During Iraq's long summer of 2004, one of the many prisoners who arrived at the American-run facility at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq was a young jihadist who fought under the name Abu Ahmed. Though he'd feared prison, Abu Ahmed found, to his surprise, a kind of jihadist salon, as extremist fighters locked up together spent their days discussing religion and military strategy.
There was one man in particular who stood out from the rest, Abu Ahmed recalled in an interview with the Guardian: a "quiet" but charismatic man who seemed driven by a desire for status and had a special authority over not just the other prisoners but even the guards, who allowed him to visit other camps. "You could feel that he was someone important," Abu Ahmed said.
That quiet man from Camp Bucca today goes by the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and is revered by his thousands of followers as Caliph Ibrahim, commander of the faithful. He is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group so violent it was rejected even by al-Qaeda, and so grand in its ambitions that it now rules much of Iraq and Syria as a de facto state from which it is launching increasingly spectacular terror attacks abroad.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, a growing number of people are asking, with renewed urgency, about the group that has claimed responsibility. Who is ISIS? How did they come to be? What do they mean for the world, how can the world deal with them, and why hasn't it? What happened in between Camp Bucca and Paris?
What follows are the most basic answers to these most basic questions, written so that anyone can understand them.
1) What is ISIS?
The most direct answer to this question is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also called ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) is a terrorist group that follows an Islamic ultra-fundamentalist ideology and that controls a vast region across Iraq and Syria.
But that hardly describes it.
It is a de facto state that declares itself to be the rightful heir of Islam's founding leaders. It considers itself at war with all nations and with all people who do not meet its standards as "true" Muslims. It believes its mission is to bring on the apocalypse as foretold in scripture. To this end, it seeks to conquer territory where it will build a real state and govern as it sees fit.
But for all its grand ambitions and twisted beliefs, ISIS is also a calculating, strategic organization that has brilliantly exploited the Middle East's political problems and social ills to recruit an army, win battles, and conquer territory.
Even more than that, ISIS is in many ways the ultimate culmination of problems that have been mounting in the Middle East for years: brutal dictatorship, religious extremism, sectarian hatred, foreign interventions, proxy wars, and a sense of hopelessness and anger among many, many people.