(CNSNews.com) – The Islamist terrorist group that this week seized Iraq’s second-largest city now effectively controls a large swathe of territory across Iraq and northeastern Syria, as it advances towards its declared goal of establishing an Islamic state, or caliphate, incorporating parts of both countries.
A timeline of key events in the development of the group, known variously as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, follows:
1999: Jordanian Sunni militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi flees his country after a failed hotel bombing and moves his group, known then as Tawhid and Jihad, to Afghanistan.
Late 2001/2002: After overthrow of the Taliban, Zarqawi moves to Iraq, where he prepares to take up the fight against U.S. forces as it becomes clear that Iraq will be invaded.
Mar. 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom is launched.
2004: Zarqawi renames his group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and steps up a deadly campaign against U.S. and Iraqi targets. AQI’s ranks swell as Arab jihadists enter the country to fight against the U.S., and the group also becomes notorious for abducting foreigners and filming their execution.
Dec. 2004: State Department designates AQI as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
2005: Senior AQI figure Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Abu Du’a) – later described by Iraqi law enforcement as an Islamic law PhD, and the group’s “spiritual leader” during this period – is arrested and held at the U.S. military-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. (Reports differ on whether he was held for one, four or five years, and details of his release remain hazy.)
June 2006: Zarqawi is killed when the U.S. bombs a safe house north of Baghdad. AQI gets a new leader, identified by the U.S. as Abdul-Munim Izz-al-Din al-Badawi (aka Abu-Ayyub al-Masri), an Egyptian.
Oct. 2006: AQI renames itself Islamic State of Iraq, and its leader is identified as Hamid Dawud al-Zawi (aka Abu-Omar al-Baghdadi), an Iraqi.
2007: Anbar-based tribal “awakening” campaign against AQI and other militants and “surge” of troop reinforcements sent in by President Bush helps to stem the tide of violence, marking a turning point in the Iraq conflict.
Apr. 2010: Al-Zawi is killed in a U.S. airstrike; Al-Badri (al-Baghdadi), viewed as secretive and ambitious, is promoted to the leadership.
Aug. 2011: Al-Baghdadi threatens on an AQI website to carry out 100 attacks across Iraq to avenge the death of bin Laden three months earlier.
Dec. 2011: After the failure of negotiations on retaining a training and counterterrorism force beyond an agreed-upon withdrawal deadline, the last U.S. forces leave Iraq.
2012: Al-Baghdadi starts focusing attention on the jihad against President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, where he reportedly helps to establish an al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, under the leadership of a former Zarqawi deputy.
May 2013: Al-Baghdadi declares merger of AQI and al-Nusra under the name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or alternatively, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The perceived power grab is rejected by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who declares that al-Nusra is the only al-Qaeda affiliate engaged in the anti-Assad campaign. Al-Baghdadi ignores al-Zawahiri’s instructions to focus on Iraq, and instead continues operations in both countries.
Jul. 2013: ISIS/ISIL raids Iraq’s Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons, freeing hundreds of prisoners, many of whom are reported to head for Syria to join the jihad there. Throughout the year ISIS/ISIL carries out attacks in Iraq, where the State Department says it is responsible for most of the more than 7,000 civilian deaths recorded during 2013, the highest number there since 2008.
Jan. 2014: ISIS/ISIL seizes control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Winter/spring 2014: ISIS/ISIL battles al-Nusra and other rebel groups for control of territory across northern Syria. Thousands die in this conflict within the wider Syrian civil war. The State Department says the group likely makes up “a significant portion of the estimated 26,000 violent extremist fighters in Syria.”
Jun. 5: ISIS/ISIL forces launch an attack against the Iraqi city of Samarra, but are expelled by Iraqi airstrikes.
Jun. 9-10: ISIS/ISIL forces capture control of most of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and free hundreds of prisoners, including some of its fighters. Iraqi forces reportedly flee. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declares a state of emergency.
Jun. 11: ISIS/ISIL forces take control of an oil refinery at Baiji then move further down the highway to Baghdad and seize Tikrit, just 95 miles north of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of people are reported to have been displaced as a result of the fighting.