Whatever you call the jihadist group known for killing dozens of people at a time, carrying out public executions, beheadings, crucifixions and other brutal acts, there is no denying they have captured the world’s attention.
But what’s in a name?
It all started in 2004 when the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed an al Qaeda splinter group in Iraq. Within two years, al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq was trying to fuel a sectarian war against the majority Shiite community.
In June 2006, al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. strike. Abu Ayyub al-Masri, his successor, several months later announced the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
In April 2013, Islamic State in Iraq absorped the al Qaeda-backed militant group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said his group will now be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
This is an English translation of the acronym in Arabic for Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Al-Sham is a reference to a region that stretches from Turkey through Syria to Egypt and includes the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon, according to Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor and expert on Syrian history.
The organization has said its goal is to form an Islamic state, or caliphate, over the entire region.
CNN has been referring to the organization as ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“They used to call themselves … the Islamic state in Iraq and al-Sham, which can be translated as Syria or the Levant. That means Damascus and it means Syria.
“It can be translated as the Levant. ISIL or ISIS is what they used to call themselves. They changed their name since then, but it’s the same people. They were originally al Qaeda in Iraq under the late unlamented Zarqawi,” Khalidi said.
Arabic speakers say al-Sham can be translated to mean the Levant, Syria, greater Syria, and even Damascus.
United States officials, the United Nations and some news organizations refer to the jihadist group by the acronym ISIL, which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
“We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” said John Daniszewski, vice president and senior managing editor for international news for The Associated Press, according to an AP blog post.
CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen believes ISIL is a more accurate translation of the group’s name.
The ‘L’ stands for Levant which is a translation of “al-Sham” — the word the group uses to refer to itself, Bergen said.
“But the Levant is a relatively obscure word in English — in English, we refer to Syria. Of course, the Levant is larger than Syria,” he said.
Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan in February wrote a blog post titled: “Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid to say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.” He noted that the term “al-Sham”refers to Syria or Damascus while “Bilad al-Sham” is a reference to the Levant.
“If we concede again that ‘al-Sham’ means not only Syria, then there is a name for that: Greater Syria,” he wrote. “When we use the older term ‘Levant’, that should be used alongside the older name ‘Mesopotamia’ for Iraq. When you use modern ‘Iraq’, use the modern term ‘Greater Syria’ — in that case, it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).”
Said Khalidi: “How you translate ‘al-Sham’ determines whether you have a ‘L’ or an ‘S’ in English. It’s the same word in Arabic. How you translate the term into English determines if you’re of the ‘ISIL’ camp or the ‘ISIS’ camp. The Levant, which can extend from northern Egypt to Greece, is not as precise.”
On the United States government’s use of ISIL, Khalidi surmised: “Maybe because you don’t want to give the dignity of the name that they give themselves.”
Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said via email that ISIL is preferable in English “to make it clear to a Western audience.”
“The ‘L’ in ISIL that the (U.S. government) uses refers Levant, which … denotes Syria and Lebanon in Arabic. So better to stick to ISIL and clarify that it’s the same as ISIS but a more accurate translation from the Arabic,” he wrote.
The organization has been referring to itself simply as the Islamic State, a term that more accurately reflects it aspirations of creating a caliphate across national borders.
They prefer to be known either as the Islamic State, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya in Arabic, or just the State, al-Dawla.
Finally, there is DAIISH, the Arabic shorthand for the group, though the use of acronyms is not common to Arabic: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.
The term, which has taken on a somewhat negative connotation, is commonly used among many Arab media outlets and politicians.
“Those who disagree with them, call them DAIISH,” Khalidi said.
The jihadist group has objected to the name.
When people in the Arab world, use the term DAIISH, it’s derogatory, Khalidi said.
“For one thing, you don’t want to call them by their name. It leads to all kinds of jokes. There’s a satirical video of guys just killing people at a checkpoint. It’s meant to be funny. It is funny, actually. It makes them look like idiots. ‘I became DAIISH,’ one guys says. ‘No, no, I’m the one who made you DAIISH,’ says another.”