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ISIS, ISIL and Daesh: What’s the difference and why it matters


WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Deadly jihadist attacks inspired by a group known as the Islamic State are spreading around the globe and dominating headlines.

More than a decade into its ruthless ascent to fame and power, the group’s name remains unclear.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have juggled the terms ‘ISIS,’ ‘ISIL’ and, recently, ‘Daesh.’ Several news organizations also use “Islamic State.”

While politicians and reporters employ the monikers interchangeably, experts say significant and consequential meanings underlie the four versions.

We spoke to Georgetown University Arab studies professors Dr. Rochelle Davis and Dr. Jonathan Brown to untangle the complex knot of names.

Islamic State

Members of the terror group holding land in the Middle East and taking lives around the world prefer to be called the “Islamic State” for two reasons.

First, Islamic State is short and memorable.

Second, and more importantly, members enjoy the prestige bestowed by a title putting it on par with legitimately recognized nations like the United States of America, France, and others in the crosshairs of this radical group.

Dr. Davis explains that members are engaged in PR 101 — controlling the message. By standardizing the use of “Islamic State,” Davis says the words “become loaded with other kinds of meaning and people try to enforce a certain way of talking about them” in the public square.


The most common of names for the radical group is ISIS, which can be translated two ways: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

The important thing to remember is that in this case, Syria and al-Sham are interchangeable, since Syria doesn’t refer to the discrete country drawn on modern maps.

“In Arabic there is this term ‘Sham’ … what today would be Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon,” clarified Dr. Jonathan Brown.

That large area east of the Mediterranean is geographically fuzzy, but historically intertwined. And that perspective is the whole point.

“The ambiguity of [al-Sham] goes back to what they want the ambiguity to be in nation state terms; they want it to be pre-contemporary times,” explains Davis.


The Obama administration has consistently used the term ISIL, which is shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Contrary to popular thought, the Levant is not


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