Key Dates in the Rise of the Islamic State (ISIS)

“While [the Islamic State] will always be a terrorist organization at its most basic level,” writes Brookings Doha Center Visiting Fellow Charles Lister in his new analysis paper, “its effective attempt at establishing a proto-state across Syria and Iraq has demonstrated the scale of its goals and capabilities.” In the paper, “Profiling the Islamic State,” Lister traces IS’s roots from Jordan to Afghanistan, and then into Iraq and Syria. He describes its evolution from a small terrorist group into a bureaucratic organization that currently controls thousands of square miles and is attempting to govern millions of people. Lister assesses the group’s capabilities, explains its various tactics, identifies its likely trajectory, and offers policy options to confront the growing threat. Key dates in the rise of the organization, drawn from the paper, are presented below.


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is released from prison in Jordan after serving only part of a 15-year sentence for weapons possession and being a member of the Bayat al-Imam militant organization. He moves to Afghanistan and with permission from the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban there, builds a training camp. The group he forms becomes known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (JTWJ) and gains notoriety for its “Millennium Plot” to target tourist sites in Jordan.

December 2001

After the 9/11 attacks on the United States and subsequent U.S. military operation against Afghanistan starting in October, JTWJ flees to Iran and then later relocates to northern Iraq.

March 20, 2003

U.S. forces invade Iraq. Targets include Zarqawi’s JTWJ camp in Sulaymaniya.

August 2003

JTWJ commits three car bomb attacks in Baghdad and Najaf, killing over 100 people. Lister says “these attacks demonstrated [JTWJ’s] other principal targets: Zarqawi’s traditional enemy of Jordan, the international community, and the Shia, which Zarqawi viewed as the chief threat to Sunni power in Iraq and the wider region.”

September 2004

Zarqawi pledges allegiance to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden; JTWJ becomes known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “However,” Lister notes, “Zarqawi’s relationship with al-Qaeda was fraught with tension, particularly because of AQI’s brutality and mass targeting of Shia civilians” which “represented a fundamental difference of opinion between Zarqawi and his masters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

January 15, 2006

Merger of AQI with five other Iraq-based insurgent groups, forming Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM) to “unite and better coordinate Iraq’s jihadi insurgency.”

June 7, 2006

Zarqawi’s death by U.S. airstrike, which Lister says “actually catalyzed a strengthening of [MSM].” Four months later, Lister explains, MSM announces the establishment of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), “with a fully structured cabinet” and a new leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

August 14, 2007

ISI car bombs kill nearly 800 people in attacks against Yazidi villages in northern Iraq. Lister explains how this was part of a campaign by ISI to subjugate minority communities seeking to rid themselves of Sunni influence. Moreover, the attacks came amid an emergence of Awakening (“Sahwa”) councils backed by U.S. and local security forces that were fighting the jihadist insurgency led by the ISI. For the next few years, Lister shows how ISI came under pressure from “traditional counterinsurgency strategy” and strikes against its leadership, noting that “ISI suffered significantly during 2007-2009.”

Aug.-Dec. 2009

ISI carries out three of the largest attacks to strike central Baghdad since 2003, killing more than 380 people. “Although Iraq saw fewer such large scale attacks in 2010,” Lister writes, “the frequency of multiple-bombing attacks began to increase, signaling a bottom-up revitalization of ISI’s operational structure.”

April 18, 2010

ISI leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his deputy, AQI leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, are killed. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi becomes the new leader of ISI. He is alleged, like his predecessor, to be a member of the Quraysh tribe, “which according to Islamic tradition will produce the next caliph.”

August 15, 2011

Suspected ISI militants carry out 22 coordinated bombings in Baghdad and around Iraq; these “intense and wide-ranging attacks aimed not only to inflict material damage on the government but to diminish the morale of Iraq’s security forces.”

Also in August 2011, senior ISI leader Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani arrives in northeastern Syria in order to begin moves to form an ISI front—Jabhat al-Nusra—in Syria, where a popular revolution had started earlier in the year with protests in Damascus, Aleppo, and other cities. Lister documents how in the first part of 2012, “Jabhat al-Nusra operated similarly to ISI, but insisted it had no links to ISI or al-Qaeda.”

July 2012

ISI initiates a year-long “Breaking the Walls” campaign, a principal objective of which is to free imprisoned ISI members. Tikrit’s Tasfirat Prison is attacked in September 2012, resulting in the liberation of 47 senior ISI commanders on death row. Closing the 12-month campaign, Abu Ghraib prison is attacked on July 21, 2013, and over 500 prisoners escape.

April 9, 2013

ISI leader al-Baghdadi confirms in a statement that Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria is an offshoot of ISI and would be subsumed into an expanded Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This is rejected by Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader al Jowlani, who insists on remaining an independent faction based in Syria. From that point onward, both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra operate within the Syrian conflict.

“[F]rom 2013 onwards,” Lister writes, “ISIS’s unrivaled information operations and exploitation of social media brought a renewed energy toward its cause of controlling territory and establishing an Islamic state.”

January 2014

ISIS marches into Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq, both in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland. “This marked ISIS’s renewed venture into overt territorial control in Iraq and set the stage for its gradual expansion in Anbar, particularly along the Syrian border,” Lister says.

June 10, 2014

ISIS seizes Mosul, a northern Iraqi city of over one million inhabitants, after a few days of battle, “thereby inflaming the wider Sunni armed uprising across Iraq.”

June 29, 2014

ISIS releases an audio recording announcing establishment of a caliphate—the Islamic State—across parts of Iraq and Syria. This was, Lister says, “an extremely bold move, particularly considering its lack of Islamic legal legitimacy.”

Lister concludes that:

When considering measures to counter IS’s growth and eventually to defeat it altogether, one must treat it as more than a terrorist organization. A counter-strategy must incorporate counter-terrorism practice but also involve aspects of economic, political, diplomatic, social, and religious policy. Effectively countering IS will take a long time and, crucially, will require local actors taking the lead with the support of Western states, not vice-versa.

Download the paper, find a map, and learn key takeaways here.