Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What ISIS Wants

From this month's edition of The Atlantic, a must read article by Graeme Wood in which he explains the differences between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the doctrinal significance of the ISIS proclamation establishing a Caliphate, the theological underpinnings of the Islamic State and what it means for us.  THC adds his own thoughts at the end, along with some movie clips.

(From The Atlantic)

Wood believes we have misunderstood the nature of ISIS in 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.
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.

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.

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.  
In other words the inane stylings of State Department spokesperson Marie Harf (and kudos to Chris Matthews for taking on this nonsense) are just not going to cut it, or as Dave Burge summarized the Administration's view:
Them: God willing, we will restore the Califate and hasten the holy apocalypse as written in scripture.
Us: So you're saying you want jobs.
It is baffling to see the poverty "root cause" explanation for jihadism persist after all these years.  If we look at the 911 plotters, the originator of the plot and its operational mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, obtained a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and a master's in Islamic Culture and History from Punjab University in Pakistan, Mohammed Atta, the operational leader of the 911 group in the U.S., came from a wealthy, well-educated family, had an undergraduate degree in architecture and did graduate level studies in urban planning in Germany and, according to most accounts, it was during their time abroad that both became radicalized.  The same is true for the well-educated and professionally successful English Muslims who carried out the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London.

UPDATE:  It turns out that "Jihadi John", the ISIS dude who has done several video beheadings is a Londoner from a prosperous Kuwaiti family and received a degree in computer programming from the University of Westminster.  Better face it Marie, they're just not that into you.

Just because beliefs and ideas seem crazy to us does not mean that the comfortable Western academic economically deterministic framework some people like to impose makes any sense as an alternative.  It seems culturally myopic of us to insist that we cannot take the self-professed views of these "violent extremists" seriously or, as Wood writes of the Western bias:
that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.
Wood's lengthy article is in four sections.  The first, Devotion, is on the difference between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which is much more focused on the purification of Islam:
Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.
His point is that ISIS is primarily focused on Muslim apostates whom it will kill.  Non-Muslims are subject to slavery, special taxes and random, not the systematic killing which apostates are subject to (by the way, by ISIS definitions, President Obama, the son of a Muslim, is an apostate) .  Where the recent ISIS beheadings of more than 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians along the Libyan shore fits into this schema who knows?

The second is Territory, in which Wood discusses the significance of the reestablishment of the Caliphate.  He quotes Anjem Choudary:
Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens.
Next, Wood tells us of The Apocalypse, where ISIS differs from Al-Qaeda.
In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. 
Belief in the apocalypse:
appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; 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 will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.
The final section is called The Fight, about how the Caliphate cannot ideologically co-exist with the modern system of states in the world.  Wood writes:
It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide.  
Or, as an ISIS spokesperson said in 2013:
“Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology.”
To accomplish this goal tactically ISIS options are limited:
Choudary’s colleague Abu Baraa explained that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.
As a side note, the idea of the temporary peace or truce is echoed in Hamas and Palestinian statements about peace with Israel.  You need to read their statements very carefully because when you unpack them and look at the context it turns out that when we in the West hear the word "peace" what they invariably mean is "temporary truce".

What to do?

Wood chastises the U.S. and other governments for being slow to recognize the significance of ISIS:
If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New Yorker that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaeda’s weaker partner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the president said.
One option is to eradicate the Caliphate:
One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.
Yet Wood believes the risks of this are enormous (and anyone who has reflected on America's experience over past fifteen years would share this view):
The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. 
On balance he favors a containment strategy:
Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.
Though he acknowledges such a strategy could go badly wrong, particularly if ISIS and Al-Qaeda reconcile, he views ISIS as less of a direct threat to the West than Al-Qaeda.

Wood also sees some hope with what he sees as "quietest Salafis" who:
agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. 
The entire article is well worth reading.

Some thoughts from THC:

Like most Americans THC is thoroughly sick of dealing with the Muslim world and is not anxious for any more interventions.  Since WWII we've employed just about every type of strategy ranging from military intervention (Iraq I and II) to supporting military regimes and then supporting the Arab spring uprisings against those military regimes.  We've also actively decided not to intervene, as in 1973 when the Arab oil embargo was declared and the U.S. could have easily occupied the oil fields in response.  It chose not to and as of that moment Western oil companies lost any leverage and became the tools of the Muslim states in which they operated.  We tried supporting Arab nationalists, like Nasser, joining with the Soviet Union to force our allies Britain and France to abandon the Suez Canal in 1956.  We tried appeasement, ignoring Israel diplomatically and militarily for its first two decades (forcing the Israelis to evacuate the Sinai in 1956, avoiding having an Israeli prime minister make an official visit until 1964 and not becoming a major arms supplier to Israel till after the Six Day War in 1967).  We've tried humanitarian missions like Somalia in 1993 and ended up with the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets in front of celebrating crowds.  In Iran we joined with the Ayatollah Khomeini in advocating the overthrow of Mossadeq in the 1950s and after the Shah was overthrown in 1979 we offered to restore diplomatic relations with the new regime and deliver all the armaments ordered by the Shah to the Ayatollahs; not to mention the attempts of Reagan and Clinton to reach out to Iran all of which backfired. None of it has worked out well.

