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ISIS or ISIL? On the Hill, Depends on Whom You Ask


This anti-war protester used ISIL at a congressional hearing this week, but the term ISIS is more common. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
One protester used ISIL at a congressional hearing, but the term ISIS is more common. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Is it “ISIS,” “ISIL,” or something else entirely? On Capitol Hill, the answer depends on whom you ask — and neither party labels nor ideological leanings seem to have any bearing on the answer.  

For many lawmakers, broadcasters and the reprehensible group itself, the term of choice is clearly ISIS, which stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The terrorists rebranded themselves as the “Islamic State” in July, and the acronym ISIS has grown exponentially in notoriety and infamy in the wake of the brutal videotaped beheadings of three Westerners, including two Americans. In this week’s debates over President Barack Obama’s request to train and arm Syrian groups opposed to ISIS, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the issue used one, or the other. Or sometimes both. In the same sentence.  

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, used ISIS in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., put ISIS in a press release and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who voted against the president’s Syria request , referred to ISIS in her remarks on the floor of the House. The same goes for a couple of Republicans, North Carolina’s Robert Pittenger, who voted yes , and Louie Gohmert of Texas, who voted no .  

Others stuck with ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — including Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., in his remarks on the House floor, Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine in a resolution , and Hawaii Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Twitter.  

While Congress can’t make up its mind on the matter, on the Internet, the ISIS vs. ISIL debate is over. An impromptu Google search on Wednesday afternoon turned up 85 million hits for ISIS and fewer than 3 million for ISIL.  

The worldwide revulsion that has come to be attached specifically to the acronym ISIS was enough to convince the ISIS Wallet, a little-known smartphone app, to rebrand itself this week as Softcard.  

But the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, also known as ISIS, says it won’t change the name it’s had since the 1990s — the group instead is imploring media organizations, CQ Roll Call included, to follow Obama’s lead and use ISIL instead.  

Unlike others who have waffled on the group’s name (the New York Times decided Wednesday to drop the use of ISIS in favor of “Islamic State” and the Associated Press has nixed “ISIL” for the same substitute), the Obama administration picked ISIL and hasn’t looked back.  

The president has always said “ISIL,” and everyone on his team follows suit.  

Both Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel used ISIL in testimony on the Hill this week, with Kerry telling anti-war protesters from Code Pink Wednesday that they “ought to care about fighting ISIL.” And Hagel, a day earlier, telling a Senate panel, “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president.”  

The dissonance created by the contrast between news broadcasters who are overwhelmingly using “ISIS” and the president’s insistence on using “ISIL” has even sparked a couple of far-fetched conspiracy theories.  

But “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, who interviewed Obama on the NBC show earlier this month, said there’s a simpler explanation. The president’s team, he said, was originally just trying to avoid direct references to Syria.  

That goal fell by the wayside when the administration finally decided last week to ask Congress to authorize arming and training the Syrian rebels — but Team Obama is sticking with ISIL anyway.  

Clarification 12:26 p.m. An earlier version of this post misstated the timeline of the Islamic State group’s name change.  


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