What Does ISIS Really Want?

Way too big of a question for this little blog, so I am going to defer to Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, to provide most of the answer.  He has the cover story in the most recent edition, and he was interviewed on NPR two days ago.  The interview is about 11 minutes and I suggest listening to that and then if really interested  move on to the article, which is hard to digest in one sitting.

Wood makes the case that we misunderstand ISIS when we act as if the phenomenon was a perversion of Islam, as President Obama often does, without admitting it as one of many legitimate interpretations in the Muslim world.   They are living out a medieval religious version which envisions an end of days scenario with armies of west and east living out some kind of apocalypse.  It is a crazy vision to us, but enthralling to some Muslims.  Something they want to be a part of, a glorious Muslim passion play fated to happen.

To me the main question is how does understanding what ISIS wants affect our strategy towards them.  One point struck me in reading the piece and that was how important controlling land is to validating their status.    Al Queda has largely been an underground operation.  Controlling much land has not been their aim.

But the purpose of having a Caliphate is to be able to enforce the pure practice of Sharia law.   For ISIS to survive it must control the land it has and gain more to prosper.  Otherwise questions arise as to its nature as a true Caliphate.   So far so good for them, but a successful strategy of slowly pushing them back should weaken the attraction they have to prospective followers.  Who wants to die for a false Caliphate?

The temptation for those in the U. S. who want to crush ISIS at a much faster pace, is to make for a worse situation if thousands of our troops are going to spearhead the attack, justifying ISIS propaganda that we want to destroy Islam, and providing a spur to even more recruits from the Muslim world.

While it may not be a satisfying conclusion, Wood believes:   “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.”

Wood argues it is in the nature of ISIS’ uncompromisingly brutal ideology to hamstring itself over time.  For them, their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation and those not holding it are apostates, which means almost the entire world.  While ISIS attracts a flow of Muslim fanatics and/or psychopaths to its cause, it makes more enemies by the day as well, most recently stiffening the nerve of the Jordanian king after burning to death that Jordanian pilot.  And then prompting the Egyptian president to call for Muslims to band together to fight ISIS after 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya.

Of course, in both cases air power was used to wreak revenge on ISIS and what is most needed are more ground troops to retake lost land.  Only in Iraq are there many engaged, and that is because much of their land had been overrun by ISIS, but since ISIS wants to control the entire region so as to purify or kill fellow Muslims, eventually the alliance against them should come together out of self-preservation.


It is the most complicated U. S. military involvement that I can imagine with no precedents that I can think of, so while I believe there is a need for more American troops on the ground in special forces capacities, we must continuously balance our involvement with that of regional powers, so that this will evolve as more of a Muslim vs. Muslim battle, rather than one easily portrayed by ISIS as yet another Christian Crusade.

IRAQ: Parliament Procastinates on Selection of Prime Minister

Today I thought we might have a new prime minister in Iraq, but the parliament wound up not having a quorum and putting off meeting for another week.   Parliament had a quorum when they began to meet, but after a 30 minute break, they lost it as 90 members did not return.   According to CNN the speaker of the parliament said:  ‘”We are going to postpone because of an urgent matter,’…..  (but) he did not say what the urgent matter was, and it was not immediately clear what happened.”

Map of Iraq, where Yahya ibn Umar conducted hi...

Map of Iraq   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clear as mud, right?  But clearly not a  good sign, with the possibility of a decision as to prime minister dragging on and on.   How can a united front be developed to oppose ISIS when they can’t even form a government?

Government sources report successes of the military against ISIS, but these reports have often conflicted with reports of individuals on the ground, so the actual success of al-Malaki’s forces is open to question.

They did receive about a dozen fighter jets from Russia recently and expect them to join the fight over these next few days.   But while the ISIS tide might be stemmed for now, a likely lame duck al-Malaki is not someone who inspires troops to risk their lives while facing fanatics as their frequent collapse in recent weeks reflect (yes, I know that many of them were soldiers of Sunni ethnicity, the least likely to want to fight, but troops of all stripes fled right along with them).

While Baghdad is shilly shallying an ISIS  spokesman declared themselves the  rightful leader of all Muslims Sunday.  You have to be impressed by their audacity if nothing else, as this puts them squarely at odds with all sorts of other Muslims, including many Sunni’s who might hate al-Malaki but are not ready to submit to this new caliphate, meaning a Muslim empire like in the good old days of Mohammed.  And then there is what once was their parent organization Al-Queda, which disowned them back in February because they would not follow orders.

Imagine this:  Al-Queda and the U. S.  have a common enemy.  It almost seems it has become ISIS, or the Islamic State, what they want to be called now, against the world.    With Russia supplying jets to Baghdad, Syrian jets attacking some of the ISIS strongholds, Iran sending munitions and and I don’t know what else, and also a little help from us, with likely more to come if they could form an inclusive government……  Can you imagine a meeting somewhere between a CIA guy with representatives of all of those entities to establish some sort of communication so at least they don’t trip over each other in their efforts to crush ISIS?   Well probably not including Al-Queda, but we are reaching bizarro world at this point.

On the surface one would think the “Islamic State” has bit off more than it can chew, but while its actions have produced many enemies, they undoubtedly are  attracting many true believers willing to die for the grand vision of a restored caliphate.  With a chaotic government situation in Baghdad and the odd assortment of backers indicated above, much havoc seems likely in Iraq’s near future to say the least.  And where might it spread?

Check out this CNN report for more details on the current situation including links to other sources at the bottom of the article.  One is to a series of maps which help clarify the struggle.  And one of the maps shows where oil is distributed throughout the country, mostly in Shia and Kurd territories, which would be a sticking point if the three major groups could come to the conclusion  of breaking the country apart.