Election 2016

6 Keys to Understanding ISIS' Barbarism, Apocalyptic Vision and Desire for an End-Times Battle in Syria

The presidential candidates don't know what they are dealing with.

The latest terrorist attacks by ISIS have changed the 2016 presidential race, sparking a range of predictable reactions across the partisan spectrum, from "Fortress America” stances from Republicans to Democrats pushing to create a new international coalition and combined military response.

But most Americans, especially those running for president, do not really understand what ISIS is about: what they believe and seek, why they are so bloody, how they lure recruits from abroad, and why they are now striking in Paris and Beirut. Last winter, the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood spent weeks with ISIS defenders, sympathetic clerics and academics overseas before writing a 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 legitimately 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, updated from a previous AlterNet report.    

1. ISIS is Islamic. Very. There are many experts in the West and the Middle East, from academics to other conservative Islamics, who, like President Obama, have said ISIS is not Islamic or is a twisted distortion of the Muslim faith. 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 revealed by Mohammed in the seventh century. 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 Mohammed, in punctilious detail,” Wood writes. “But pretending that it isn’t actually a religion, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

2. ISIS is the most extreme of extremist sects. Just as there are many flavors of American evangelical extremism, ISIS is on the furthest end of the conservative orthodoxy, in terms of its beliefs, literal interpretation of seventh-century law and punishment, and what’s required of true believers for jihad. Wood said ISIS’ 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’ emergence, the Sunnis who were best-known conservative followers of the Koran were Saudi Arabians. According to ISIS, the Saudis and 200 million Shiite Muslins—a denomination that developed later—have sinfully departed from seventh-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 manmade laws above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God,” Wood writes.

3. To ISIS, required punishment; to others, war crimes. Anyone who followed the news last winter saw ISIS’ horrific videos of beheadings, the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot, and the reports of mass executions of men and enslavement of women and children, as well as forcing women to be sex slaves, such as the Yazidis in northwestern Iraq.

Wood writes that ISIS has published scholarly analyses in its magazine, Dabiq, named for an area in Syria near the border with Turkey where it believes an Armageddon-like battle will occur. One article 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 it 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 it is a central actor. This is key to understanding what the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut are in part about, which according to Wood is baiting Islam’s enemies to fight them where the end-times battle has been foretold.

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 because they selectively follow Islamic penal codes, but not “the whole package.” In a similar vein, ISIS considers Al Qaeda 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 an area larger than United Kingdom,” noted Wood, 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 healthcare, for example. That purity accounts for ISIS’ appeal to foreigners, Wood said, who feel they are not only living marginalized and mundane lives in the West, but want to take part in the epic battle for the end times.

Bin Laden didn’t talk about the apocalypse. But ISIS’ leaders believe that confrontation is coming and they see signs of it everywhere, Wood said. ISIS propaganda 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.” ISIS believes the final battle will occur in Dabiq.

“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. ISIS has allure for true believers. Oddly, the reference to the armies of Rome might be the only place in Wood’s article where ISIS is willing to bend a little for modernity, by saying its great battle with Islam’s last adversaries could be any infidel army. ISIS believes 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 sound 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 the minds of pious ISIS believers, Wood said, and it also explains why ISIS 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 an apocalyptic 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 they are mostly clueless about ISIS’ beliefs and strategies, or in the case of the GOP would take the bait and deploy troops anew to western Iraq and Syria.

Wood believes ISIS’ 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 prolonging conflict,” one ISIS defender explained to him. ISIS’ beliefs also bar 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, yet it isn’t a terrorist group. “Al Qaeda 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 are remarkable. But what’s happened since his Atlantic piece appeared in March is equally striking. Last spring, the Iraqi army, backed by a handful of U.S. forces that did not fight in the frontlines, fled from ISIS and abandoned the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has since been upbraided by American and Iraqi critics for speaking the apparent truth—that ISIS was more determined, strategic and effective than the Iraqi army.

More recently, ISIS has been losing some territory in western Iraq and has come under attack by some Russian forces and in the past several days, France, in retaliation for its Paris attacks. Meanwhile, Obama has repeated that simply sending in U.S. troops would not lead to lasting gains once they were withdrawn, and has continued to press a mostly covert war in Syria, using special forces and drone assassinations.

But what’s missing in the presidential trail rhetoric—a genuine understanding of ISIS’ goals and beliefs—is disconcerting. A doomsday-driven Islamic regime is staking out an empire and waiting for foreign infidels to invade. The politicians vying to be the next president have offered little that is insightful about how to confront the newest face of evil in our times. The White House’s policy of containment and slowly reversing ISIS’ gain may be slowly working, but it didn’t stop the Paris and Beirut attacks.

Meanwhile, ISIS’ holy war and atrocities continue—mostly in Syria and Iraq beyond Western eyes. As Wood writes, “It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned.”       

This article is adapted from a previous article on the same topic.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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