Aaron Y. Zelin is the Gloria and Ken Levy Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where his research focuses on Sunni Arab jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria as well as the trend of foreign fighting and online jihadism.
Articles & Testimony
This multimedia tool -- easily the most comprehensive of its kind -- provides a novel, accessible way to understand the Islamic State’s global reach and activities. Beyond a traditional focus on attacks, find content from Islamic State media, designations, and legal cases.
Dedicated in Memory of Richard Borow
The Islamic State (IS) is a transnational jihadist group that has simultaneously maintained a distinctly local focus through its so-called provinces, seeking to uphold a state-building—or “caliphate”—project interrupted by its loss of territory in Syria and Iraq. IS has navigated various iterations since its formation in 1999, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi created Jund al-Sham in Herat, Afghanistan, and is led today by a relatively little-known figure with the nom de guerre Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Qurashi, following the death in October 2022 of the similarly little-known Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. The group continues to claim attacks regularly in places including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Iraq, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Syria, although its activity in each province fluctuates over time.
This interactive map provides a novel, accessible way to understand the Islamic State’s global reach and activities, offering a clearer illustration than text alone could do. It also moves beyond a traditional scholarly focus on attack data, offering content from IS media, designations, and legal cases.
The launch marks only the beginning of a “living” project, for which continual updates will cover new developments as well as modifications to older entries. Thus, this map reflects an iterative process and will evolve over time. Why launch now, some will wonder. Because while the story of the Islamic State may have receded from news coverage, a jihadist resurgence could occur anytime, especially given the growth of “provinces” in the so-called periphery of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as the generational incubation occurring in Syrian internally displaced persons camps like al-Hawl. The trove of information contained in these initial 1,300-plus entries can help government officials and scholars alike navigate the shadowy world of IS jihadists and propose workable countermeasures. Users, moreover, can check for updates, including through a dedicated button highlighting the latest hundred entries. Any bulk updates will likewise be broadcast on the site author’s Twitter feed as well as his Jihadology website.
As of March 2023, the map includes data on the group’s propaganda (statements and videos, magazine articles, claims of responsibility, and pictures), designations of leaders and entities related to the group, and court cases of arrestees. In the future, it will likely also include other types of information related to the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program, killed leaders, and foreign returnees/repatriations. While the map includes large amounts of information, it consciously seeks to separate the signal from the noise, offering a corrective to the glut of unorganized IS data floating in the public domain. Readers will find clear, well-categorized capsules here that tell the much larger story of IS.
The 2014–2019 period represented the heyday of the Islamic State and research on the group, whereas its loss of territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya today has rendered it less of a perceived threat. The U.S. government, for its part, has shifted resources away from the counterterrorism fight and toward strategic competition against China and Russia, whose revisionist worldviews are seen as more existential problems. Yet even as the immediate IS threat may have waned, the further dispersion of IS activity actually allows the group to destabilize more areas across the globe than in the past. Moreover, to separate power competition from counterterrorism assumes a false premise. The two challenges can indeed intersect. To take just one example, the Islamic State’s Mozambique “province” threatens the gas supply in the country’s northern region—the third largest region in Africa—holding the potential to further exacerbate the energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, even if the Islamic State is no longer front-page news, IS-related developments warrant close consideration by policymakers and others. This map will fill a gap by making readily available information on the group’s activities all over the world.
Iterations of the Islamic State
Jund al-Sham (JS), 1999–2001
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, after his release from a Jordanian prison, traveled to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to establish a group that he hoped would eventually take over the Levant (Bilad al-Sham). His training camp was based in Herat, and most of his recruits came from the Levant.
Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTWJ), 2002–4
After the fall of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Zarqawi set up a training camp in Iraqi Kurdistan and then in Iraq proper, from which JTWJ planned and then carried out several high-profile attacks following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including attacks against coalition forces, the United Nations, the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and Iraqi civilians.
Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (AQI), 2004–6
In October 2004, after negotiations between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda’s Pakistan-based senior leadership, JTWJ joined AQ, resulting in an entity better known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. This development granted Zarqawi greater access to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-based financial networks, and allowed the group to reap the benefits of AQI’s successful attacks.
Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin (MSM), 2006
Reflecting a transitional stage before the announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq, MSM came into being when several smaller insurgent factions jointly pledged baya (a religious oath of allegiance) to Zarqawi.
Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), 2006–13
Although detractors referred to ISI as a “paper state” given its lack of territory and unsuccessful attempts at governance, this phase marked a culmination in the jihadist insurgency in Iraq and provided a bureaucratic basis for the group’s self-realization from 2013 to 2019 in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), 2013–14.
