Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

ISIS: Not your father's jihadists, but your medieval ancestor's


ISIS is not attracting jihadists who would be quietly pursuing the American dream (or their home country's version of it) if they could only find jobs . It is not successful at recruiting killers because of social-media prowess .

ISIS is growing -- as a presence, and as a threat -- because it is the Branch Davidians or those original kool-aid drinkers, the Peoples Temple , on steroids.

That is one key takeaway from Graeme Wood's deep dive into the origins and motivations of the Islamic State , or ISIS, in The Atlantic. The article is long and very much worth reading in its entirety, but this is the gist of it:

"The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like 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.

"We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as 'Sheikh Osama,' a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda's heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group's priorities and current leadership.

"Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

"We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State's medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta's last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

"There is a temptation to rehearse this observation -- that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise -- and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse."

The challenge such a group poses is qualitatively different than the one posed by al-Qaeda (yet another reason to be worried by President Obama's infamous dismissal of ISIS as the JV team to al-Qaeda's varsity squad). It is striking, for instance, to read quotations in the piece by ISIS supporters who describe ISIS's actions as "offensive jihad," with the implication that what al-Qaeda was doing -- and has been doing lately in places such as Paris and Copenhagen, perhaps to boost a profile that has been sagging with ISIS's emergence -- was merely playing defense. The religious obligations of a true caliphate, which is what ISIS considers itself, apparently include: killing apostate Muslims (which covers anyone who denies the legitimacy of the caliphate); killing or taxing and enslaving non-Muslims; denying any international border, organization or peace treaty of more than 10 years; and waging jihad to capture more territory at least once a year. Holding land and expanding its holdings are required for the caliphate's existence, the aim of which is a showdown with "the armies of Rome."

Wood makes the point that all of this comes off as nonsense to Westerners accustomed to dismissing such apocalyptic visions as quackery or the stuff of cults that will either wipe themselves out (Jones) or can be handled with comparatively ease (Koresh). But to Muslims whose religious beliefs include the establishment of a series of caliphs (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS claims to be the eighth of an eventual 12) leading up to the end times, these are grave matters.

That is not to say all or even most Muslims agree ISIS is a legitimate caliphate. Wood's piece relates the thoughts of Muslim leaders who are skeptical of ISIS's boasts. But it is to say that claims by Obama and others that ISIS is "not Islamic" in nature are missing the point. ISIS may not speak for all or even most Muslims, but it would appear it is definitely drawing on key tenets of Islam. And, the piece also notes, efforts by non-Muslims to declare ISIS out of bounds for Muslims may help, not hurt, ISIS in the eyes of potential recruits.

In short, this is a wake-up call to stop thinking about ISIS through our Western eyes and perspective, and to start understanding it on its own terms, if we are to have any way of stopping it. It is disturbing to think that, more than 13 years after 9/11, those people in our foreign-policy establishment who are droning on about jobs and hash-tags might need a magazine article to do that.


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.