Why does President Obama insist on calling the enemy “ISIL”, rhymed with “whistle”? Not the Islamic State, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — just the acronym “ISIL”?

My University of Birmingham colleague Asaf Siniver and I have written for International Affairs about Obama’s choice of label, reviewing it alongside US actions towards the militants since the Islamic State’s rapid advance across Iraq in June 2014.

In part, the refusal to use “Islamic State” was an attempt to deny legitimacy to the movement. However, beyond this, we found that Obama’s ISIL was not the outcome of a well-defined strategy to confront the threat. Instead, it reflected — and still reflects — the absence of strategy:

*The President avoided the use of “Iraq” to maintain distance from American involvement in that country, both in the context of the failed 2003 invasion and in the complications of a renewed US intervention in 2014.

*The Administration “dislocated” the militants so they could be portrayed as an alien, terrorist organization invading a country in which they had no base.

*The President and his advisors continued to use the label amid their confusion over what to do in Syria, not only with respect to the Islamic State but to the conflict between the Assad regime and the opposition and rebels.


….[Obama’s] embrace of ISIL can be viewed as an evasion—in strategic, policy and operational terms. By rhetorically detaching ISIL from Syria, where the Islamic State has gained further ground and has established areas of governance, the Obama administration has distanced itself from the imperative of a coherent response to the group in its local setting.

Far from encouraging coherence and understanding, “ISIL” has been a term of dissonance. It is dissonant from the Islamic State’s self-definition of its ideology and system, embodied in the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014. It is dissonant from public consideration of the militants, with mainstream media using Islamic State or ISIS or, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, Daesh. And it is dissonant from public conceptions: a Google search reveals that ISIL is a far less popular term for the group (19,100,000 hits) than either Islamic State (72,200,000) or ISIS (208,000,000).

Why does the Obama administration set itself at odds with the prevailing discursive presentation of the Islamic State, at home and abroad? We suggest that recognition of the Islamic State by name involves engagement with its political, economic, and military as well as ideological force. That engagement in turn sets the task of a response to this force. However, the Obama administration — from either a lack of will or a fear of the consequences—does not wish to pursue engagement. Instead, it dislocates ‘ISIL’ and abstracts it as a “terrorist” threat, setting it
within a post-2001 discursive framework wherein anti-terrorism is preferred over confrontation of local issues.

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