The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop 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.
It would be a mistake to assume that ISIS is the same as Al Qaeda, or mere continuation of Al Qaeda. ISIS requires some things that AQ did not require, including land and a top-down chain of command. ISIS has a few key tenets that we must understand if we are to defeat this threat:
- Devotion. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS since 2010, and Ayman al Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda, are not allies devoted to one another or the same cause. They are both dedicated to their twisted version of Islam, and to the teachings of Sheikh Osama Bin Laden.Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.” Our failure to appreciate the essential differences between ISIS and AQ has led to some very bad decisions on the part of the Americas and the European Union.
- Territory. The last caliphate was the Ottoman empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, euthanized it in 1924. The Caliph needs territory to assert his authority, which was not necessarily a goal of AQ, at least not in the lifetime of the past leaders.
- Apocalypse. During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. ISIS believes that a new army of Rome will attack Dabiq, and the prophetic event will precede the taking of Istanbul and eventually lead to the downfall of the invading infidel army.
- War. Thanks to the West’s inability to differentiate between AQ and ISIS, we are now meeting the Islamic State via Kurdish and Iraqi proxy on the battlefield, and with regular air assaults. Those strategies haven’t dislodged the Islamic State from any of its major territorial possessions, although they’ve kept it from directly assaulting Baghdad and Erbil and slaughtering Shia and Kurds there.