Building on the successes of Jabhat al-Nusra—ISI’s Syrian branch from summer 2011 through April 2013—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the merger of the two groups. Yet JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani rebuffed Baghdadi and publicly pledged baya to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, sparking a war for jihadist supremacy. This phase laid the foundations for the group to actualize its state-building project in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State (IS), 2014–present
On June 29, 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared a “caliphate” with Baghdadi as caliph. This announcement liberated the group from traditional national borders and allowed for the purported restoration of the historic Islamic Caliphate, while also heralding the simplified name Islamic State. The declaration led IS in November 2014 to announce “provinces” outside its core territory in Iraq and Syria, including various regions in Africa, the Caucasus, and South and Southeast Asia.
Background and Goals of the Project
Prior to the Islamic State’s reemergence in 2013, many government officials and researchers believed the group had been defeated. Several still referred to it as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” despite its renaming as the Islamic State of Iraq seven years earlier. Similarly, while IS was marching toward territorial control in Iraq and Syria, in January 2014, then president Barack Obama called IS the “JV squad” in contrast to the presumably “varsity” al-Qaeda. Part of this fundamental misunderstanding arose from the politics of the 2003 Iraq invasion and war, a chapter from which officials and others wanted to move on. Offering further context was the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, which dampened public interest in the jihadist movement in general and IS in particular. The scholarly focus by counterterrorism experts then centered on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa–based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, because these groups included Western foreign fighters or inspired homegrown radicals in the West to plot attacks in their countries.
One of the biggest knowledge deficits during the Islamic State’s resurgence involved the group’s development over time. This lack of historical understanding led to widespread misinterpretations. The group was incorrectly assessed, variously, as a front for revanchist Baathists, a home for nihilists without any ideology, a millenarian movement uninterested in real-world governance, and a locally focused movement without any plans for external operations. This IS map helps correct such misconceptions by not only documenting the group’s recent activities but also providing a deep, archival historical narrative of a changing, adaptive movement.
Now in the “post–territorial control” phase, history is, in a sense, repeating itself. Many inside and outside government who had previously worked on the Islamic State and the jihadist movement have pivoted to more exigent problems, such as the rise of the far right in Western countries, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and worries over China’s growing strength and revisionism regarding the current world order. Increased attention to such issues is no doubt warranted, but the “lull” between large-scale jihadist mobilizations should not be mistaken for an end to the challenge. Absorbing lessons from the past, U.S. officials and scholars must keep as focused as ever on IS, which is laying the groundwork for future advances.
As an aid to such experts and officials, the Islamic State Select Worldwide Activity Interactive Map highlights where the group is operating and expanding today and what these developments could portend for the future. The map also guards against wishful thinking and the over- or under-statement of certain threats without sufficient evidence. The interactive component only makes the process more engaging and the facts clearer to see. Whether or not IS recaptures territory or reengages in large-scale external operations, researchers and officials will have a one-stop repository for understanding current trends and the background that informs them.
This map is not aimed at reinventing the wheel regarding basic data on the Islamic State. For example, organizations such as the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) have created their own maps that attempt to catalog the entirety of the Islamic State’s and other groups’ attacks. This map, by comparison, is not intended to track every last Islamic State operation but rather to collect key information points since the group’s founding in Herat in 1999. The map will be biased toward newer data given the author’s own more recent scholarly attention on the group—especially since 2010. IS, of course, is also far more active now than it was in the earlier years, when (pre-2013) it was based only in Iraq and bore no professed transnational ambitions. In the past decade, it has dramatically increased its number of attacks, and produced vastly more data describing its project.
This map is unique in being composed almost entirely from primary source materials. It draws from both the Islamic State’s official media releases and government press releases or court documents, and is searchable by category, location, the various phases/names of the group, and keywords. The map also contains statistics on IS global attacks based on claims of responsibility in its weekly al-Naba newsletter, dating to July 2018, when the group began to more methodically and regularly share such data. Therefore, even if the map itself does not identify every IS-linked attack, it does—through a stats box—provide an updated, comprehensive list of IS claims.
The author has made a conscious choice not to include violent visual content involving humans, even as the map does include depictions of violent acts such as the burning of buildings and IS boasts about casualties. The point is not to censor the reality of the Islamic State’s extremism or brutality, but rather to prioritize the mental health and welfare of users. The data, as this map amply shows, provides plenty to analyze without adding gore—which has overrated analytical utility anyway.
