What American politicians, policymakers and 2016 candidates are saying about ISIS, the Islamic State, is setting a new standard for uninformed ignorance.
Gov. Scott Walker, a leading 2016 presidential candidate, has compared fighting them to taking on Wisconsin’s teacher’s unions. South Carolina’s hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham said they are terrorists who need to be killed abroad before they kill here. The other GOP contenders aren’t offering much besides saber-rattling clichés, ducking what to do about ISIS’s conquests, executions, enslavement and other horrors.
President Obama has not done much better. He said that ISIS is “not Islamic,” even as the U.S. military been pulled back into one of the world’s worst war zones. Perhaps the only accurate comment came from the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who said the Iraqi army lost its will to fight against ISIS in Ramadi, echoing what military officials secretly said about their South Vietnamese allies a half-century ago.
Most U.S. politicians, 2016 candidates and the public have little idea what ISIS is about, what they believe, what they want, why they are so bloody and why it is luring recruits from abroad. But ISIS is not like teachers unions, Al Queda terrorists, nor is it un-Islamic, according to The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, who spent weeks with ISIS defenders, sympathetic clerics and academics overseas before writing an revelatory profile, “What ISIS Really Wants.”
After it was published, Wood asked his sources if he got it mostly right. “In general, they saw the portrayal of ISIS in The Atlantic as one they could recognize,” he said in an interview. “They saw it as something that legitimatey attempted to portray them in terms they could see and say, ‘Yeah, that’s more or less us.’”
“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” the article’s teaser begins. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” What follows are six key takeaways from Wood’s reporting, revealing what the West needs to know about the world’s latest genocidal regime.
1. Pardon, Mr. President. They are Islamic. Very. That’s one of the biggest takeaways from Wood’s profile. There are many experts and in the West and the Middle East, from academics to other conservative Islamics, who, like Obama, said that ISIS is not Islamic. That’s wrong. ISIS “follows a distinctive form of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy,” Wood writes, explaining that they are not like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—or even Al Queda under Bin Laden—but akin to “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.”
ISIS lives by the most literal translation of the Koran imaginable, as it was revealed by Mohammad in the seventh century and nothing else. A Christian analog would be living under the strict edicts in the Book of Leviticus. “Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and announcements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationary, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammed, in punctilious detail,” Wood writes. “But pretending that it isn’t actually a religion, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
2. The most extreme of extremist sects. Just as there are many flavors of American evangelical extremism, ISIS is on the farthest end of the conservative orthodoxy, in terms of its beliefs, literal interpretation of 7th Century law and punishment, and what’s required of true believers for jihad. Wood said that ISIS’s beliefs stem from “a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the ‘pious forefathers.’ These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salifis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior including warfare, couture, family life, even dentristy.” Before ISIS’s emergence, the Sunnis who were best-known conservative followers of the Koran were Saudi Arabians.
According to Wood, the Saudis and 200 million Shiite Muslins—a denomination that developed later—have sinfully departed from 7th Century law. The examples range from having governments that send diplomats to non-Islamic bodies like the United Nations, to Shiites who worship at the graves of revered imams. The departures—like cursing one’s parents under Leviticus—are punishable by death. “Being lax about calling other people apostates” for voting in elections or being Shiites, like most of Iraq, is a capital offense. “So too are the heads of state of every Muslim nation, who have elevated man-made laws above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God,” he writes.
3. To ISIS, required punishment; To others, war crimes. Anybody who follows the news has seen ISIS’s horrific videos of beheadings, burning alive a captured Jordanian pilot, heard reports about mass executions of men while enslaving women and children, including forcing women to be concubines—such as the Yazidis in north-western Iraq. Wood writes that ISIS has published scholarly analyses in its magazine, Dabiq, named for an expanse in Syria where it believes an Armageddon-like battle will occur, which discusses the punishment for the Yazidis “if they are pagans.”
“The article’s anonymous author wrote, ‘Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations… Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narration of the Prophet… and thereby apostatizing from Islam.’”
In other words, ISIS sees its carnage as a prayer and required devotion, not as arguably the worst manifestation of evil on the planet today.
