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Terrorism, the evolution of Isis and Al Qaeda: from the birth of Daesh to ISIS

Isis and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, minted at different times but with a common goal: to recreate the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. This represents not only a concrete danger for global security, but also risks triggering a war of religion with uncertain outcomes

The terrorism of Isis and Al Qaeda and its possible developments. This is the title of a study, now in its fifth part, carried out by the group “Indomitables,” which traces the history of the two formations and the phenomena that led to their rise and fall, as well as the “rebirth of the Phoenix”. A new formation, which builds on the peculiarities of each of the two sides of the same coin: leadership, operational and logistical skills, and technology. This in order to recreate with every means, violent in the first place, the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. The analysis, divided into chapters, intends to be a useful tool to understand the new terrorist form and to look for suitable instruments to contain and/or mediate the disruptive dynamics of Jihadism, covering various geopolitical areas and historical periods. Such developments represent a concrete danger for global security, in the West and elsewhere, and could unleash – as recently happened in New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – a full-fledged religious war with uncertain outcomes, and potential chain reactions leading to a spiral of violence of uncontrollable magnitude and difficult containment.

Isis moves its first steps in Iraq in 2006. Its birth, however, is an incubation process that lasts six years

ISIS was not born all of a sudden. Rather, it is a virus with at least six years of incubation: namely, from 2006 to 2012, when it first made its debut in the Syrian civil war. Since January 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq has undergone a number of metamorphoses: on January 15 of the same year, AQI spokesman Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi announced the establishment of Majlis Shura al Mujahidin (Council of the Shura of the Mujahidin), an umbrella organization consisting of at least six Sunni Islamic rebel groups. These groups, which were taking part in the Iraqi insurgency against the United States together with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (still led by Zarqawi), were part of the Shura Council of the Mujahidin. In June 2006, Zarqawi died and, in mid-October of the same year, a declaration was issued, stating that the Council of the Shura of the Mujahidin had been dismantled and replaced by al Dawlat al Iraq al Islamiyya, or the Islamic State of Iraq.

In 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi takes command of the Islamic State

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a.k.a. of Ḥamid Dawud Moḥammed Khail al-Zawi, (1947 – Tikrit, 18 April 2010), was appointed head of the Islamic State of Iraq, and several theories exist about his identity. It is however claimed that he was killed on April 18, 2010, during a joint operation carried out by U.S. and Iraqi forces that raided a safe house 10 kilometers south-west of Tikrit. On May 16 of the same year, the SITE Intelligence Group (a US non-governmental organization established by Rita Katz and specializing in the monitoring and analysis of the global jihad’s online activities), published a statement by the Advisory Council of the Islamic State of Iraq. It announced the “turnover” between Abu Omar al Baghdadi, killed on April 18, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husayni al Qurayshi. The latter, also known as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri (Samarra, 28 July 1971), was an Iraqi Mufti who interpreted and applied the Koranic law very thoroughly, sending many Shiite families to death with whatever possible pretext.

Al Baghdadi was arrested in Iraq, but remained in prison for only 10 months

In February 2004, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was captured while with a man on the US wanted list, and taken to the Camp Bucca detention center in Umm Qasr, a town in the governorate of Basra, in southern Iraq. He remained in the American camp for only ten months, and there are some doubts over the reasons for his release, which took place in December of the same year. According to the documents on his detention, the official reason for the arrest of the future leader of the Islamic State was that he had been convicted as a “civil detainee”. Both the US government and the US military were not aware, at the time, of some crucial facts about the then 33-year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

a) Five years earlier, he had joined an extremist group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by Muhammad Hardan, a member of the movement and former Mujahidin, who had fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s;

b) He was a terrorist, having contributed, in 2003, to the founding of Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah Wall-Jamaah (JJASJ), one of many militant Islamist groups fighting against the American troops in central and northern Iraq, in which he had been the Head of the Committee for Sharia (Islamic Law).

The detention at Camp Bucca is of great importance for the future Caliph. So much so that the prison was renamed “The Academy”, the school of jihad

The 10-month detention at Camp Bucca proved invaluable for the future leader of Daesh, as the prison housed jihadists and ex-combatants from Saddam Hussein’s military. After the US invasion of Iraq, they had seen their country end up in the hands of a foreign army and were in the ideal psychological condition to be proselytized, so much so that the prison was called “The Academy”, the school of jihad. After his release, the future caliph is said to have reached, in the first months of 2006, the Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin – operating in Anbar, Fallujah, Diyala, Baghdad, and Samarra -thus becoming head of the Committee for the Sharia of the Majlis Shura.

