ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State: Why the Terror Group Has So Many Names
Policy + Politics

ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State: Why the Terror Group Has So Many Names


President Obama calls them ISIL. French President Francois Hollande calls them Daesh. The media mostly uses ISIS, Islamic State or IS. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Paris and Beirut, world leaders are preparing to step up with a more unified fight against the radical Islamic group. So why the different names? Here’s a guide to explain them all. 

The name is an acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. After expanding into Syria in 2011, the group began referring to itself as ISIS because it controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. Al-Sham refers to a specific region along the eastern Mediterranean Sea that is much larger than modern Syria. Most news organizations use the term ISIS because it’s the name that most people recognize. 

Related: 9 ISIS Weapons That Will Shock You 

This version is an acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Some English speakers translate the Arabic al-Sham as “the Levant,” a term that refers to the large area of land between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Levant is a bigger swath of land than the area denoted by the term al-Sham, but they overlap with one another. In the end, both ISIL and ISIS have generally the same meaning.  

Reporters have speculated about why the Obama administration uses ISIL, with explanations ranging from the straightforward (it’s a more accurate translation and better represents the area the group aims to take over) to the distrustful (one theory holds that the administration was trying to downplay Syria). 

Islamic State
The group changed its name to the Islamic State, or IS, in June 2014, when it declared a caliphate in the areas that it controlled, intending the term to represent a successor state to the original seventh-century Islamic nation. The group also calls itself The Caliphate. With this claim, the group is implying it’s the only state that true Muslims should adopt. The term drops all geographic modifiers that imply physical boundaries and reflects the group’s ultimate goal of creating a caliphate across the region. 

Some argue that using the terrorists’ preferred name gives them legitimacy and helps them recruit individuals worldwide. Over the summer, British Prime Minister David Cameron asked the BBC to stop referring to the group as the Islamic State. Cameron uses the name ISIL. And the Associated Press uses “the Islamic State group,” or phrases like “IS extremists,” to make clear that it is not a recognized, functioning state.

Related: Obama’s Use of ISIL, Not ISIS, Tells a Different Story

Daesh or Da’ish
Daesh is an acronym for the Arabic term “Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham,” which roughly translates to “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” 

But the word daesh in Arabic commonly means “a bigot who imposes his view on others” or “to trample and crush.” Calling the group Daesh implies that it is neither a real government nor a true representation of Islamic thought. As a result, the group hates the name to the point that it’s threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses it — another reason some choose to use Daesh instead of other alternatives.

Since September 2014, it’s been France’s official policy to refer to the group as Daesh, and Arab governments have long used the term. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry typically uses Daesh as well, and Obama referred to the group as Daesh when he condemned the group after the Paris attacks. Over the summer, 120 British members of Parliament wrote a letter to the director general of the BBC asking that the organization refer to the group as Daesh. So far, the BBC has not made the change.