By Tobin Harshaw
6 May, 2019
What does a caliph do when he loses his caliphate? Crawl out from under his rock, apparently. Last week, the Islamic State released a video of its evanescent leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for the first time in five years, in which he warned of “the vengeance that awaits the crusaders and their henchmen.” (I’m probably only the latter, but one can always aspire.) Coming on the heels of the horrific bombings of Christian churches in Sri Lanka, for which ISIS has taken credit, there’s no doubt that losing their geographical foothold in Syria and Iraq was no death blow to the insurgents or their murderous interpretation of Islam.
To understand what to expect from ISIS 2.0, I had a chat with someone who knows as much as anybody about ISIS 1.0, Graeme Wood, author of “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.” Wood, who is also a staff writer at the Atlantic and a lecturer in political science at Yale, has spent years talking to ISIS recruits and their families about what, exactly, is so enticing about becoming cannon fodder for a group that has raped and pillaged its way across the Middle East. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation:
Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with a couple of recent events before we get to the big picture. First, the Islamic State is taking credit for Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. Second, there was the video purportedly of Baghdadi. What are we to make of that pair?
Graeme Wood: We actually have more than two events. On the same day as the Sri Lanka attacks, there was much-less-noticed attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which didn’t succeed in causing a spectacle of mass death.
TH: I do this for a living and I missed that.
GW: It was, like Sri Lanka, an ISIS attack. This was a very big week for ISIS. It has been pressing on multiple fronts, and the attacks demonstrate that ISIS is trying to push concertedly back into the consciousness of the world.
And on the question of whether the Baghdadi tape is real, now in the age of deep fakes we can’t be certain, but it looks just like him, it sounds like him, and everything he said is consistent with a message from Baghdadi.
TH: Why wait five years between appearances?
GW: It was almost certainly driven by the question in the minds of many whether he was alive, whether he remained in control, and whether he had left behind the fighters in Syria and elsewhere who were being gunned down and starving to death and wondering if he still has their backs. He claimed – not looking emaciated himself – that he does.
TH: I’ve always wondered: Why choose Baghdadi to take over this organization? He was an obscure figure, and hardly a crazed terrorist like the ISIS founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
GW: He was not such an unusual pick, even if he was obscure. He has a record of jihadist activity dating from before the U.S. invasion, and he served previous leaders of the organization.
When he first showed his face, he became the standard-bearer for a different type of jihadist organization, distinguished by its holding territory and implementing Islamic law in a very particular way. As a religious scholar and seasoned insurgent, he fit that role well. But the Islamic State of today hardly matches the one that he was so proudly trumpeting back in 2014. So when he is trying to re-inspire people today, he’s having to do so with a different vocabulary and a different type of claim.
What they have now and didn’t have then is a global profile — which is why Sri Lanka matters so much. Back then, they were an insurgency localized to Iraq and Syria. Now, they are much larger than that – their insurgency has spread to places where you wouldn’t think it had any purchase at all, like Sri Lanka and eastern Congo.
TH: As you explained in your writing, ISIS has an apocalyptic ideology worth taking seriously. And at the center of this vision was the claim that it would defeat the West at the town of Dabiq in Syria. Now that the U.S. and its allies have taken back that geographic area, isn’t ISIS’s claim to that ancient prophecy totally undermined?
GW: As of mid-2016, they had already started pivoting to the idea that their territorial holdings Syria were fragile and would eventually be lost. They were very cautious about how they made their apocalyptic claims. They said, for example, that at Dabiq there would be an apocalyptic showdown, but supporters would sometimes note that scripture didn’t exactly say they were going to win the battle, just the war.
TH: So now that they lost the geographic caliphate, how does that apocalyptic philosophy appeal to far away from the Arab Middle East, people from different types of societies and different traditions of Islam? Or are these people as in Sri Lanka just terrorists who want to kill, so they glom onto something that gives them a legitimate rationale?
GW: In some way what ISIS did was the opposite of what you’re suggesting: their initial appeal was not to Iraqis and Syrians, but to the global Muslim community. Qaeda and the insurgency in the 2000s in Iraq de-emphasized religion and instead stressed local political phenomena, in particular resistance to the U.S. occupation and post-Saddam governments. ISIS started out by appealing to Muslims everywhere, and in its non-official propaganda the foreign fighters even denigrated the local population.
