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Is It ISIS or ISIL? That Depends On Who You're Asking


When President Obama announced new military action against the so-called Islamic State you may have noticed the term he used for the group...


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

RATH: ISIL is what the U.S. government calls the group, but it is not the term used by most of the news media.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The president has just spoken from the White House about the terrorist threat from ISIS.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Air strikes against ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The terrorist group ISIS.

RATH: NPR's Tom Dreisbach (ph) get into the semantics.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: There are two main reasons for the conflicting names for this group. One, it's an issue of translation from the Arabic and, two, the name has changed. So let's start with what the group called itself at the beginning of this year. Here's Lena Khatib, she's the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

LINA KHATIB: The name of the group in Arabic is (foreign language spoken) and it literally means the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

DREISBACH: So that L in ISIL is a translation of the term al-Sham, meaning the Levant.

KHATIB: The Levant is an area that extends beyond the current borders of the Syrian State and into Lebanon and even Palestine and Jordan.

DREISBACH: Other people translate al-Sham not as Levant, but as greater Syria, hence ISIS, but then in June the group declared itself a caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State or in Arabic...

KHATIB: it simply (foreign language spoken). So you just, you know, keep the same original name, but simply remove in Iraq and Syria.

DREISBACH: That left news outlets and the government with a choice - stick with the term Americans know or go with the new name. When the president spoke on Wednesday he made it clear that the White House does not respect the groups rebranding.


OBAMA: Now let's make two things clear - ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim and ISIL is certainly not a state.

DREISBACH: And for most news outlets, ISIS, which was always more popular, has remained the go-to short hand.

BILL POWER: To put it bluntly if you do a Google search most people are doing ISIS, so it'd be naive of us to avoid that term entirely.

DREISBACH: That's Bill Power, he's the co-editor of The Wall Street Journal Stylebook. The Journal uses ISIS in headlines, but otherwise calls it the group by its current name, the Islamic State. On the other hand The New York Times told me it's sticking with ISIS. USA Today generally goes with Islamic State, but uses ISIL in headlines. It may be worth asking just how important these semantic choices are. Here's Bill Power again from the journal.

POWER: It's an uncomfortable thing because obviously all that really matters is the terrible things they're doing and what we're going to do about them. So you almost feel weird being hung up on the nerdy aspect of what they're called, but that's what newspapers do.

DREISBACH: Public radio, too. On NPR we call the group the so-called Islamic State and ISIS on second reference. And Lena Khatib says the names of terrorist groups can tell us something about their methods and their goals. Take for example Al Qaeda. In Arabic that means simply the base.

KHATIB: Al Qaeda is a model of loose networks that are connected to a fundamental base, both in terms of leadership as well in terms of ideology. The Islamic State, on the other hand, actually wants to have a physical state that aims to expand its borders.

DREISBACH: And Khatib says the fast-growing ambition of the so-called Islamic State is right there in the name. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
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