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This Week in ISIS

A round-up of news and research on the notorious terrorist group.
Iraqi demonstrators protesting against ISIS in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2014. (Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

Iraqi demonstrators protesting against ISIS in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2014. (Photo: Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

ISIS, a terrorist group that now controls cities throughout Syria and northern Iraq, often shows up in the news. This past week, however, the group seems to have been particularly busy. Here's a round-up of what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been doing and some new research toward understanding the group:


Members of ISIS have long used social media to keep supporters engaged, recruit new supporters, and publicize their actions. Now a new analysis quantifies just how effective ISIS is on Twitter. Here are some highlights from the analysis, conducted by researchers for the Brookings Institution:

  • This past fall and winter, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts supported ISIS.
  • The average ISIS-supporting account has about 1,000 followers, many more than most Twitter users.
  • About 20 percent of ISIS-supporting Twitter users chose English as their primary language. About 75 percent chose Arabic.
  • The top five most frequent locations that ISIS-supporting Twitter users claim in their profiles are: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, the United States, and Egypt.


This week, the Islamic State began bulldozing ancient artwork and architecture in Nimrud, an city founded by Assyrians in the 13 century in what is now Iraq. In the recent past, the group had taken videos of members smashing Assyrian artifacts in a nearby museum, and leveling shrines and mosques.

Supporters say they’re destroying false idols, but journalists and researchers found that the group actually sells precious artifacts to fund itself.

Since 2011, many ancient Fertile Crescent sites have sustained damage from extremists as well as looters and military operations. Scientists are tracking the destruction via satellite. You can see a map of the damage, as of late 2014, here.


Of particular interest to Western onlookers to the violence in Iraq and Syria are the Westerners who join ISIS. Over the past week, journalists have slowly uncovered the past of “Jihadi John,” an executioner for ISIS who appeared in grisly YouTube videos and got his nickname from his British accent. It turns out he grew up in London. Meanwhile, several Americans have made the news recently for attempting to aid or join ISIS.

The U.S.’ FBI and Department of Homeland Security sent out an alert this week, asking local law enforcement to be on the lookout for young, Western, would-be terrorists, CBS News reports.

The research on why Westerners become jihadis is patchy, but the New Scientist has a good overview. Many joiners are “young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission,” as Scott Atran, a French researcher who studies group dynamics, told the New Scientist.


This week, Queen Rania of Jordan told the Huffington Post that she would like the world to stop calling ISIS, well, ISIS. “I would love to drop the first ‘I’ in ISIS because there’s nothing Islamic about them,” she said.

Over the past year, politicians and newsrooms have also debated what to call ISIS. Usually the question is around not the “Islamic” part, but the end of the acronym, which may be translated in different ways from Arabic. There are a number of folks who would be happy if ISIS were a less popular way to refer to the group. See: the Institute for Science and International Security, and people named Isis.

(Chart:  U.S. Social Security Administration)

(Chart:  U.S. Social Security Administration)

As the chart above shows, Isis climbed in popularity as a newborn girl’s name in the U.S. during the 1990s, although it’s never been particularly common. In 2013, the last year for which the U.S. Social Security’s baby-name popularity tool has data, Isis was about as popular as it has been throughout the 21 century. We are anxious to see what the data for 2014 will show.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.