My cover story in The Atlantic’s March issue asked, as simply as possible, What does ISIS believe, and what are its ideological roots? I read every ISIS statement I could find, including fatwas and tweets and road signs, and I front-loaded my mornings with execution videos in hopes that by bedtime I’d have forgotten enough of the imagery to sleep without nightmares. I picked through every spoken or written word in search of signals of what ISIS cares about and how its members justify their violence. I also asked a small group of its most doctrinaire overseas supporters for guidance, and they obliged.
At the time, the dominant cliché about ISIS was that it was a thrill-kill group that had hijacked Islam for its own ends, and that these ends were cynical, pathological, and secular. The investigation yielded something like the opposite conclusion: ISIS had hijacked secular sources of power and grievance, and was using them for religious ends—ends that are, at least among some supporters, sincere and carefully thought through. They include a belief in the imminent fulfillment of prophecy, with the group in a key role.
I am grateful for thoughtful reaction from many sources. (I’ll examine separately the pushback to my claim that ISIS is within the Islamic tradition.) Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution emphasized that ideology is deeply embedded in social and political facts, and that ignoring those facts is at least as dangerous as ignoring the ideology. I agree completely: ISIS achieved its successes in a hellish setting where all authority was predatory and nothing was safe; it offered certainty, sincerity, and the promise of reliability; it did this in ways that were antithetical to traditional interpretations of Islam (though not quite as antithetical as some believe).
The rest of the article and associated comments can be read here: ‘What ISIS Really Wants’: The Response, A survey of reactions to The Atlantic‘s cover story—from think tanks to jihadist Twitter”
“This article is dense and deep and complex, but I recommend anyone who wants to become knowledge about what motivates ISIS and thus, how they can be defeated, that you take an hour or so and read every bit of this article. I learned more in the last hour reading this article than I have in the last months watching hours of televised reports about ISIS and reading what’s been online from reputable reporting. It now both makes more sense and is infinitely more chilling.” ~ Part of a comment by luvcats13
Luvcats13’s comment summed how I felt about this article on ISIS. It’s a long read, but if you’ve been having trouble getting your head around what’s going on in that part of the world, this is as close as a layperson is likely to get to understanding it.
It’s worth the time you invest in reading the article below.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
by Graeme Wood, March 2015
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. …