The most confusing thing about ISIS, at least for me, has been the question of what exactly it is that they want and why they do the things they do. It seems completely self-defeating at times. It’s easy to define al Qaeda as evil and unite people in the need to defeat them, but you can also at least get a sense of what al Qaeda wants. They don’t seem to hold any illusions about ruling the entire world – a few blustering speeches aside – but they do follow the teachings of bin Laden and have some well defined goals. They want to drive the West out of the vastly expanded territory they view as the Holy Land at a minimum or the traditionally Arab lands in more general terms. They want to destroy Israel and establish their own vast territory free of western influence. Their methods are those of monsters, of course, but you can at least kind of wrap your head around what it is they are trying to do.
Not so with ISIS. They attack everyone – other Muslims included – with seemingly equal fervor. Their most recent actions have not been against the west, but seemingly designed to enrage other Muslim states like Jordan and Egypt. They destroy lives and property in the most horrific ways possible, apparently looking to fight everyone who they can draw into the fray. It seems like a battle plan designed to fail, so why do it? There is a very long and eye opening piece in The Atlantic this week from Graeme Wood which seems to finally shed some light on these questions. Titled, What ISIS Really Wants, Wood explains that there actually is a method to their madness. He talks about what a tragic mistake it is for leaders like Barack Obama to refuse to refer to ISIS as “Islamic” because they are perhaps the most fervent Islamists on the planet, and ones which adhere to the most fundamental interpretation of Islam and the prophecy of the end days.
The reason that ISIS is looking to fight everyone in battles they are bound to lose is that they expect to lose (or nearly so) just as is foretold in prophecy. ISIS is convinced the end times are upon us and they will be the agent of that change.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
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.
Wood breaks out his lengthy essay into five sections, all of which make some horrifying sense when you think about it, but the third section is the one I was focused on here. It deals with the coming end of the world and how ISIS views their role in these events.
III. The Apocalypse
All Muslims acknowledge that God is the only one who knows the future. But they also agree that he has offered us a peek at it, in the Koran and in narrations of the Prophet. The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission…
That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.
This is a depressing and yet important analysis. It’s hard to come up with a comprehensive plan if you are unable to understand the goals and motivations of your enemy. Apparently it’s a mistake to think that ISIS is only interested in acquiring territory and carving out some specific state of their own. Nor do they seem to be trying to balance allegiances between Sunni and Shiite interests and building bridges at home. ISIS is planning for and actively working toward the end of days. They see a total of 12 Caliphs, of which al-Baghdadi is the 8th. This is a longer game than simply the lifespan of one leader, but not all that much longer.
Accepting Graeme Wood’s premise – which doesn’t’ seem far fetched at all – could represent the opportunity for understanding the enemy. We shouldn’t try to anticipate their moves based on an assumption that they are being strategic and looking for victory. They are expecting to lose the battle, at least until the final moment when a few of them emerge triumphantly through an act of divine intervention. They aren’t “making mistakes” by angering every nation around them… it’s exactly what they want. Now we need to find someone willing to lead the way and give it to them.