In March 2011, a branch of Al-Qaeda was founded in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, later to become the Al-Nusra Front. The leaders of the organization order Al-Baghdadi to focus on Iraq, but he disobeys

When the Syrian civil war broke out on March 15, 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now the new leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq) and the central command of Al Qaeda – still in the hands of bin Laden, who had fled to Abbottabad (his demise took place on May 1, 2011) – authorized Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani to form an Al Qaeda branch in Syria in order to overthrow the government of Bassar al-Assad and establish an Islamic state there. Between October 2011 and January 2012 – in a series of meetings held in the Damascus and Homs areas – the core objectives of the group called Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (“Syrian People’s Relief Front”) were established. After the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, al Zawahiri – the new leader of Al Qaeda and a prominent member of the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood – pressed Baghdadi to let the Al-Nusra Front develop its subversive activity in Syria and to focus his organization on Iraq. Yet Baghdadi, probably influenced by his covert sponsors, who intended to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al Assad, and who could not bear Zawahiri’s long-term strategy, was driven to disobey.

In 2013 ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is established. Baghdadi tries to involve the Al Nusra Front, but the latter swears allegiance to Al Qaeda. Then ISIL morphs into ISIS

In April 2013, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), later called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, as well as the abbreviated forms of Dawla, the “State”, or al-Dawla al-lslamiyya, the “Islamic State”. A few days later, al-Baghdadi announced the merger between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq, claiming that they would fight together in the future Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Both Zawahiri and the al-Nusra Front, however, disavowed these declarations. The latter remained formally affiliated to Al Qaeda until 28 July 2016, when it underwent a further transformation into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The creation of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was also announced as Al Qaeda in Syria or Al Qaeda in the Levant by the leader of al Nusra – Al Jawlani – who publicly declared the split from any “external entity”, reaffirming the loyalty of his group to Al Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with a clear reference to central Al Qaeda. The divorce between al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq took place in February 2014 with the final inclusion of Syria in the re-branding of the former AQI into ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which continued – supposedly alone – along its bloody path.

From an ideological point of view, ISIS is the result of the “joint venture” between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood established in Iraq in the decade 2003-2013. The same Osama bin Laden wanted to realize the Caliphate through the constitution of wilayat

From a strategic-ideological point of view, ISIS is the result of the “joint venture” between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood established in Iraq in the decade 2003-2013. Just as a flower that sprouts in the desert needs to feed on the water of the oases – or of the underground water – so ISIS cannot stand as a terrorist caliphate if the essential ideological and logistic supports are lacking. The introduction of Qaedist forces – supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – in the Syrian dispute was meant to bring down the Assad regime and frustrate the strategic plan of the Shiite Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) yearned for by Iran. It also intended to represent a further opportunity for Sunni Jihadism to expand the embryonic Iraqi caliphate achieved by AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq). Strategically, it was in the political plans of Bin Laden himself to pursue the implementation of the caliphate project through the constitution of wilayats – ancient emirates – to be strengthened and consolidated through the affiliation to the first caliphate core, and to be unified with the introduction of the sharia. So much so, that Zarqawi was given the title of “Emir of Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers”.

The gradualist strategy of Al Qaeda, however, was poorly suited to Al-Baghdadi

The long-term “gradualist strategy” (supported by the Muslim Brotherhood since forever, and dictated to al-Baghdadi in 2012 with the imposition of leaving Syria to the Nusra Front and concentrating on Iraq, already implemented by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri during the Sudanese experience, also with the support of Iran) was not adequate to prevent the Shiite expansion in the Iraqi area. Moreover, Al-Qaeda was not animated by the same fierce anti-Shiite fanaticism as Zarqawi and his successor al Baghdadi, who had been persecuting Shiites since he was a Mufti.

