Monday, February 16, 2015

ISIS is Very, Very Islamic

This is a hugely important article--and you should read the whole thing (it's long). The article is titled What ISIS Wants and it makes the case that ISIS is moving with intent and even erudition towards a 7th-Century vision of Islam that is both consistent and theological sound within its doctrine. As noted in this blog before, ISIS bases its behavior on the precepts that:
  1. How the founders of Islam (who are revered--and including Mohammad himself) acted is at least as important as what they wrote.
  2. That their forming of the caliphate specifically gives them special circumstances that, for example, Al Qaeda did not have (this is, apparently, true under Islamic tradition if, in fact, you hold land that could be considered a caliphate--which they do).
  3. That their leader is of the right lineage to be the next caliph (he is, apparently).
  4. That, therefore, their behavior is in keeping with Islamic tradition. This gives them the right to declare other Muslims apostates in a way that can't be return-fire'd back at them (since the other Imams don't have a caliphate and ISIS's claim looks pretty legit to a lot of people).
The Omnivore believes this is true--not from his non-existent background as a scholar of Islam, but from a variety of readings on the subject and, specifically, some points around Bin Ladin's behavior (for example, that Bin Laden had to make the case he was waging a defensive war--because Islam only allows a Caliph to wage an offensive war--and Osama wasn't claiming to be one). 

In other words, ISIS is not just Islamic--they are very, very Islamic. They are traditionally back-to-basics Islamic and have tapped into a very powerful apocalyptic vein of thought (hence a major push to take a strategically insignificant piece of land)--and, hence, their extreme appeal to the potentially radicalized. To whit:
  1. They represent a view of pure Islam that is both arguably legitimate (they can practice the only 'true' Sharia).
  2. It can offer 'glorious' hardship and an important death. This sort of appeal is stronger than you would think. Something similar has led young men into battles such as WWI and WWII in the west. Don't discount it.
  3. Its message can reach where other forms of radicalization fail. It is making a claim to being a player in the end-times. If you can catch "apocalypse fever" (which, let's be frank, a good number of American Christians have)--and are Muslim--they have a unique sales pitch.
The Omnivore had not put all this together the way the article does--but it is absolutely eye opening when it comes to clearing up his understanding of how ISIS is able to recruit anyone. Remember, as noted previously, the atrocities are presented in Islamic reading (fundamentalist Islamic reading) as a merciful form of warfare since while the victims suffer massively, the terror campaign makes the battles quicker in the end.

The author of the piece--a credible Islamic scholar himself--says that if you sit with one of these guys and ague about whether they are Islamic or not, you will lose. That argument--the argument American liberals and, probably, some western Muslims want to have with ISIS? It's the same argument ISIS wants to have with the west . . .  Because ISIS will win.

That's chilling in a way nothing The Omnivore has read so far has been. Yes, they do not represent Modern Islam (they use 'Modern's as a term of derision for what they see as apostates deserving of death). They represent a very legitimate and culturally resonant 7th century Islam--which is not just a made up cult with the name 'Islam' stamped across it.

The author, Graeme Wood, makes the case that another form of fundamentalist Islam could be an antidote (it's not touchy-feely at all, but it's super introverted and has you start your jihad with yourself ... and never finish--even as it embraces the older visions--so ISIS hates those guys specifically)--but The Omnivore thinks that a counter-meme isn't something amenable to western weaponization.

No, keys to beating ISIS appear to be:
  1. Use their built-in weaknesses. Graeme goes into detail about this (they must take and hold strategic pieces of land to fulfill their destinies), they can't make real peace-treaties with their neighbors (no treaty can last more than 10 years under Islamic doctrine), and they can't stop conquering things. This gives them a "burn rate" that is probably very, very high.
  2. The Omnivore thinks we should facilitate immigration to ISIS. Yes, swelling their ranks has costs--but (a) would be ISISans trapped here are likely to lone wolf (Graeme, again discusses this) and (b) ISIS does want to destroy the west--but they are also for-real serious about setting up their caliphate in the desert: they will be locally occupied for quite some time. Giving them generally untrained western soldiers which removes them from the west (under no condition let them come back) is probably a fair trade down the road.
  3. Attack with intent to humiliate. ISIS is no push-over. They aren't elite--but they do have game. Their attack on a green-zone area got them slaughtered by US Marines, yes--but they also penetrated a highly defended perimeter with suicide bombers. What the coalition needs is some battles that highly discredit their claim to end-times glory. There's risk here--but if the aim is kept in mind, then some ground war scenarios should be feasible.
  4. Damage infrastructure. This one is the most controversial since it will cause 'ISIS civilians' hardship and maybe death (and these 'civilians' are probably equally captives to a large degree in some areas)--but ISIS is also a state and not just a terrorist army like in Afghanistan. They need infrastructure and society and we can make that hard for them. We are at war with them and we should deny them what we can.
The Presidential AUMF
Obama is asking Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS. There have been a lot of reactions to this--from thinking it went too far to not far enough (or not using the term 'radical Islam' enough). The Omnivore is no expert but thinks that this blog (lawfare) has the right set of points (It doesn't limit Obama--it expands on the already existing AUMF that would allow pretty much anything and doesn't limit his existing generic presidential powers).

What this appears to be is good strategy. Firstly, by asking Congress for this they can't give him the powers then critique him for over-reach. If they vote it down because it doesn't say "Radical Islam" or something, it's an obvious own-goal. If it works--and everyone votes for it (or almost everyone) then, hey: bi-partisan. ISIS is evil enough it should be sufficient to bring everyone together.

On the other hand, the timing is . . .  too perfect. Voting for a rare 9/11-style AUMF on the eve of playing politics with defunding DHS is going to make even the most cynical Republican operator think twice. If ISIS is really a threat to the US then do we really need DHS being un-paid for some period of time because of immigration? (Sure, you can split the difference and says ISIS threatens our national interests--but not the homeland specifically right now--and that'd be more or less right as far as today goes . . .  but if you're explaining, you're losing).

It's also worth noting that ISIS wants a war with America--they do want and need one to satisfy their dreams of a confrontation in the desert man-to-man. They're likely going to get one from this. The Omnivore says the smart money is that it doesn't play out the way they want it to.


  1. It's been said that a Greek phalanx was pretty badass in its time, but how well would it do against a couple of guys with flamethrowers?

    I don't think ISIS can be defeated by dint of raw force or firepower. As Wood notes, the appropriate model to use here would be something akin to if the likes of Jim Jones or David Koresh had survived to wield absolute power over about eight million people. What would really put the hurt on them would be if they (and their so-called caliphate) could be made to look ridiculous. I suppose the career of Mel Brooks may be instructive here: he fought the Nazis during WWII (defusing land mines as a corporal in the US Army's 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, if it matters) and later realized that he could do far more damage to their mindset and legacy by making them look silly in his plays and films.

    Just sayin'.

    -- Ω

    1. Yes: They need to be made to look like total losers. That's the winning strategy. However, it's hard. I have a link where The War Nerd analyzes video of an air strike that looks carefully DESIGNED to make them look ridiculous. That sort of thing is spot on. Brand Damage. -- The Omnivore