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Q&A: Who are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which on Tuesday seized control of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, has become one of the most powerful terrorist groups in the world. Here are a few details about it:

Question: What is the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant?

Answer: The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant has been designated by the United States as an international terrorist organization. It operates in Iraq and Syria and has as its goal the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, or state, in the area now occupied by Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Q: What is its relationship to al-Qaida?

A: ISIL once was considered an affiliate of al-Qaida, but the two groups have broken over ISIL’s role in Syria. Al-Qaida has criticized ISIL for being too brutal and has complained that ISIL’s zeal to establish an Islamic state has distracted from the current push to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Last year, al-Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri ordered ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, to withdraw his forces from Syria. Baghdadi ignored the order.

Q: Which is more powerful, al-Qaida or ISIL?

A: There is no simple answer to that question but ISIL's recent military victories and its control of a swath of land larger than many countries in the Middle East suggest that its military power, if not its influence, now exceeds al-Qaida’s. It has fielded a conventional army that has bested the Iraqi military and has resisted assaults in Syria by al-Qaida’s affiliate there, the Nusra Front. While ISIL’s radical philosophy has been denounced by many jihadis as too bloodthirsty, its military success is likely to win it new adherents. Lastly, unlike al-Qaida, whose strength is dependent on “affiliates” that operate in different countries, ISIL is centrally controlled.

Q: What is the U.S. stake in ISIL’s advance?

A: The United States first clashed with ISIL in 2004 in Iraq when the group was known as al-Qaida in Iraq. During the ensuing years, the group killed hundreds of American servicemembers, attacked embassies and continues to issue threats against the United States and the West. The establishment of a radical Islamist state in the areas ISIL claims would allow terrorists to organize only a short distance from Israel and Europe. Additionally, ISIL's military prowess now threatens the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose administration the U.S. has backed with weapons, fighter jets and other defense equipment, and threatens to dominate the Syrian rebel movement, especially those so-called moderate rebels who have allied themselves with the United States and whom ISIL has denounced as Western puppets. Thousands of foreigners, including hundreds from the West, are thought to have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIL; the United States and other Western nations are concerned that they will engage in terrorist activities when they return to their homelands.

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