What Do We Really Know About ISIS?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The Islamic State keeps committing atrocities, but aside from its penchant for beheadings and immolation what do we really know about it? We can’t deal with an enemy we don’t understand.

Journalist Graeme Wood has written a valuable piece for The Atlantic that pierces through the fog surrounding ISIS. Here are a few takeaways.

ISIS is different from Islamic militants we’ve seen before. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood and even al-Qaida. Unlike al-Qaida, ISIS seeks to rule rather than exist as an underground operation. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it does not wish to participate in elections.

“Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime,” writes Wood, describing al-Qaida as a “geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells.” ISIS “by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.”

The adjective “Islamic” in Islamic State is not merely a “medieval religious disguise.” President Obama and other Western leaders would understandably like to avoid saying anything that can be construed as a Western declaration of war against Islam. Not only would this alienate potential Muslim allies against ISIS, it would also give the terrorist group a propaganda victory, since the idea that the United States is at war with Islam is an effective terror recruiting tool.

But it is a mistake to pretend that Islam is irrelevant to ISIS. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic,” Wood contends. “Very Islamic.” While most Muslims across the world reject ISIS, “the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

That doesn’t mean that ISIS’ interpretations of Islam are the only interpretations. But it isn’t just some “random” ideology, and which interpretations are correct isn’t for non-Muslims to decide. That is a debate currently going on among Muslims within the Islamic faith itself. ISIS has a “theology that must be understood to be combatted.”

The end times are important to ISIS. Al-Qaida has many worldly goals, such as kicking non-Muslims out of the Arabian peninsula and ending the state of Israel. So does ISIS, since it controls territory and wants to keep the trains running on time. But a lot of ISIS’ focus is other-worldy, with an eye toward the end times.

“Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine comeuppance finally arrived,” writes Wood.

ISIS could lose legitimacy by losing the territory it has conquered. “If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate,” explains Wood. Even forcing current ISIS fighters underground effectively ends the caliphate. But does that mean the United States should occupy vast swathes of Iraq and Syria now under ISIS control?

Americanizing this conflict could backfire in a big way. If an insufficiently nuanced presidential statement could help ISIS spread propaganda that the United States is at war with Islam, imagine what an actual war featuring the occupation of Muslim lands could do. In fact, we don’t need to. Wood reminds us, “The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers.”

Every ISIS beheading video carries the not-too-subtle taunt: come and get us. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion,” Wood writes, “is the Islamic State itself.”

ISIS doesn’t primarily threaten the United States — yet. The group is still very focused on the territory under its control and expanding throughout the region. While it has inspired some lone wolf terrorist attacks in the West, there’s no proof it has funded or carried out anything on the scale of al-Qaida operations like Charlie Hebdo, much less 9/11.

That good news might not last forever, however. If ISIS and al-Qaida joined forces, that could be very dangerous indeed.

As more is learned about ISIS, others will undoubtedly come forward with their own ideas on how to counteract them, in some cases disagreeing with Wood. His conclusion that containment plus ISIS’ eventual failure to serve the people it rules will be the jihadis’ undoing is certain to trigger passionate debate.

Nevertheless, his piece is worth reading in full. Maybe someone at the White House has an Atlantic subscription?

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.