On Tuesday, the Islamic State released one of its most brutal videos yet. A Jordanian pilot, who was held captive and at the center of a possible prisoner swap, was shown being burnt alive in a cage.
Early last year, al-Qaeda's other affiliate in the region, Jabhat al-Nusra, battled with the Islamic State, then going by ISIS or ISIL, for months over control of cities in northern Syria. The group was criticized for its harsh methods, which included "beheadings, floggings and bans on smoking, music and other perceived un-Islamic behaviors."
One analyst even told Washington Post reporter Liz Sly that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made the decision to separate from the Islamic State because it was seen as a "liability to the al-Qaeda brand."
When the groups split, the Islamic State had control of cities in northern Syria, such as Raqqa and Aleppo, and had managed to take possession of a key city in Iraq — Fallujah, which had been captured by U.S. troops in 2004 in what was called "America’s bloodiest confrontation since the Vietnam War."
This map from Feb. 7, 2014, shows how just a year ago it seemed as though the Islamic State was mostly on its own. Here's an overview of what has happened since then.
Creation of a caliphate
Last June, the insurgents attracted international attention when they overtook Mosul, one of the largest cities in Iraq. After grabbing more land in northern Iraq in the following weeks and destroying the Iraq-Syria border, the militants established a new "caliphate," referring to their territories in northern Syria and Iraq.
Thus, ISIS became the Islamic State. As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor wrote, "the restoration of a caliphate is the stated objective for many jihadist organizations, eager to overthrow the 20th century nation-state system grafted onto the Middle East after World War I." It became the Islamic State's mission.
Thousands of militants from around the world went to Syria and Iraq to fight along with the Islamic State. Other people went to fight along with Kurdish forces and other militias against the radical group. A recent estimate by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) released in January shows that number went up to 20,000.
Beheadings and massacres
The Islamic State has been extremely aggressive on social media, releasing videos of civilians it has beheaded. Most recently, the fighters released video purporting to show the beheadings of two Japanese citizens, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
In December of last year, there were reports of an alleged mass beheading of foreign fighters in Raqqa who wanted to desert the Islamic State and return home, although it was never confirmed.
Confirmed, though, were a series of massacres committed by the fighters, including 670 to 700 prisoners in a Mosul jail in June and 700 killed in Deir al-Zour, Syria.
The plight of the Yazidis and U.S. intervention
Last August, Islamic State fighters took over a town called Sinjar in the north of Iraq. Members of a minority group called the Yazidis were killed and were forced to flee. At one point, about 40,000 Yazidis were stranded on a mountain when they attempted to escape the Islamist rebels. Some were dying of hunger and thirst with no means to escape Mount Sinjar.
On Aug. 7, President Obama called the Yazidis' plight a "potential act of genocide" and stated that the United States and its allies would militarily intervene in Iraq. A month later, the U.S. military expanded the war into neighboring Syria.
The loss of Kobane, and troubles in Raqqa and Mosul
Most recently, the Islamic State lost the strategic city of Kobane on the Turkey-Syria border. For months, the group fought against Kurdish forces, supported by U.S.-led airstrikes, but last month Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union announced that the "city of Kobane is fully liberated" via Twitter. Kurdish forces also reportedly regained villages outside of Kobane, strengthening their presence in the region.
And as Kurdish forces make gains in northern Syria, the Islamic State is struggling to run the cities they still control, according to a detailed account from the Post's Liz Sly.
In their self-defined capital of Raqqa in Syria:
"[w]ater and electricity are available for no more than three or four hours a day, garbage piles up uncollected, and the city’s poor scavenge for scraps on streets crowded with sellers hawking anything they can find, residents say."
"[t]he water has become undrinkable because supplies of chlorine have dried up, said a journalist living there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety. Hepatitis is spreading, and flour is becoming scarce, he said. 'Life in the city is nearly dead, and it is as though we are living in a giant prison,' he said."