The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is "a Salafi jihadi extremist militant group and self-proclaimed caliphate and Islamic state which is led by Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria" (Wikipedia). With an ever-expanding territory covering Iraq and Syria and millions of people living there, I'm curious as to how political scientists define this territory.

Specifically, is the region controlled by ISIS considered a state? Does such a distinction affect international law?

  • 2
    For sure it cannot be a nation-state since the ideology of ISIS reject the idea of a nation having political legitimacy
    – gabriele
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:07
  • @gabriele: That may be true and perhaps deserves its own question. But should their ideology necessarily determine how others define their controlled territory?
    – Aryeh
    Jul 9, 2015 at 13:17
  • I think what matters is whether the big players consider them a nation. Given that they are hostile to almost everyone, I doubt many are going to give them that. I won't give an answer because I'm no expert on international law, but I think that people are still hoping to get rid of them and give their lands back to their rightful owners. Jul 9, 2015 at 14:39
  • @Aryeh I wasn't saying that they are not a state, only that they cannot be a nation-state, a concept that identify a state that derives its legitimacy by representing a nation. It's an objective statement to say that they cannot be considered a nation-state since they derive their political legitimacy, if any, from a religious authority that explicity negate the value of the concept of nation in politics.
    – gabriele
    Jul 9, 2015 at 15:14
  • @gabriele: ok, I edited the question to keep it simple and now only asking about it's statehood.
    – Aryeh
    Jul 9, 2015 at 17:20

3 Answers 3


Well, according to the Montevideo Convention, which is often used (including by the EU) to define what a state is, a "The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states."

Seeing as how ISIS explicitly rejects (b) and (d), (and I don't think (a)) applies either, ISIS is not a state, at least by this definition. Of course, like any definition, it is necessarily arbitrary, this is just a commonly accepted one.

  • 1
    Definitions are neither right nor wrong, but useful or not. This one is useful. Good answer. Jul 10, 2015 at 2:39
  • 1
    Then Inda, Pakistan and China are not states as their borders are not clearly defined (it fails the b) test). But I think everyone will agree those are states, if not nation-states.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 10, 2015 at 9:50
  • 7
    Well, with India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Morocco... those countries have claimed borders and actual borders, but the actual borders are (fairly) stable. ISIS' actual borders, on the other hand, can change day to day, and their claimed territory is the entire world...
    – xamvolagis
    Jul 10, 2015 at 15:00
  • +1 for this answer, especially because it uses objective criteria to determine statehood rather than, for example, UN consensus.
    – Publius
    Jul 17, 2015 at 6:00

The Montevideo Convention is certainly a very good place to start and, as be said before that requires a movement to have

  • A ) a permanent population;
  • B ) a defined territory;
  • C ) government;
  • and D ) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Now, they have A) for sure. There's a group of people who live in cities like Mosul and they are permanent. Some of the population are transitory (leaving and going), maybe even a majority but there is a large group who are totally permanent.

B) is a little less clear. ISIL has continued to make claims about the illegitimacy of existing boarders in the middle east but that's not to say that ISIL does not hold a defined territory. They certainly don't recognise most of these boarders as anything more that front lines but they're lines nonetheless. I would argue that given their clearly defined Wilayahs (regions/areas/prefectures) they have a defined territory so fulfil B but I recognise that that's unclear.

They certainly have a government so C is no problem.

D ) is unclear. I would argue that to have the capacity to enter into negotiations is unconnected to having the will to enter into negotiations. I reject the idea of pouring hot coffee on my arm but I do still have the capacity to do so.

A counter argument might be that they don't have the capacity to enter in negotiations because they have no state counterparts for these negotiations. I don't think this is accurate though since they appear to have been negotiating with Jordan, Japan for the release of Kenji Goto and Muath Al-Kaseasbeh. So their capacity to enter into those negotiations has been demonstrated in my opinion.

The Montevideo Convention is ugly subjective and there are other standards that you might want to use but it's as good as all the rest. I accept B is a little shaky because of their rejection of national boundaries but I think it's worth think de facto rather than de libre on this.


ISIS declares itself to be a state.

ISIS has sufficient control of enough territory that any other state (that was willing to anger the United States) could reasonably choose to recognize ISIS as a state.

There are other concepts (such as "recognized belligerent") that have fewer rights under international law than a "state", but still have some rights and responsibilities under international law.

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