4. Top prophecy: they’re in the battle for end times. In America, some evangelical Christians are among Israel’s biggest defenders because they believe that will hasten the end times foretold in the biblical Book of Revelation. ISIS believes in an Islamic version of a similar end-times prophecy, of which they are a central actor. Their declaration that the Islamic State is a caliphate, or a state fully enforcing Islamic law—which “had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years,” Wood writes—is “not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation.” States like Saudi Arabia are apostates, he said, because they selectively follow Islamic penal codes, but not “the whole package.” In a similar vein, ISIS considers Al Queda to be another effort marred by half-measures.
However, declaring and establishing a caliphate—which requires the taking of territory is only a step. ISIS “already rules and area larger than United Kingdom,” Wood noted, who spoke at length with ISIS supporters in England and Australia. They told him that only that form of government was legitimate—both requiring people be stoned to death for adultery and providing free health care, for example. That purity accounted for ISIS’s appeal to foreigners, Wood said, who felt they were not only living marginalized and mundane lives in the West, but wanted to take part in the epic battle for end times.
Bin Laden didn’t talk about the apocalypse. But ISIS’s leaders believe that confrontation is coming and see signs of it everywhere, Wood said. ISIS propoganda is filled with the belief “that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah [taken to be a mix of Iranian and U.S.-led forces] will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.” It believes the final battle will occur in Dabiq, a farming town and valley near the border with Turkey.
“It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam,” Wood writes, citing ISIS videos and magazine articles. “Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalpyse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheadings.”
5. The allure for true believers. Oddly, the reference to the armies of Rome might be the only time in Wood’s article where ISIS is willing to bend a little for modernity. That is, by saying its great battle with Islam’s last adversaries could be any infidel army. ISIS believes that it will win on the plains of Dabiq and sack some western cities—but it will suffer some big losses before the final confrontation that occurs in Israel.
“An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem,” Wood writes. “Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second most revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.” He notes, “The Islamic State has its best and worst days ahead of it.”
All of this may sounds like a middle-school dystopian fantasy novel or video game—where archaic heroes and anti-heroes fight for the fate of humanity on a dreary plain. But it’s all too real in minds of pious ISIS beleivers, Wood said, which also explains why it has been able to recruit Muslim seekers and converts from abroad.
These beliefs also mean that “the biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself,” he writes. “The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight.”
6. Countering evil in our time. Clearly the first steps in countering the evils that an apocalypic regime like ISIS presents—mass murder, sexual bondage, child slavery and more—is understanding who and what they are, Wood writes. He does not say what is obvious about the current flock of presidential candidates—that almost all are clueless about ISIS’s beliefs and strategies, or would take their bait and deploy troops anew to western Iraq and Syria. (We haven’t heard anything from Hillary Clinton, but Bernie Sanders said that this is not a fight for American boots on the ground.)
Wood believes that ISIS’s agenda and brutality is not just knowable but predictable.
“The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions,” he writes. ISIS “has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonges conflict,” one ISIS defender explained to him. ISIS’s beliefs also barr it from negotiating with what it sees as heretic governments—which the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
“It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” Wood writes, saying ISIS uses tactics that are truly terrifying, but it isn’t a terrorist group. “Al Queda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate.”
“Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers,” he continues. “But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might not recover.”
Wood’s profile and analysis is remarkable. But what’s happened since his Atlantic piece appeared in March is equally striking. The Iraqi army, backed by a handful of U.S. forces who did not fight in the frontlines, fled from ISIS and abandoned the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. The new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, has since been upbraided by American and Iraqi critics for speaking that apparent truth—that ISIS was more determined, strategic and effective than the Iraqi army.
This big picture is incredibly unsettling. A doomsday-driven Islamic regime is enlarging its empire and waiting for the foreign infidels to invade. The politicians in America vying to be the next president have offered nothing insightful about how to confront the newest face of evil in our times. The Obama White House is pursuing a policy of contaninment and slowly reversing ISIS’s gain, but that’s not entire working.
Meanwhile, the holy war and its atrocities continue beyond Western eyes. As Wood writes, “It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned.”