Types of Data
The map contents illuminate the Islamic State’s far-reaching efforts and provide a close understanding of the U.S. and other governments’ efforts to sanction and degrade the organization, its members, and its capabilities. The map is thus divided (for now) into the following three categories: propaganda, U.S.-designated and sanctioned individuals and entities, and legal cases.
The Islamic State has released considerable propaganda over the years, and continues to do so. This material showcases the group’s ideology, its various terrorist and insurgent strategies, and the image it seeks to project to both the jihadist community and the world. IS propaganda varies considerably in length and content, and thus is divided here into four subcategories: statements/videos, magazines, claims of responsibility, and pictures.
• Statements/videos. Material ranges from pledges of allegiance by wilayat (provinces) to videos of governance efforts in Iraq and Syria and longer statements discussing the impact of major attacks. Primary examples include content on the “Breaking the Borders” campaign aimed at dissolving the national borders between Iraq and Syria,8 as well as the audio recording of then IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepting the “caliph” title in July 2014 in Mosul.9 Data in this section currently reaches up until March 2015 and will be extended to the present day following a review of additional IS materials.
• Magazines. Content, covering up to the present day, includes summaries of notable articles in IS publications—most prominently its weekly al-Naba newsletter, in circulation since October 2015. Other periodicals, including those published in languages other than Arabic (e.g., Dabiq, Rumiyah, Sawt al-Hind, Voice of Khurasan), will be added in the future.
• Claims of responsibility. Not all responsibility claims have been added to the map, and users should not regard the data here as quantitatively meaningful. (For content suited to quantitative analysis, see discussion of the statistics box below.) A claim, moreover, should not be considered necessarily truthful in whole or part. This is propaganda, after all. IS has indeed lied in its claims, such as for the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, for which the FBI has determined no link to the group. Furthermore:
◦ The map does not include lower-impact attacks launched by the group in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, among other places, given the high volume of such claims. It does, however, include major attacks in these locales, for which the group usually publishes photos. For example, the IS claim of responsibility for the September 5, 2022, attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul is included, given the group’s publication of images and a detailed explanation of the operation.
◦ The map does contain all original IS claims of responsibility in “noninsurgent” locations, defined as areas where the group has launched fewer than a hundred attacks. These locales tend to be in Western countries, but they also include places like Bangladesh and India, where IS wages more of a terrorism campaign than a full-fledged insurgency. If the group exceeds one hundred attacks in a noninsurgent locale, existing entries will remain posted, but thereafter only the most relevant claims will go up, rather than every one.
• Pictures. Photo releases shared by the group typically cover its fighters training in areas around the world or new groups pledging allegiance to the “caliphate.”13 Eventually, pictures will be added relating to IS governance efforts in both its Iraq/Syria core territory and its “provinces” abroad.
So far, the map includes a comprehensive set of claims and pictures from Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India/Jammu and Kashmir, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Maldives, the Palestinian territories, Russia/Caucasus, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Britain, the United States, and Uzbekistan. Thus, many countries remain to be inputted, and those with the most data will likely take the longest.
U.S.-Designated and Sanctioned Individuals and Entities
This category highlights Islamic State–affiliated entities and individuals who have been designated or sanctioned by the U.S. Department of State or Department of the Treasury since Zarqawi’s founding of Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 2002. If an individual is designated by both departments, then only the first-issued designation is entered in the map. These entities and individuals have been involved in a range of activities including finance, recruitment, leadership, logistics, weapons production, and the conduct of attacks. This data is fully up to date and will be refreshed when new designations and sanctions are released.
This category includes summaries of international court cases brought against IS-associated individuals around the world. The emphasis, for now, is on U.S. cases, given the ease of access to related court documents and detailed official government press releases. According to the George Washington University Program on Extremism, 256 individuals have been charged with IS-related crimes in the United States,15 and the map thus far includes 157 of these. The aim is to detail all 256 U.S. cases. Additionally, the map currently contains 219 legal cases (arrests, charges, convictions, and sentences) related to Islamic State supporters outside the United States from 43 different countries and territories. While many of these entries have press releases from the particular government pursuing the case, some governments do not publicize this information and therefore the map relies on news pieces for information. Most of the non-U.S. legal cases date from the fall 2022 time period, when the map entered its final design, and the plan is to continue backfilling historical data.
Located at the top-right corner of the map, the statistics box is not directly connected to or correlated with the map’s entries covering claims of responsibility. The box contains statistics on the Islamic State’s claimed attacks published in its al-Naba weekly newsletter since July 2018, including both total number of attacks and total number of individuals killed and injured in all operations since July 2018, when the group began releasing such reports. The box will be updated weekly with each issue of al-Naba.
