The Islamic State lexical battleground: US foreign policy and the abstraction of threat

Asaf Siniver, Scott Lucas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


This article suggests that President Obama's consistent references to the extremist Sunni group as ‘ISIL’ (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is not a trivial matter of nomenclature. Instead, the Obama administration's deliberate usage of the ISIL acronym (as opposed to other commonly-used terms such as ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ or ‘ISIS’, ‘Islamic State’, ‘IS’, ‘so-called Islamic State’ and ‘Daesh’) frames the public perception of the threat to avoid engagement with the requirements of strategy and operations. Both the labelling and the approach could be defended as a response to the unique challenge of a transnational group claiming religious and political legitimacy. However, we suggest that the labelling is an evasion of the necessary response, reflecting instead a lack of coherence in strategy and operations—in particular after the Islamic State's lightning offensive in Iraq and expansion in Syria in mid-2014. This tension between rhetoric, strategy and operations means that ‘ISIL’ does not provide a stable depiction of the Islamic State. While it may draw upon the post-9/11 depiction of ‘terrorism’, the tag leads to dissonance between official and media representations. The administration's depiction of a considered approach leading to victory has been undermined by the abstraction of ‘ISIL’, which in turn produced strategic ambiguity about the prospect of any political, economic or military challenge to the Islamic State.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-79
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jan 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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