Keeping pace with the ever-changing name of ISIS through the lens of Wikipedia

The New York Times building in New York, NY Source: WikiCommons | Author: Haxorjoe

If you’ve followed recent events in Syria and Iraq, then you’ve surely heard of an organization that at various times is referred to as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), or just IS (Islamic State). While the New York Times recently decided to use “ISIS” in their headline, it only takes until the fourth paragraph before “ISIL” appears in a quote by Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s strategic affairs minister.

Wikipedia currently has twelve names listed for the group; some of them self-proclaimed, some reflecting the way other people wish to portray the group.

  • al-Dawlah (“the State”)
  • al-Dawlat al-Islāmīyah (“the Islamic State”)
  • AQI : Al-Qaeda in Iraq : Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn
  • Da’ish / Daesh (داعش) : al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa ash-Sham
  • IS : Islamic State
  • ISI : Islamic State of Iraq : Dawlat al-ʻIraq al-Islāmīyah
  • ISIL : Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
  • ISIS : Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham
  • Islamic State
  • JTJ : Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād : The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad
  • Mujahideen Shura Council
  • QSIS : Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria

Whichever name gets used most frequently actually tells us more about who is speaking then it says about the organization. For instance, President Obama and most US government officials have chosen to use ISIL, perhaps to avoid associations with Syria, the very place they chose not to bomb last year. Media outlets tend to favor using ISIS or IS for the opposite reason, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” is very explicit. Many Islamic scholars reject both names and are lobbying to call the group QSIS for “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria” because they reject the group’s claim to represent Islam.

Flag of the self-designated Islamic State

Getting beyond the name

The most important thing to know about all these name variants is that they represent one actual entity: an organization based in Syria and Iraq with the goal of creating a fundamentalist Islamic state.

Wikipedia knows this now, as evidenced by the 61 redirects that lead users to the current entry on the group. But this has come about only recently, a result of considerable editing by the Wikipedia community over the span of several years. Tracking the history of the group’s current Wikipedia article offers some interesting insights into what was widely known about them at any given point during the past seven years.


ISIS: Through the Eyes of Wikipedia

The history of the group’s current Wikipedia page begins with a single paragraph on January 24th, 2007:

The Islamic State of Iraq was established in 2006 “to protect the Sunni Iraqi people and defend Islam, by the Pact of the Scented People”. It is composed of a variety of insurgency groups, including the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, Conquering Army (Jeish al-Fatiheen), Army Squad of the Prophet Muhammad (Jund al-Sahaba), Brigades of al-Tawhid Wal Sunnah, and Sunni tribes. It claims a presence in the governorates of Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Ninawa, and parts of Babel and Wasit, and is headed by the Emir of the Believers, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

This article is interesting because it describe a series of insurgent groups operating only in Iraq. There no mention of Syria, where the group currently has their power base, or any reference to a larger goal (such as creating an islamic caliphate).

A year later, we have a much longer article, but still no reference to Syria or the group’s current goal.

On September 8th, 2009, we start to glean some sense of the current organization that exists today:

The group is composed of and supported by a variety of insurgency groups, including its predecessor, the Mujahideen Shura Council, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jeish al-Fatiheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, etc, and other clans whose population is of Sunni faith. It aims to establish a caliphate in the Sunni dominated regions of Iraq.

It’s not until April 9th, 2013 that Syria officially makes it into the title of the page, when someone with an IP address originating in Turkey renames the page to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria). The page then gets reverted back to Islamic State of Iraq for two months, until the name is then changed again (after proper discussion on Wikipedia talk pages) to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on July 14th, 2013. The group’s name is also documented as having changed in the article:

In April 2013, the group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and became deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Wikipedia page edits by year.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Wikipedia edits by year.

All this naming confusion goes on and on for a month, with the Islamic State of Syria and Sham popping up on August 17th, 2013, and the page finally being renamed on August 20th, 2013 to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.

