Nicholas Bons, 30, a French convert to Islam, died fighting in Syria last year. Social media plays a big role in recruitment to the Islamic State. Picture: Regis Duvignau / Reuters

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – now known as the Islamic State – is a jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria.

Formed in April last year, it grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda but has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq.

The final “S” in the organisation’s original acronym Isis stems from the Arabic word al-Sham. This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of jihad it refers to the Levant.

It is thought to include thousands of fighters, including many foreign jihadists

from the UK, Europe and US.

The organisation is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Little is known about him but it is believed he was born north of Bagh-dad, in 1971 and joined the insurgency that erupted in Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion.

In 2010 he emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Unlike other rebel groups in Syria, the Islamic State is seen to be working towards an Islamic emirate that straddles Syria and Iraq.

The group has experienced considerable military success. In March last year it took over the Syrian city of Raqqa and in January took control of Fallujah. It also seized large sections of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and has a presence in towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders.

However, it was its conquest of Mosul last month that sent shockwaves around the world.

Initially, the group relied on donations from wealthy individuals in Gulf Arab states who supported its fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Today, the Islamic State is said to earn a significant amount from the oil fields it controls in eastern Syria, reportedly selling some of the supply back to the government. It is also believed to have been selling looted antiquities. –