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ISIS wants to establish a caliphate

Since pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004, ISIS has wanted to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings.

Smoke billowing in west Mosul near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, where Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group’s goal has been remarkably consistent: to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings. As General Ray Odierno puts it: “They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq.” Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS’s goal remained the same.

At its peak, ISIS held a fair amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria — a mass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. One ISIS map, from 2006, shows its ambitions stopping there — though, interestingly, overlapping with a lot of oil fields:

ISIS map oil ISIS/Aaron Zelin

Another shows its ambitions stretching across the Middle East, and some have apparently even included territory in North Africa:

ISIS map big middle east Ali Soufan/ISIS

Now, ISIS has no chance of accomplishing any of these things in the foreseeable future. It isn’t even strong enough to topple the Syrian or Iraqi governments at present, and it’s actually lost a pretty much all of its territory since its summer 2014 peak. But these maps do tell us something important about ISIS: It’s incredibly ambitious, it thinks ahead, and it’s quite serious about its expansionist Islamist ideology.