February 18, 2015
Whenever ISIS carries out a new atrocity, whether it's
beheading a group of Egyptian Christians or enslaving Yazidi women in Iraq or
burning its victims alive, the big question most people have is: Why on Earth
is ISIS doing this? What could possibly be the point?
Adding to your list of enemies is never a sound
strategy, yet ISIS' ferocious campaign against the Shia, Kurds, Yazidis,
Christians, and Muslims who don't precisely share its views has united every
ethnic and religious group in Syria and Iraq against them.
ISIS is even at war with its most natural ally, al
Qaeda in Syria.
The Nazis and the Khmer Rouge went to great lengths to
hide their crimes against humanity. Instead, ISIS posts its many crimes on
social media for global distribution with seemingly no thoughts for the
ISIS' beheading of the American journalist James Foley
in mid-August galvanized much of the Western world against the group and led to
an intensified U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS, which, according to U.S.
military officials, has killed at least 6,000 of its fighters.
The burning to death by ISIS of the Jordanian pilot,
Muath al-Kaseasbeh, galvanized much of the Arab world against the group and has
brought Jordan into the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in a much more
The beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in
Libya by an ISIS affiliate led Egypt's air force on Monday to drop bombs on
ISIS positions in eastern Libya.
Former CIA director Robert Gates is reported to have
kept a maxim on his desk that read, "As a general rule, the way to achieve
complete strategic surprise is to commit an act that makes no sense or is even
ISIS keeps surprising the world and its actions do
indeed seem to make no sense or are self-destructive.
So what is going on here?
A key window into understanding ISIS is its English
language "in-flight magazine" Dabiq. Last week the seventh issue of
Dabiq was released, and a close reading of it helps explains ISIS' world view.
The mistake some make when viewing ISIS is to see it
as a rational actor. Instead, as the magazine documents, its ideology is that
of an apocalyptic cult that believes that we are living in the end times and
that ISIS' actions are hastening the moment when this will happen.
The name of the Dabiq magazine itself helps us
understand ISIS' worldview. The Syrian town of Dabiq is where the Prophet
Mohammed is supposed to have predicted that the armies of Islam and
"Rome" would meet for the final battle that will precede the end of
time and the triumph of true Islam.
In the recent issue of Dabiq it states: "As the
world progresses towards al-Malhamah al-Kubrā, ('the Great Battle' to
be held at Dabiq) the option to stand on the sidelines as a mere observer is
being lost." In other words, in its logic, you are either on the side of
ISIS or you are on the side of the Crusaders and infidels.
When American aid worker Peter Kassig was murdered by
ISIS in November, "Jihadi John" -- the masked British murderer who
has appeared in so many ISIS videos -- said of Kassig: "We bury the first
crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the rest of your armies to arrive."
In other words, ISIS wants a Western ground force to
invade Syria, as that will confirm the prophecy about Dabiq.
We live in an increasingly secularized world, so it's
sometimes difficult to take seriously the deeply held religious beliefs of
others. For many of us the idea that the end of times will come with a battle
between "Rome" and Islam at the obscure Syrian town of Dabiq is as
absurd as the belief that the Mayans had that their human sacrifices could
influence future events.
But for ISIS, the Dabiq prophecy is deadly serious.
Members of ISIS believe that they are the vanguard fighting a religious war,
which Allah has determined will be won by the forces of true Islam.
This is the conclusion of an important forthcoming new
book about ISIS by terrorism experts J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern who write
that ISIS, like many other "violent apocalyptic groups, tend to see
themselves as participating in a cosmic war between good and evil, in which
moral rules do not apply."
This also similar to the conclusion of an excellent
new cover story about ISIS in the Atlantic magazine by Graeme Wood who writes,
"Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State
(another name for ISIS) adheres to what it calls, in its press and
pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins,
'the Prophetic methodology,' which means following the prophecy and example of
Muhammad, in punctilious detail. 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 combated, has already led the
United States to underestimate it." Amen to that.
ISIS members devoutly believe that they are fighting
in a cosmic war in which they are on the side of good, which allows them to
kill anyone they perceive to be standing in their way with no compunction. This
is, of course, a serious delusion, but serious it is.
Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at the
New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for
bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."