The Middle East has been chaotic since the start of the 21st century. Many people think this could have been preventable if the United States had stuck to invading Afghanistan, as opposed to Afghanistan and Iraq, to seek out the killers of 3,000 innocent civilians. At that time, the United States was on higher moral ground. That changed once the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. After those troops triumphed and left, without an exit plan, it created a vacuum for power-hungry jihadists.

Republicans and Democrats argue over who should take the blame: George W. Bush for invading Iraq in the first place or Barack Obama for pulling our troops and allowing the rise of the Islamic State. That’s for readers to debate. The information here is intended to be objective in an effort to inform you of the basic facts about three leading terrorist organizations: the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram of West Africa.

key takeaways

  • Al Qaeda, one of the oldest organizations, was the terrorist group behind 9/11.
  • The Islamic State, a spin-off of Al Qaeda, wants to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
  • Boko Haram also wants to establish a state ruled by traditional Islamic law in West Africa.

Islamic State

Formerly known as ISIS and ISIL, the Islamic State (IS) is a radical Islamist group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq. Originally an Al Qaeda splinter group (see below), IS uses extreme force and brutal tactics in order to strike fear into potential opponents so they will join IS opposed to fighting against it. One of IS’s goals is to establish a caliphate (a state ruled by Islamic law). Another one of its goals is to expand into Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly Israel.

IS uses highly persuasive social media campaigns to attract fighters from around the world. The total number of IS fighters is estimated to be around 30,000, with approximately 2,500 of them from Western countries.

How did it all start? After the U.S. invaded Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and formed AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq). Abu Musab al-Zarqawi died in 2006, and a U.S. troop surge weakened ISIS considerably. However, when U.S. troops were pulled from Iraq, ISIS rebuilt itself. After taking Mosul and Raqqa, it declared itself the Islamic State.

In 2014, at its height, ISIS controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq, from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad. In early 2016, the United States calculated that ISIS had lost 40% of its 34,000 square miles of territory.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS from April 2010 until his death in October 2019 in the course of a U.S. military raid. After his death, ISIS announced its new leader would be Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda was responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, 2001, the first foreign attacks on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s, Al Qaeda had been an enemy of the United States since the 1990s, and that remains the case today. At the same time, Al Qaeda and IS are becoming more enemies than allies, with Al Qaeda publicly stating that IS’s tactics are too extreme and that it’s not acceptable to burn a man alive in any religion.

Al Qaeda feels that the brutal tactics of the Islamic State will turn off more followers than it gains. Al Qaeda also feels that forming a caliphate will attract too much attention from the West. IS doesn’t seem to care about Al Qaeda’s opinions. Instead, it has done its best to steal some jihadists from Al Qaeda’s ranks. This has been somewhat effective, but Al Qaeda’s top players have remained loyal.

In 2011, bin Laden was killed by U.S. military forces. al-Qaeda released a statement announcing that Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long-serving deputy, had been appointed to replace him as the organization’s leader.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, but it didn’t launch an insurgency in Nigeria until 2009. Boko Haram uses similar tactics to IS. Its goal: to overthrow the government and create a traditional, Islamic state.

The term “Boko Haram” in the native Hausa language translates as "Western education is forbidden." Broadly speaking, the group subscribes to a version of Islam that forbids Muslims from practicing or participating in anything Western, from politics to education.

The United States designated Boko Haram a terrorist group in 2013. Boko Haram declared a caliphate in the areas it controls—mainly the northern states of Nigeria, along with parts of Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon—in 2014.

Boko Haram has built schools in recent years, primarily to teach Islam, and to use those schools as breeding grounds for jihadists. The group became especially notorious in 2014 when its militants began kidnapping teenage girls.

By 2019, many of these young women had either escaped or been released. 2019 saw the further decline of Boko Haram and the loss of much of the territory it once reportedly controlled., though attacks by Boko Haram soldiers on villages and gatherings continued.

Overall, 2.3 million people have been displaced since Boko Haram turned militant. Founder Yusuf was executed when the group took its more violent path in 2009 and has been led by Abubakar Shekau since.