.

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