The data can be filtered for attacks over the past week, the past month, the past year, or since July 2018. Additionally, the data can be filtered by the forty-nine IS wilayat the group has listed since beginning to share statistics. IS, notably, has changed its designations for different areas over time. Thus, early data within Syria and Iraq used more localized definitions of wilayat, such as Wilayat al-Raqqah or Wilayat Ninawa. Yet the later loss of territorial control subsumed all wilayat in Syria under Wilayat al-Sham and in Iraq under Wilayat al-Iraq. Conversely, some provinces that began as part of a larger grouping have acquired a more local designation. For instance, IS fighters in the Sahel region (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso) were once part of Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya (West Africa “province”), which otherwise has been mainly associated with operations in Nigeria. As IS activity in the Sahel region intensified, the group established a new Wilayat Sahil to acknowledge this development. A similar dynamic played out in Mozambique, which was originally part of Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiya alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, whereas now Mozambique has its own province, Wilayat Mozambique.
Shading on the Map
Color shadings on the map are intended to more clearly depict the current Islamic State presence in a given locale. The aim here is to be as precise as possible, especially given the quite misleading practice in some IS maps of shading the entire country. This map applies shading, as much as possible, to show a country’s provincial level, highlighting the group’s strength in some areas of a country versus others. These color shadings will be updated to reflect changes in IS presence.
Altogether, the various categories in this map encompass a broad range of IS-related materials, with the goal of building an enhanced understanding of the group’s ideology, strategies, and various destructive acts and schemes. Future updates will only elaborate this picture
Map Functions and Traits
Purposeful decisions guided this map’s creation, including what sources to include, the coding of an entity’s geolocation, date, and relationship to other entities, and the spellings of Arabic names and terms.
• Search functions
The search box, located at the top right-hand corner of the map (above the statistics box), allows for searching by keyword, event, or city. Users will generate the most relevant results by typing in the most specific terminology possible in light of the breadth of data available and the similarity between certain entries.
• Spelling of Arabic terms
This map, for the most part, uses the academic transliteration of Arabic terms that most closely correlates to their pronunciation, rather than the spellings used by the U.S. government or media. For example, while the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan is typically referred to as Khorosan, this map spells it Khurasan. Additionally, it treats the Syrian governorate typically transliterated Deir ez-Zor as Deir al-Zour. However, when a U.S. government publication or document, such as a Treasury Department designation, is the central focus of an entry, the text honors the agency’s proper-name spelling. It also mainly refers to the organization as the “Islamic State” or “IS,” rather than ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh.
For the propaganda entries, including claims of responsibility, the date listed is the date the item was published by the Islamic State, not the date when the event actually occurred. Similarly, designation entry dates correspond to U.S. government publication of press releases, not other dates of activity.
For court cases, the author has attempted to remain consistent in cataloging incidents. As such, most entries are dated by the earliest mention of the subject’s encounter with law enforcement and the judicial system, such as arrest or charge date. That information is, however, sometimes not publicly available or is virtually inaccessible, and the date instead reflects the earliest known indictment against the subject. Dating of the individual’s trial, verdict, or sentencing is included in the entry, subject to updates based on new information. In instances of extraditions to an individual’s homeland—and particularly those occurring after the 2019 fall of the “caliphate”—that information is also included in the entry if available, but the entry is still categorized as an “arrest” to aid searchability.
All entries are geolocated to the most precise spot available per the open-source material, so long as a given village, town, or city is identifiable on a map. Some areas where the group operates are not identifiable on a map, however, and in these cases entries are geolocated to the province or district where the event occurred. Furthermore, particularly for propaganda sources or designations, when only a country is mentioned, the entry is geolocated to that country’s capital city. For example, when an al-Naba editorial discusses the Iraqi government, and does not mention a specific city or governorate, the entry is linked to Baghdad. Additionally, entries can be linked to multiple locations if multiple places are mentioned in the related propaganda source or if an individual or business acted in multiple locations.
This map relies mainly on primary sources, supplemented by background news articles that provide important context. Much of the content is created by the Islamic State itself. The videos, statements, audio messages, and magazines are cataloged on the author’s website, Jihadology. Due to the sensitivity of this data, users can only access the full original sources by registering with the website, an option limited to individuals with relevant institutional email addresses for research. The claims of responsibility and other pictures included on the map are derived from the author’s personal archive, which is maintained and updated regularly.