In a very weird way, it turned Qaeda-style insurgency on its head and said, We’re going to start with a broad-based view of what Islam should be that can be understood by any Muslim, whether from the Philippines or Australia or Saudi Arabia.
Now that ISIS has lost its territory in Syria and Iraq, they have to revive that message, that Muslims all over the world are must be unified and follow the ideology that ISIS has been directing them to for the last several years. They’re ready to be global because they started off global.
TH: We’ve got a real problem, particularly the Europeans, with what to do with the fighters and families coming home. What’s the best plan?
GW: The United States does not have a problem. We’ve been blessed: there is almost no ISIS appeal to American Muslims. The few Americans who did go to ISIS punched above their weight – it gives me no American pride to say that they tended to be smarter and weirder and more interesting than a lot of others. But the numbers themselves turned out to be small compared to the Russians, Germans and French.
Those countries have already accepted many returnees from ISIS. The percentages are not clear, but they would be a substantial fraction of those who have traveled. And by looking at them, we can get an idea of the problem that we face.
TH: Those people have all been identified?
GW: No, they have not. Some have been prosecuted, but a lot have just gone back to their communities. And in many cases, I think that’s for the best.
I went to a German city where I had identified a person who had returned and asked the local authorities about him and they said: Look, this guy, he went to Syria, he may have fought, but he’s come back and now he’s working as a line cook at a fast food restaurant. And they said, I think very sensibly, “Do you want to remind him of all that exciting stuff that brought him over to Syria in the first place? Or would you like him to just age out of this belief system and maybe become a normal person again?”
TH: Fascinating. But that can hardly be the rule, right?
GW: In this case it may have made sense. In others, obviously not. What we’ve seen in others who have returned, in large numbers I’m afraid, is that the ideology remains in their heads. They say that ISIS implemented its caliphate corruptly and badly, but the idea of a pan-Muslim caliphate — that implements Islamic law in a very strict intolerant way — is still a good one.
I am worried about those people. One thing we have observed from the growth of ISIS is that it only takes a few sowers of ideology to seed the next generation, on a large scale. It happens in prisons. It happens outside of mosques – usually not inside them – and on street corners. And it will happen with a new generation. It’s going to be a problem for Europe at least a couple of decades.
TH: So what happened in Western Iraq and in Syria shows that at long last the U.S. and its allies have learned how to fight a terrorist group that’s holding its ground. But looking ahead, that’s not going to be as important a skill as fighting groups that don’t have territory and can move more fluidly. Have we gotten any better at that?
GW: We have definitely gotten better at that since 9/11. We’ve spent almost two decades now with a persistent but not existential problem of terrorist attacks. And one reason it hasn’t been worse is that we’ve been very good at disrupting them.
TH: So, as ISIS makes a comeback, do you think it will want another geographic caliphate, or do you think that they learned their lesson from losing this one?
GW: I’ve had ISIS supporters point out to me that what you need for a caliphate is any amount of land – it could be a single city block where there is a unitary executive called caliph who is ruling and implementing Islamic law. And I do think that ISIS still considers that its goal. There are probably small villages in Nigeria or Yemen or the Philippines where this sort of ultra-modest caliphate survives. What ISIS can’t do is accomplish that goal at the same scale it had before. And scale is what really matters. No one would get off their sofas in Birmingham, England, and just to follow the caliph of a small village in Mindanao.
What ISIS will definitely be able to do, though, is to invoke the success that they had for a few years in Syria and Iraq. I think a lot of people, when they look back at ISIS, they say it failed. That’s not always how it feels to someone who’s a follower of ISIS. They say: We didn’t fail, we got closer to succeeding than any jihadist organization in modern memory. We showed that a quixotic attempt to revive the caliphate was more successful than anyone prediction, and if we try it another time, we’ll have even more success.
Five years ago, no one was talking about caliphates. Now every Muslim on earth, and many non-Muslims know what a caliphate is, and some even think they are religiously obliged to establish one. Some of those remain sympathetic to ISIS’s version of this project, and consider what we saw in Syria a successful experiment that should be replicated as soon as possible.