Another Study of ISIS

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 8.01.17 pmAbout a week ago I wrote a few notes on my reading of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. I followed that with Jessica Stern’s and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror. It’s a great companion to former work; don’t hold off thinking it might be redundant if you’ve already read the former.

One small detail but a most valuable asset is an appendix by a Brown University doctoral student, Megan K. McBride, providing one of the most readable and informative outlines of the history and nature of Islam and where the various movements that culminated in ISIS fit in to that overview. My first reaction to reading it was to want to contact the author and seek permission to post it in Vridar.

A principal difference from the Weiss and Hassan study is that Stern and Berger explore in much greater depth the way ISIS is really such a modern phenomenon with the strategic ways it has exploited modern communication technologies, especially social media. I first heard the expression “barbarism empowered by modern technology” as a graduate student to refer to the Nazi machine of World War 2. ISIS is reverting to the most primitive forms of barbarism but empowering that barbaric message through modern communications technology. Beheadings have been historically employed as a “mercifully” swift means of execution; not for ISIS where some deliberately seek out blunt knives to do the job. The object is to strike fear, of course, as well as demonstrate to idealistic potential recruits just how serious they are. Bizarrely bloodthirsty messages are somehow mixed with video shots of an ideal visionary society, a caliphate where children are happy (even if playing with decapitated heads on corpse-lined streets) and the true ways of Allah ensure a purified “utopia”. Gone are the defeatist messages of the old terrorists like Al Qaeda with their expectations of being overwhelmed by godless forces and hopes for a future paradise. The heavenly kingdom is here now; the jihadists are strong and terrifying in their strength. That is their message and that is what makes them different from other terrorist groups.

What bewildered many of them (though perhaps not their leadership) was the failure of Muslims to rise up rejoicing with the announcement of the restored caliphate and to declare their allegiance to it. Most Muslims, of course, despised it, wanted nothing to do with it, loathed it. And that fact alone demonstrates just how isolated ISIS is within the broader Muslim community.

Still, Stern and Berger do conclude with a warning: we don’t yet know the future of ISIS or the events precipitated via its emergence. A few terrorist breakaway groups — from South Asia to North Africa — have slowly come to recognize it. And the US policy of “decapitation” — targeting the heads of terrorist organizations — is more than likely going to backfire. Once a head declares “loyalty” (“bayah” — a religiously binding oath) to another such as Al Qaeda, and that oath is accepted by that other/Al Qaeda, it is binding. For a leader to change his mind and turn to, say, ISIS instead, or to its caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, then he steps on to a slippery slope. There remains nothing to prevent his own followers from likewise changing their minds and loyalties. But bayah is between individuals, not corporate bodies. Once a drone slaughters one leader there is no knowing to whom his successor will gravitate. To al Baghdadi, the caliph of ISIS?

The apocalyptic vision of ISIS reminded me of other religious cults that have established their own utopian kingdoms on earth. One I once took a special historical interest in was the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom  led by Hong Xiuquan who saw himself as the literal brother of Jesus Christ. This was the Taiping rebellion in nineteenth century China. I think many mainstream Muslims look on ISIS in much the same way many Christians would look on the Taipings. That many ISIS followers were apparently bemused by the failure of more Muslims to welcome their caliphate only demonstrates how religiously illiterate (certainly limited) so many of them are. The foreign fighters are on the whole more ideological than the Sunni Arabs who have made up the core of ISIS. Indeed, both books make it very clear that ISIS was born from a Sunni attempt to “survive” as the Shia and Iranian sympathetic Muslims took over in Iraq. The propaganda appeal to many foreigners has been very significantly related to the idealism and sense of adventure particularly craved by youth. If reports of some defectors can be believed then the doctrinal idealism is not so pure in reality: ISIS fighters have apparently been seen smoking after an engagement even though condign penalties apply to smokers in ISIS held population centres; ISIS men have been seen having sex with one another in dark areas at night despite what we know is the public penalty for gays.* Hope, if that’s an appropriate word, might be seen in the reports of rubbish being piled up in streets for weeks, and of electricity in certain areas being cut off for extended periods of time — as a result of some of the damage inflicted by the West’s (and now Russia’s?) aerial campaigns. How long can idealism hold out? Young girls, as we know, have also been attracted to ISIS, and some of these have only fallen into bitter experiences of unanticipated and unwelcome early pregnancies and the circumstances associated with that. So the difficult question arises: how are the disillusioned to be treated when and if they can ever return home? How can we know they are really disillusioned and not likely to be sleepers waiting for the right opportunities to cause further terror? And that’s another strength of Stern and Hassan’s book: the discussion of the “intellectual heritage” and organizational ties that have given rise to the “lone wolf” and similar attacks in Western nations. I found it well worth the read. Both books, just as both Nawaz’s and Husain’s biographies offer a more complete understanding of what the West is faced with today and into the foreseeable future.


  • This section of the book reminded me of Husain’s observations of life in Saudi Arabia. Sexual repression is so severe there that men seriously harass (and worse) women as a consequence of being turned on by the sight of their eyes — all they can see of them in public! Back in Britain, Islamists sometimes in confidence will admit that they find the hijab (not to be confused with the niqab that allows only the eyes to be visible) covering is actually a sexual turn-on more than the sight of women who have their heads uncovered.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Another Study of ISIS”

  1. I agree that reading Weiss & Hassan’s ‘ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror’ in no way makes Berger & Stern’s ‘ISIS: The State of Terror’ redundant. (I also read them in that order). It’s hard to know, but I probably got more out of Berger & Stern’s book because I’d already read Weiss & Hassan’s (which I read after Loretta Napoleoni’s ‘The Islamist Pheonix’, and Patrick Cockburn’s ‘The Rise of Islamic State‘). That said, if you could only read one of these, I’d suggested Berger & Stern’s: it’s got a good mix of history, personality, and delves into the behavioural and psychological aspects of ISIS in more detail than the other books. And as Neil says, the appendix is really useful too. FYI, my thirst for books in this area has not yet been sated: I’m about to read Will McCant’s new book, ‘The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State’, which should be excellent.

    1. Fully agree Stern and Berger’s has more to offer than Weiss/Hassan’s work. Also looking forward to Jason Burke’s study that I believe is due out around now. His was the first in depth work I read on Al Qaeda.

  2. Jason Burke’s “The New Threat” (2015) to western nations from Sunni militancy is among the books on the Middle East on my shelves I proposed to include in a promised but not yet posted bibliography, and is recommended (e.g. its reference to modernity & the psychology of unemployed young males).

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