So there are days when confronted by what to do about ISIS that he just feels like following Ripley's advice:
Once his fever passes he moves on to some other thoughts.

One of the strategies used by the West to contain ISIS is to prevent the travel of jihadis from their countries to the Caliphate and several of the ISIS supporters interviewed by Wood are among those affected by the ban, including confiscation of passports.  Reading the article raises the question in THC's mind - is that the right approach?  Are we better off letting them go to ISIS and preventing their return?  Once they are within the Caliphate we are free to kill them, which we cannot do while they reside in the West under the protection of our laws. 

THC is not comforted by Wood's belief that quietest Salafis may be our best allies against ISIS.  Salafism is the brand of Islam sponsored by our erstwhile allies, the Saudis, and as Wood acknowledges, is intolerant of non-Islamic believers.  The best that can be said about quietest Salafis is that they are, indeed, quiet.  But in in the Muslim world it always makes sense to bet on the strong horse, whether it is ISIS, Al-Qaeda or the Shiite Ayatollahs in Iran.  Those who are the most unflinchingly violent win.  It is often forgotten that in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah it was an open question as to who would triumph; the merchants in the bazaars who triggered the original uprising, the communist Tudeh Party or the mullahs (Newsweek magazine bet on the commies).  The merchants just wanted peace and quiet, the communists hesitated to seize the day for a little too long and it was the mullahs who won by quickly and ruthlessly exterminating their opposition.

Finally, as a Jew, there is very little comfort THC can derive from whomever might succeed ISIS or Al Queda or the Saudi regime no matter how nominally "moderate" they may be.  Last fall, THC wrote about seeing Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of Tunisia's Islamist party.  Ghannouchi has supported democratic reform in Tunisia and broad based non-Islamist coalitions.  In the elections that occurred after THC saw him speak, his party kept to its pledge of non-interference and today Tunisia is the only Arab state where some form of democracy may take hold.  He's the best the Arab world has to offer, yet he regards Jews as a "bacillus", supports Hamas and believes Israel must be destroyed.

This type of thinking is in the mainstream of the Muslim world.  In October 2003, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed, speaking at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Kuala Lumpur, an event attended by leaders of 57 nations, (THC pointed out the puzzling lack of response to such an organization by the rest of the world in this post), denounced terrorist violence in the name of Islam but then went on speak of the competition between the Christian and Muslim worlds.  In Mahatir's telling behind the Christians were their puppeteers - the Jews:
1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategize and then to counter-attack. 

We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. 
Mahatir was warmly applauded.

The idea that there are some objective actions the West can do to change this is also mistaken.  THC was particularly struck by this when reading The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's excellent account of the founding and growth of Al-Qaeda.  He relates that one of the formative moments in the radicalization of Mohammed Atta was when he learned of the Jewish conspiracy to kill Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya.  Now, not only was there no such conspiracy but in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, Jewish organizations took the lead in urging Western intervention specifically to save the lives of Moslems! 

In the Islamic calendar it is now the year 1392.  1392 was in the midst of a pretty bad time for the Jews of Christian Europe (though come to think of it 1939-45 wasn't so good either and recent events there remind me of someone's quip that "the Europeans will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust").  In any event, it is useful to think of today's Muslim world as being in the 14th century except with the benefits of 21st century weapons and technology.  And by the way, this is not just about Jews.  Christians have been fleeing the Middle East for two decades, bringing to an end communities that existed for two thousand years and but while Christian and Jews have some, albeit very limited, standing in the Koran, Hindus and Buddhists find themselves completely beyond the pale.

While THC is with Rodney King in asking "can't we all just get along?" he fears that may not be in the cards.   On the worst days, THC thinks this may be the most accurate forecast:


  1. Chilling. I'm headed there next week. Have been doing some advance reading so at least I get the culture a little better, and this, while educational, heightened my anxiety. Which may be well-placed.

  2. Your comment on treaties makes one wonder why the nuke deal with Iran has a 10 year term.