Trying to Understand ISIS? You Need to Read These Six Stories

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When the western world suffers a tragedy like the one witnessed in Paris last Friday, there are two immediate reactions. The first is a call for solidarity with the victimized people, which can feel life-affirming and important. The second is a round condemnation of the terrorists—another way to re-assert western values and show symbolic strength in the face of the attack. Within this second category, the feeling of rage against the enemy can often be intense, and while the more extreme expressions of this anger may be emotionally satisfying, they may also stem from inaccurate or overly broad notions, and have unintended consequences. As a philosophical example, a terrorist attack can often drive a population to discriminate against non-violent subjects or push their political systems rightward, which is often exactly what the terrorists were attempting to achieve—violent opposition bolsters their ranks, and can lead to a state of perpetual conflict.

The most difficult thing to do, in the fraught aftermath of such attacks, is make an attempt to understand the enemy. That word, understand, can often be falsely conflated with “forgive” or “justify.” That’s not what I mean—a moral person can condemn terrorist violence (and recognize that it needs to be met with violence) while also understanding that using blanket terms like “evil” to describe the perpetrators is both too simplistic and ultimately unhelpful in combating the ideology that will likely take many more western lives before it’s rooted out.

As an organization, ISIS is incredibly difficult for us to understand, since their values seem so far removed from the way we live in the west. And it’s not just difficult for citizens—our governments, too, have routinely underestimated the potential strength and appeal of ISIS, and this fundamental misunderstanding of motives and goals has led to a failure of human intelligence that allows attacks like the one in Paris to go undetected before it’s too late.

Understanding the socio-economic and geo-political origins of ISIS is critically important for America and the rest of the western world at this moment in history, and while it’s certainly not an easy task, and there’s no “correct” analysis, there are excellent journalist resources out there for citizens that can help us push past our current state of ignorance and shine a light on the mysterious forces at the vanguard of what has become the defining anti-western movement of the 21st century.

Below are six magazine features that combine in-depth reporting and keen political insight from journalists who are intimately familiar with ISIS. If you’d like to recommend others, please do so in the comments.

1. What ISIS Really Wants,, by Graeme Wood

Source: The Atlantic

Synopsis: Wood’s aim here is simple—to get to the roots of the ISIS ideology, and show how it reverts to a religious belief system that is thousands of years old, and follows those original rules “in punctilious detail.” One of his main points is a rejection of the idea that ISIS embodies some sort of perversion of Islam—there is scripture in the Koran that backs up everything they do, and to ignore this fact is to underestimate both their theological resonance to the wider population, and their ability to spread.

Excerpt: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. 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.”

2. The Other France, by George Packer

Source: The New Yorker

Synopsis: George Packer, one of America’s greatest journalists, explored the slums and housing projects of northeast Paris, where poverty reigns and the largely immigrant population is vulnerable to the appeal of radical ideologies. France has unfortunately borne the brunt of the worst recent terror attacks in western Europe, and Packer’s essay is a clear-eyed look at how the terrorists are recruited, either in the prisons, the mosques, or the poor banlieues. Fouad Ben Ahmed, his chief subject, is a citizen fighting both against the spread of radicalism in his own neighborhoods, and also the tendency of the French people to succumb to the philosophy of amalgame—the belief that all Muslims are terrorists, and therefore enemies. Packer also manages to give the best answer yet to a common question many westerners ask: Why don’t moderate Muslims always denounce the attacks immediately? Written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Packer’s work is even more applicable today.

Excerpt: “The leading authority on jihadism in French prisons is an Iranian sociologist in Paris named Farhad Khosrokhavar. For his book “Radicalisation,” published just before the January attacks, he spent three days a week in French prisons for three years, developing a theory of inmate conversion. It happens in stages. Most of the recruits grow up without fathers and without any religious knowledge—only anger and alienation in the banlieues. They fall into crime and end up in prison. J.-P. described the mind-set of some of his fellow-inmates: “I’m in prison, the state is to blame—it pushed me to live this life.” Prisoners watch a lot of TV news, and see war and death in Muslim countries. Someone like Coulibaly, J.-P. said, starts to “mix all this together” and create his own ideology, then “runs across a bad person who influences him.” One former prisoner I met in the 93 explained that Islamists target the fragiles, psychologically weak inmates who never receive visits. They are offered solace, a new identity, and a political vision inverting the social order that places them at the bottom.”

3. The Real Power of ISIS, by Scott Atran

Source: The Daily Beast

Synopsis: Atran looks at the appeal of ISIS for young people from every walk of life, and the misguided counter-radicalization responses by U.S. and other western governments. It may seem crazy to us that ISIS could recruit in the United States, but in fact it’s not that crazy at all—the mission has great appeal for those who are idealistic and angry and susceptible to romantic notions of holy war, and that appeal has only grown in recent years.

Excerpt: “Without universal appeal, and quality individual time, little progress can be made beyond what’s achievable by force of arms. Appeals to “moderation” (wasattiyah) fall flat on restless and often idealistic youths seeking adventure, glory and significance. “Brainwashing” and “nihilism” are vapid notions most often adopted by those (especially politicians and parents) who simply do not want to face the problem, or are in denial, about the multifaceted appeal of ISIS to yearning young people who want to be rebels with a cause, to stick it to the man — who want, as they see it, to defend the oppressed….

