Thursday, May 26, 2016

What ISIS Wants - Prager U

What ISIS Wants

ISIS has conquered territory across the Middle East and northern Africa. It has terrorized its occupied cities, sown terror across Europe, and spread its ideology around the world. But what does ISIS want? What does it believe? Where did it come from? And can it be stopped? Tom Joscelyn, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains.

It seems that hardly a day goes by in which the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, doesn’t appear in a newspaper or on a TV news screen. And the news is always bad -- hideous death and wanton destruction of a type rarely seen in modern history.

So, what is the Islamic State? Where did it come from? What does it want? And why? Let’s try to answer these questions in turn.

First, ISIS is the illegitimate child of Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda. Saddam’s former military and intelligence officers hold many of ISIS’s most senior positions and have overseen the group’s rise to prominence. In 2002 and early 2003, some al Qaeda members relocated from Afghanistan to Iraq, where they prepared to fight the Americans, who toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003. These jihadists became known as al Qaeda in Iraq when their leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi swore his allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. Zarqawi, a murderous psychopath, was finally killed by US and Iraqi forces in June 2006. Following his death, al Qaeda in Iraq was rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq.

In 2010 a new leader took control of the group -- Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the complete US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the Syrian Civil War that began that same year, Baghdadi and his lieutenants greatly expanded the size and scope of the organization. At first, Baghdadi was loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. But in 2013 he defied orders from his superiors and declared that his group was now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Levant, known by its acronyms ISIS and ISIL. It’s worth noting that ISIS continues to market Osama bin Laden’s endorsement of them to this day.

What does ISIS want and why? ISIS is attempting to resurrect an empire similar to those that arose in Islam’s early history. These empires were referred to as “caliphates” and led by a “Caliph,” the Muslims’ chief ruler, also known as the “Emir of the Faithful.” This is, in fact, how Baghdadi’s followers now refer to him.

ISIS relies on a rich Islamic mythology, with citations from Islamic texts, to justify its actions and portray itself as the true heirs of Mohammed. Their propaganda videos use Islam’s early history to frame their actions as part of an ongoing conflict with the “Crusaders.” ISIS’s leaders want their followers to believe they are fighting as part of this same religious war. When ISIS’s Libyan branch executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in 2015, ISIS advertised the slayings in a video titled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross” – “the Nation of the Cross,” of course, meaning Christians. That's why on Libya’s Mediterranean shores, the lead executioner of the Egyptian Coptic Christians pointed his knife in the direction of Italy and promised to conquer Rome, the symbolic seat of Christendom.

Despite seeking to spark an inter-faith war, however, most of ISIS’s victims are Muslims, especially Shiite Muslims for whom ISIS, which is Sunni Muslim, harbors a special animosity. ISIS claims that any Muslim who does not swear bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to Baghdadi is an “infidel” or an “apostate.” Even ISIS’s rival jihadists in al Qaeda are considered apostates, because they refuse to genuflect to Baghdadi.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of The Long War Journal, a widely read publication dealing with counterterrorism and related issues.


Much of his research focuses on how al Qaeda and its affiliates operate around the globe. Mr. Joscelyn was the senior counterterrorism adviser to Mayor Giuliani during the 2008 presidential campaign.

He has testified before Congress on numerous occasions, including before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Homeland Security Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and House Judiciary Committee.  Mr. Joscelyn is also a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

His work has been published by a variety of other publications and cited by the Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, USA Today, TIME, Foreign Policy, and many others, and he makes regular appearances on television and radio programs.

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