One final noteworthy article is the once separate page: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This page was created August 20th, 2013. As of January 6th 2014, it had three paragraphs which attempted to talk about the nation of Iraq and Syria as opposed to the group, but this page was redirected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant page on January 16th, 2014. An interesting example of the Wikipedia community culling its competing articles, while also rejecting the notion that ISIS represents a location (rather than an organization) that requires its own Wikipedia entry.


So…ISIS? ISIL? or Islamic State (IS)?

Chasing down just what is referred to by ISIS or ISIL or Islamic State is a not so difficult task at the moment. Variants have been culled and refined into one solid article on Wikipedia.  However, just a few months ago this would have been much more confusing.  Searching for ISIS would have let to a vague list of things that go by that name. And a query for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria would have led to an incomplete article about a country that does not exist. Furthermore, unless you had a particularly deep background in Middle East geography, it’s unlikely that any reference to “Levant” would be recognisable as the name of a region in and around Syria.

Wikipedia entries continue to change rapidly, and the velocity of these changes will most certainly add to the confusion. In fact, we started doing the research for this article beginning on September 15th and since then, the first line of the Wikipedia article has changed.  It now reads (September 30th, 2014):

The self-designated Islamic State (IS; Arabic: الدولة الإسلامية‎ al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah), which previously called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL /ˈaɪsəl/) or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS /ˈaɪsɪs/; Arabic: الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام‎) and is also known by the Arabic acronym Dāʻish (داعش), is an unrecognized state and a Sunni jihadist group active in Iraq and Syriain the Middle East.[a] In its self-proclaimed status as a caliphate, it claims religious authority over all Muslims across the world and aims to bring most Muslim-inhabited regions of the world under its political control, beginning with territory in the Levant region, which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey.[73][74][75]

So it looks like Islamic State (IS) could soon be the going name, which opens a whole new opportunity for confusion. Just see what you get when you search for IS on Wikipedia. And of course who knows how things might change in the coming weeks and months.


But what about the other ISISes?

Isis Wallet has changed its name to Softcard.
Isis Wallet has changed its name to Softcard.

Meanwhile many articles and topics have been fleeing the expanding influence of this group. For example, Isis Mobile Wallet, a four year collaboration of AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon renamed their product to Softcard on September 3rd, 2014.

At various times over the past month (and at the moment of publishing), has been redirected from Isis (disambiguation), to the current page about the group. This means that the wikipedia contributors felt certain that anyone looking for ISIS was probably not looking for ISIS a group that supports communities in the developing world or IS-IS, a networking protocol.

Isis the Egyptian God has held solidly onto Isis with a lowercase “sis” as a differentiator and it will be interesting to see if that distinction holds.

It is also notable that there are a number of other places named Levant that (thankfully) are not being overrun by armed fundamentalists. This is a minor point, but important if you wanted to take any of this information and overlay it on a map.


How can we keep up next time?

Current Wikipedia articles about ISIS are a great example of how crowd-sourced resources can give the public access to the knowledge of many experts.  However, having so many voices creates ambiguity especially with regard to emerging information. Critical decisions can’t always wait for the editorial process to stabilize information in Wikipedia. How would decision makers, from oil producers to intelligence analysts, have connected the dots around ISIS back when the relevant parts of Wikipedia were confused or sparsely populated? Or how do the Wikipedia authors themselves find their information? For instance, the Wikipedia page of a new group Khorosan was just created on September 21. How might people have tracked it before then or even now as more information comes to light?

In part, they need assistance from automated tools that encode expert multilingual and domain knowledge. They need a system that knows without being told that “Islamic State” is a translation of “ الدولة الإسلامية‎“ or that ISIS could be a way of referring to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. They also need a system that knows that a group called ISIS in the context of community development in Nepal is unlikely to be the terrorist group. Finally, they need a system that leverages the changing state of Wikipedia (or similar repositories like Intellipedia) so that no one spends time rediscovering what someone else has already shared.

At Basis Technology, we’re tackling this problem with adaptable entity resolution that is designed to improve both through machine learning algorithms and collaboration with linguists and analysts.  Please get in touch if you would like to learn more.