On 29 June 2014, Al-Baghdadi proclaims himself “Caliph” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

The aversion to the gradualist strategy can be deduced from the temporal concatenations. Which lead us to believe that the ambitious caliphal plan of ISIS has been outlined by hidden masterminds since April 2013, when the name of the Iraqi Islamic State first appears. In order to avoid being unmasked, these masterminds have placed in the foreground an asserted close cooperation – for ISIS’ foundation – between former political and military leaders of the deposed Iraqi regime (including those belonging to the Information and Security Services of Saddam) and leaders of the original network of Al Qaeda in Iraq. This was intended to hinder the growth of the probable future Iranian nuclear capability that, in November 2013, was being cleared of sanctions. Indeed, in that month, Iran and the P5+1 countries (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany) signed a provisional agreement on nuclear negotiations. It was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who, on June 29, 2014, explicitly rebutted the US geopolitical choice to support Iran, proclaiming himself “Caliph” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with the aim of incorporating the Syrian territory as well.

The beginning of the “Syrian Spring” helps Sunni Jihadism to take another step towards the enlargement of the Iraqi Caliphate

In other words, the establishment of an “Islamic State” between Syria and Iran – in the wider context of the Arab Spring – started under the strategic direction of Al Qaeda, still ruled by Osama bin Laden, who was supported both financially and strategically by the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence apparatuses. The outbreak, on March 15, 2011, of the Syrian civil war between government forces and the opposition had all the features of the “Arab Spring”. Initiatives developed according to the “Belgrade method” (Belgrade Method: the secrets of the colored revolts – Limes 9/07/2014), a long-standing procedure applied to help instigators, finance agitators and support rebel groups committed to overthrow governments regarded as hostile. The “Syrian Spring” has been an opportunity for Sunni Jihadism to fit into this new context of instability for a further step towards the expansion of the Caliphate. After the demise of Osama bin Laden, the sponsors of Al Baghdadi pushed him to disobey the directives and the gradualist strategy of al-Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, to expand towards Syria the already established Iraqi emirate.

ISIS presents itself as the true heir of Al Qaeda. Its effectiveness in the jihad makes it attractive to its supporters, in particular to the young generations

Isis has de facto replaced al-Qaeda, making its own jihad more impactful on the conflict area, as well as more effective for its supporters, since it had created an Islamic State, no longer an ideological vague one, but a fully and practically implemented one on a vast territory. As a result, many young people, especially Arabs but also Europeans, decided to board a plane to Turkey and then take a bus to the border with Syria in order to fight under the insignia of the Caliph. Al-Baghdadi just usurped the leadership of the main organization, presenting his Caliphate as the true heir of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, as opposed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was considered “non-aligned”. It should not be forgotten that the head of Al Qaeda (born in Afghanistan) was Saudi, like the majority of the voluntary militiamen enrolled in ISIS, nor the private funds of Saudi tycoons that, passing through Kuwait, reached the pockets of the Caliph, who, moreover, was acknowledged to belong to the Quraish tribe, that is, a descendant of Mohammed. If not, he would have been a usurper.

Gli Indomabili

Translated by Andrea Di Nino

Chapter 4 – From the Islamic Legion to Zarqawi. Bin Laden, Anti-US Terrorism and the birth of AQI

Chapter 3 – From Somalia to Afghanistan. Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the Taliban for the Global Jihad

Chapter 2 – The rise of bin Laden and Turabi up to AIM and Khomeini

The First Chapter – From the dawn of modern terrorism to bin Laden

The Authors

Luciano Piacentini – Commander of Operational Detachment and Company in the 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment “Col Moschin” (SF-Tier 1) of the Italian Army with the rank of Lieutenant and Captain. Assigned to the Army General Staff, he subsequently commanded the “Col Moschin” Regiment. Later he held the position of Chief of Staff of the Paratroopers Brigade “Folgore”. Then he has worked in National Information and Security Bodies with assignments in different areas of the Asian continent. He is graduated in Strategic Sciences and Political Science.

Claudio Masci – Carabinieri Officer coming from the Military Academy of Modena. After having taken over the command of a territorial unit mainly engaged in the fight against organized crime, he passed through National Information and Security Bodies. He graduated in political science. Among his contributions, “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “The future of intelligence” (April 15, 2012, Longitude, the monthly magazine of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Pino Bianchi – Architect, expert in risk management, organization, process re-engineering and business management systems. For over twenty years he has conducted business, marketing, communication and organization activities in American and European multinational companies. Management consultant in ICT, marketing, communication, business planning and project financing.

Francesco Bussoletti

Claudio Masci and Luciano Piacentini – Authors of the article “The Future of Intelligence” (Longitude, April 15, 2012), and of the books “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “Humint… this unknown (Function intelligence evergreen)”. Buy it from Amazon here.

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