BAGHDAD – Propaganda has been one of the core strategies of the Sunni militant group in Syria and Iraq that today calls itself the Islamic State — and its name is very much a part of that.
In July, the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.
Different translations for the name of the al-Qaida splinter group have emerged since the early days of its existence.
Some have chosen to call it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The final word in Arabic — al-Sham — can be translated as Levant, Syria, or as Damascus.
Arab governments have long refrained from using Islamic State, instead referring to it by the Arabic acronym for its full original name, Daesh — short for Dawlat al-Islamiyah f'al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham.
Several residents in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.
The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group's growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news. Despite being associated to about a half-dozen names and acronyms, the group's brutal objectives are becoming increasingly clear.
Prior to the group's self-declared rebranding in July, The Associated Press opted to refer to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, believing it was the most accurate translation.
The AP now uses phrases like "the Islamic State group," or "fighters from the Islamic State group," to avoid phrasing that sounds like they could be fighting for an internationally recognized state.
"The word 'state' implies a system of administration and governance," said David L. Phillips, the director of Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University. "It's not a term that would be used to characterize a terrorist group or militia that is merely rolling up territory."
"Part of their strategy is to establish administration over lands that they control so that they demonstrate that they are more than just a fighting force," Phillips added. Equally problematic is the use of the word "Islamic" in its name, with some calling it blasphemous.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius referred to the group as Daesh, calling them "butchers" who do not represent Islam or a state. He urged others to do the same.
Egypt's top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as "al-Qaida separatists" and not the Islamic State.
"Their savage acts don't coincide with the name of Islam," said Sunni cleric Hameed Marouf Hameed, an official with Iraq's Sunni religious endowment. "They incite hatred, violence and killing and these acts have no place in any real Islamic state."
Associated Press reporters Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Angela Charlton in Paris and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.