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A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic has just published one of the most serious, searching profiles [1] of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter. In it, Wood travels the globe in order to interview ISIS’s intellectual champions and allies, asking them to articulate why they find Baghdadi’s claims to authority to be rigorous, authoritative, and binding (though they each skirt the issue of their own professions of allegiance in order to stay out of jail). Wood goes on  to interview the foremost scholars on the organization’s ideology, who heap scorn on those who seek to dismiss ISIS as simply “un-Islamic.” Wood writes,

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, 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. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood explains just how damaging some of that misguided miscategorization has been, when he details how the U.S.’s attempt to use a senior jihadist cleric, and ISIS critic, to persuade ISIS to free U.S. citizen Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig may have guaranteed his demise:

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. …

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.

He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.

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 never recover.


And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.

Wood finally offers “quietist Salafism” as a possible ideological off-ramp that could channel those seeking extremist faith into pursuing their own purification, instead the purification of the world of an ever-growing list of apostates: “The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here.”

The entire essay is very worthwhile, and a serious engagement with ISIS’s ideology in order to try and understand how to use ISIS’s commitments against it. He writes, “It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” and that its authority will wane should it not be able to continue expanding as it is ideologically committed to continually attempt. How best to starve the Caliphate is a difficult and fraught question, however. I recommend reading the whole thing [1].

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 16, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

Thanks, Jonathan, for the encouragement to read Graeme Wood’s 11,000-word “What ISIS Really Wants.” I agree with you that it is “one of the most serious, searching profiles of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter.”

As Philip Giraldi reminded us last summer after ISIS took over Mosul, we in the US (and our intelligence services) know precious little about ISIS (“How ISIS Evades the CIA,” TAC, July 23, 2014). So it’s useful when a first-rate journalist like Graeme Wood actually takes the considerable time, expense, and effort to find and to interview some of those Moslem leaders (living outside the territory the Caliphate) who might best understand what motivates those who run ISIS, as well as those who are motivated to join ISIS.

I have no way of knowing how close some of Wood’s sources come to giving an accurate picture of the theological motivation of ISIS leaders. But the overall picture of ISIS that Wood presents suggests the likelihood that current US government policies re ISIS are putting the us in the very box that ISIS wants us to be in. (ISIS is “bear-baiting” with a bear that doesn’t understand that it is the deliberate target of the baiting.)

Such a simple thing, or so it would seem: To pack your journalist’s notebook and to travel where some of the men closest to ISIS will agree to be interviewed. But sadly, such a simple thing is often not so simple. As veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk pointed out yesterday in “The Independent,” governments have applied the terrorist label to such a large number of groups and individuals that many of the knowledgeable sources who might be interviewed are reluctant to answer questions about ISIS for fear of putting themselves in legal jeopardy. Likewise, reporters searching for such sources and such information may be equally reluctant to risk putting themselves in legal jeopardy.

Fisk says “the highly politicised ‘listing’ of armed groups by governments has been found to achieve very little” other than the counterproductive result of preventing many of the contacts that might lead to helpful information about the hundreds of organizations listed as “terrorist.”

Fisk refers to a 197-page academic report (to be published Feb. 24th — it has the perspective of NGOs which seek to promote a peaceful dialogue with some groups listed by Western governments as “terrorist). Fisk is almost certainly being overly optimistic when he writes that “talking to ISIS could lead to peace.” Yet on the other hand, talking to ISIS might easily provide useful information about ISIS – information which might help the US to fashion policies more helpful in promoting real US interests than current US policies toward ISIS.


#2 Comment By Kjell Hansen On February 16, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

Excellent read, particularly the parts that go into the group’s eschatology, though I was a bit surprised to hear no historical reference in Graeme Wood’s analysis tracing ISIL’s faith and politics to the Khawarij (as Ziauddin Sardar delved into with [3]

#3 Comment By William Dalton On February 16, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

The advice given in the Bible is as prescient now as it was then:

“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Acts 5:34-39 (NIV)

#4 Comment By Presbyton On February 17, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

Of Course, Mr. Dalton, ISIS is not the same as the followers of Christ, who were preaching on street corners only. ISIS is chopping off heads.

#5 Comment By Rossbach On February 17, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

Why is the US interested in this conflict at all? It is really a Middle East problem, which we can only exacerbate if we send our armed forces there. After 25 years of nearly continuous warfare in the ME, we have nothing to show except death and debt.

It is time to disengage.

#6 Comment By channelclemente On February 17, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

I’d suggest reading Reza Azlan’s book “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” in conjunction with Wood’s piece.

#7 Comment By Dar On February 20, 2015 @ 7:00 am

“He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.”

I don’t believe that that’s an “official” scriptural prophecy.