Graeme Wood’s penetrating article, “What ISIS Really Wants” in the March 2015 Atlantic tries to answer deceptively simple, yet strategically essential questions related to the intentions of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although the organization’s motives and aims apparently have eluded many Westerners, Wood says its propaganda machine, much of which operates online, makes those answers knowable.
According to Wood, analysis of these resources reveals that ISIS “rejects peace as a matter of principle,” hungers for genocide, is prevented by its religious views from adopting certain practices (even if they are key to its survival), and “considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.” Understanding ISIS’s beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment—its “dystopian alternate reality”—can help the West predict its actions and develop more effective countermeasures, Wood says.
Osama bin Laden operated a geographically diffuse network of relatively autonomous cells that had political aims, such as getting Westerners out of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. These cells operated more-or-less independently, in countries and territory they didn’t control, and attempting to exercise central authority over these scattered cells would have created a high security risk for al-Qaeda leaders.
In total contrast, ISIS has been able to seize and hold territory, thanks to the vacuum of authority in Syria and Iraq, and can therefore effectively implement a top-down, highly controlled structure. In fact, ISIS must continue to hang onto this territory in order to maintain the caliphate. But the key distinction between ISIS and al-Qaeda is that ISIS’s aims are religious, not political, and underpin “the group’s commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse,” Wood says.
We have diluted the meaning of this word with the snowpocalypse, the zombie apocalypse, and so on, but to ISIS, what they foresee is the original meaning: that is, the complete and final destruction of the world. With total annihilation looming, why not court death? What difference does one life–or a dozen, or a hundred–make?
Westerners have a difficult time accepting a theological basis for the mass executions, beheadings, stonings, crucifixions, and immolations taking place in the Middle East. Yet, secular societies should not dismiss ISIS followers as merely a congregation of disaffected Muslims from around the world (and some few from the United States). It is a mistake, Wood believes, to see ISIS as anything other than a religious, end-of-days group, built on a coherent (if controversial) interpretation of Islam, whose members follow the exact letter of the law, as they understand it.
Meanwhile, the politically correct “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra does not fit the brutal laws of war as laid out in the Koran, and which were developed during a violent era. Wood quotes Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel as saying that Islamic fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”
Wood says that the rest of the world must recognize ISIS’s “intellectual genealogy” if it is to react in ways “that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”
This summary is based primarily on the introduction to this thought-provoking essay. Here is the link to the entirety.