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 alâ€‘Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as â€œSheikh Osama,â€ a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaedaâ€™s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the groupâ€™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 Stateâ€™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 Mohamd Attaâ€™s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observationâ€”that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguiseâ€”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 most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic Stateâ€™s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to â€œmoderns.â€ In conversation, they insist that they will notâ€”cannotâ€”waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic Stateâ€™s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and â€œsmash his head with a rock,â€ poison him, run him over with a car, or â€œdestroy his crops.â€ To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishmentsâ€”the stoning and crop destructionâ€”juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an â€œuncircumcised geezer.â€)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops aloneâ€”unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
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.
Make sure you read the entire article. Â Itâ€™s a long read but worthwhile. Â
In the end, they are preaching a form of Islamic fundamentalism where violence, executions, and war is all normalized as a part of a bringing about the end times. Â Actually it seems more like a cult rooted in Islam rather than just fundamentalism (which when extreme leads to violence no matter what faith you associate it with) Â Even Al-Queda thought they were over the top.
During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic Stateâ€™s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdiâ€”a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were â€œtalking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisionsâ€ based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. â€œAl-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say â€˜Cut it out.â€™â€‰â€
So this isnâ€™t terrorism even in the way we think of terrorism (state sponsored or politically motivated). Â It is terrorism driven by a belief in the end times.