U.S.-based court case documentation is drawn from IS-related Justice Department press releases as well as efforts by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism to comprehensively archive court documents from trials, including indictments, prosecutions, and sentencings. A similar data set on overseas court cases, now being gathered for the map, could ultimately include court documents if they are accessible in open sources; for now, press releases published by overseas judicial systems will serve as sources, or else substantiated press reports if the press releases turn out to be unavailable or irrelevant.
Finally, entries on the U.S. State and Treasury Department designations contain the press releases published by those agencies.
Filtering is also possible by time period and country, keeping in mind that the pre-2013 IS period was confined to Iraq. Most activities outside Iraq thus come afterward. The time periods align with the different IS names/phases discussed earlier.
• Clicking on entries
Some circles on the map link to several entries. Clicking on the circle will allow users to preview all such entries by scrolling down a list and clicking on the one that interests them.
• Entry features
Underneath the title for each entry, users will find the primary source or sources, with an arrow to the right allowing for navigation of multiple sources, where applicable. Below the source line are the date and primary location of the entry, followed by a summary of the entry and then a link to a source, if available. Clickable related entries, if any, are then listed below.
Regarding the latter function, this indicates a relationship such as the designation of an individual and a court case against that same individual. For example, the Treasury Department’s designation of U.S. national Emraan Ali, an Islamic State financial facilitator, is connected with the court case brought against him by the Justice Department. Additionally, entries can be related if individuals operated together or for a common organization. For example, members of the al-Rawi network, a key IS financial facilitation group,18 are connected on the map given that they worked together in the service of the organization. A related location entry function works in the same way by indicating an entry’s links to multiple locations. For example, if an individual traveled from San Diego to Raqqa to join IS, the bottom of an entry would showcase secondary, tertiary, and other subordinate related locations.
• Sharing and feedback
At the top of each entry, users can navigate back to a prior entry they clicked on, copy the link for sharing or reference, and provide feedback seeking updates or clarification.
This interactive map tool is aimed at providing not only a more expansive picture of the Islamic State as a transnational jihadist and insurgent organization, but also a more nuanced understanding of IS ideology and strategies. Additions to the map in coming years will be aimed at building an ever more comprehensive portrait of the group. Today, even as the product remains less than comprehensive, it stands out as the most thorough, freely available one-stop venue for IS material for researchers and policymakers. In the future, to further enhance functionality, the next step will be to add a filtered timeline feature so as to better disaggregate data. In terms of data, as alluded to earlier, the aim is to include information related to the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program, killed IS leaders based on Department of Defense, U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Africa Command press releases, as well as statistics on foreign returnees/repatriation.
This map would not have been possible without the spirited assistance of many individuals along with amazing teamwork over the past year and a half.
The team at International Mapping, particularly Kevin Danaher and Mikael Ems, has been crucial in developing the aesthetics of the map. Both Kevin and Mikael provided countless coding adjustments to make the map as sleek-looking and efficient to navigate as it is today. Furthermore, I owe a great deal of gratitude to The Washington Institute’s publications, video, social media, and website team. Thanks go to Maria Radacsi for her expert design advice and Jason Warshof for his precise editing of the entries. Thanks also to Kori Francis for her help in producing and editing the trailer and clips to promote the map, Carolina Krauskopf for assisting with a social media campaign to boost online reach, and Scott Rogers for helping organize the landing page and the map’s presence on the Institute’s website.
The feedback provided by my Washington Institute colleagues has been fundamental to the map’s success, and I offer my profound thanks. Matthew Levitt, who directs the Institute’s Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, has offered expert advice on a range of issues since the map’s inception. I am also very grateful to the Institute’s leadership, especially Executive Director Robert Satloff and Director of Research Patrick Clawson, for supporting this project.
I would like to thank the Institute’s donors for their financial support, particularly Jeanette and Eli Reinhard, whose generosity funds the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Program and who signed off on this project. And I am forever indebted to Richard Borow, who died in September 2022. He was a truly great man, who funded my Institute fellowship for more than a decade, and I will work to ensure that his legacy lives on in my work. I am honored to establish this mapping project in his memory.
Last but not least, this map would not be available today without the hard work of many Institute research assistants and interns. Hannah Labow established the sturdy foundation, while Amal Soukkarieh provided expert translation and summarizing of the Islamic State’s complex propaganda publications. Many thanks also go to interns Delaney Soliday, who provided entries related to IS court cases, and Nibras Khudaida, who began the painstaking process of reviewing IS responsibility claims in Arabic. Finally, Sarah Cahn deserves special note for helping push this project to the finish line, working on all aspects of the entries. The map would not be in the excellent shape it is in today without Sarah’s steady diligence.