The Arab Sunni radical revivalist trend, of which ISIS is now the spearhead, is a dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, and simply treating it as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism,” or convincing oneself that refusing to call it by its own name can somehow de-legitimize it, is to my mind delusional and therefore only adds to the danger.

ISIS is not directed, controlled or contained by the institutions and power arrangements of the prevailing nation-state system, which was the case with the fascist movement, the communist movement before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and for that matter the Iran-dominated Shia awakening. So it has not been well understood, much less coherently dealt with, by our own academics and policymakers, whose views of history do not fathom, or wish to fathom, the moral seriousness, depth, and often compelling alternate view of history that ISIS presents.”

4. What I Discovered From Interviewing ISIS Prisoners, by Lydia Wilson

Source: The Nation

Synopsis: As the title suggests, Wilson had unprecedented access to ISIS prisoners in Iraq as part of her research project on conflict—the ultimate aim of which is to deter people from taking “violent pathways”—and what she found was that the actual tenets of radical Islam don’t come close to explaining why many young people become ISIS soldiers.

Excerpt: “Many assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph with the traditional title Emir al-Muminiin, “Commander of the faithful,” a role currently held by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; that fighters all over the world are flocking to the area for a chance to fight for this dream. But this just doesn’t hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. But a detailed, or even superficial, knowledge of Islam isn’t necessarily relevant to the ideal of fighting for an Islamic State, as we have seen from the Amazon order of Islam for Dummies by one British fighter bound for ISIS.

In fact, Erin Saltman, senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says that there is now less emphasis on knowledge of Islam in the recruitment phase. “We are seeing a movement away from strict religious ideological training as a requirement for recruitment,” she told me. “If we were looking at foreign fighter recruits to Afghanistan 10 or 20 years ago, there was intensive religious and theological training attached to recruitment. Nowadays, we see that recruitment strategy has branched out to a much broader audience with many different pull factors.”

There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As Saltman said, “Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.” That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.”

5. How ISIS Spread in the Middle East, by David Ignatius

Source: The Atlantic

Synopsis: This story, and the one that follows, focus on how ISIS has been successful in defeating its enemies in the Middle East, and coming to control large land territories. Ignatius writes from a strategy-based and military perspective, though of course ideology plays its own role in ISIS’ success.

Excerpt: “We have been living the Islamic State forwards, surprised at every turn, but we can perhaps begin to understand it backwards. Although ISIS took most of the world by surprise when it swept into the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, the group and its forebears had been proclaiming their goals for a decade. Like many consequential events, this one didn’t sneak up on policymakers; they simply didn’t see what was taking shape in front of them. ISIS told us exactly what it was going to do, and then did it. This was a secret conspiracy hiding in plain sight.

ISIS is mysterious in part because it is so many things at once. It combines Islamic piety and reverence for the prophet and his companions with the most modern social-media platforms and encryption schemes; its videos blend the raw pornographic violence of a snuff film with the pious chanting of religious warriors; the group has the discipline of a prison gang (many of its recruits were indeed drawn from U.S.-organized prisons in Iraq), but also the tactical subtlety and capacity for deception of the most skilled members of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, who were also pulled into the ISIS net. It appears less brittle than al-Qaeda because its members care less about religious doctrine and organizational hierarchy. As has been said of the Episcopal Church (forgive the comparison), ISIS is solid at the core but loose at the edges.”

6. How ISIS Crippled Al-Qaeda, by Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili

Source: The Guardian

Synopsis:The authors delve deep into the personalities leading Al-Qaeda and ISIS as the two organizations come into conflict—with ISIS emerging as the more powerful force. The story looks at ISIS through the unique lens of the organization’s two most vocal critics in the Muslim world.

Excerpt: “Isis has not simply eclipsed al-Qaida on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and in the competition for funding and new recruits. According to a series of exclusive interviews with senior jihadi ideologues, Isis has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. As a consequence, they now admit, al-Qaida – as an idea and an organisation – is now on the verge of collapse…

In fact, al-Qaida’s main branch in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had long been a source of difficulty. Since its effective creation in 2003, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISI had been happy to use al-Qaida’s brand name and its money, but often ignored pleas for closer communication with central command – even when they came from Bin Laden himself. In 2010, they crossed a line: ISI appointed a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, without prior approval from al-Qaida, whose senior leaders knew almost nothing about the man – where he had come from, his military experience, whether he could be trusted.

In a revealing communique seized during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Adam Gadahn – the American al-Qaida member and frequent spokesman – voiced his disgust with ISI’s lack of respect. Writing to Bin Laden in January 2011, he asked why ISI should be permitted to sully al-Qaida’s name with its indiscriminate slaughter when it could not even bother to keep in touch with the group’s leadership. “Maybe,” he wrote, “it is better for them not to be in the ranks of the mujahideen, as they are just like a polluted spot that should be removed and sanitised and cleared from the ranks.” Less than six months after receiving the letter, Bin Laden was dead. Now it fell to Zawahiri, a man of lesser standing, to deal with the problem.”