Islamic State militant group: What is Daesh anyway?


It’s an organization most everyone loathes — except, of course, for its fanatical supporters — but few seem quite sure what to call it. ISIL? ISIS? IS?

Islamic State, the homicidal Al Qaeda breakaway faction that has declared a “caliphate” across vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq, has sparked a U.S.-led air war and a vow from President Obama to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it.

The group has seen several incarnations since its days as Al Qaeda in Iraq during the dystopia that followed the U.S. invasion there. That evolution accounts for its varying titles and acronyms through the years.


Obama employs the snappy, no-nonsense ISIL construct, which seems to be Washington’s preferred term, though whether that is because of Obama’s tendencies or some other factor is not clear. Not everyone has fallen into line. Some TV commentators seem to stumble a bit over “ISIL,” as though its anodyne timbre doesn’t quite capture the heinous essence of a faction notorious for beheadings, mass executions and sectarian slaughter.

In Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry — attending the first high-level meeting of the “Counter-ISIL Coalition,” said to number 60 nations — threw his own wrench into the Beltway nomenclature orthodoxy.

“In less than three months,” Kerry declared, “the international community has come together to form a coalition that is already taking important steps to degrade and defeat ISIL, or Daesh.”

Yes, Daesh.

Does Kerry, who first publicly deployed the Daesh term in October, sense that ISIL doesn’t quite work?

Or is it a Euro thing?

In Brussels, Kerry may well have been under the linguistic spell of his continental colleagues. His French counterpart, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, has made a point of labeling the group Daesh, and has asked media organizations to do the same. The top French diplomat asserts that the name Daesh undermines the group’s spurious claim to statehood — although it’s not at all clear why.

What is Daesh anyway?

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Al Dawlah al Islamiyah fi al Iraq wa al Sham), the group’s previous official moniker — and the source of the ISIL formulation. (In English, “Levant” stands in for “Sham,” an Arabic term that can mean Syria or a broad portion of the eastern Mediterranean region, including Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.) So, labeling the group Daesh is the functional equivalent of calling it ISIL or ISIS, regardless of what France’s foreign minister says.


That said, Islamic State devotees reject the term Daesh as inaccurate, and don’t seem to have much of a sense of humor about it. The group’s Mideast enemies often employ Daesh as a pejorative, frequently with a sneer. Still, Daesh remains mostly confined to those with some knowledge of Arabic, though Kerry’s repeated use of it could signal some mainstream traction.

(U.S. media have adopted varying policies about what to call the group. The Times uses Islamic State, and includes the various acronyms in quotations by speakers who use them.)

Many non-Arabic speakers prefer ISIS, an acronym that, conveniently, works for the two Anglicized versions of the group’s (since discarded) title: Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The sudden infamy of the ISIS brand wasn’t a great thing for a venerable Belgian chocolate maker known for almost a century as Italo Suisse. The firm, which had drifted from its Italian-Swiss origins, decided to change its name last year to ISIS. Unfortunate timing. The company has since switched again, this time to Libeert, after the owners’ family, according to news reports.

ISIS probably wasn’t a great label for a chocolate anyway. Certainly, ISIS seems edgier in tone than ISIL. It may convey more of the sinister nature of the whole enterprise. Daesh, too, has something of an ominous resonance, a hint of impending peril. ISIL? Not so much. More like a bicycle part or a Popsicle stick or a corporation someone’s dad works for.

For several months, the militant group has called itself simply Islamic State, the preferred term of the group’s leader, known as Caliph Ibrahim, a stocky Iraqi cleric of shadowy provenance who was a prisoner of U.S. forces in 2004. The Islamic State handle, unveiled as the militants swept through huge tracts of Iraq and suggesting global ambitions, officially canceled out the ISIS\ISIL\Daesh constructions.

But the English initials, IS, hasn’t really caught on yet, and it probably won’t, failing as it does to do justice to its malevolent subject.

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.