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Article Reviewed:

Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants”, March 2015 ISSUE OF THE ATLANTIC.


Despite all the media attention and popularity of ISIS, little is known about them. More aptly put, a great
deal of misconceptions surrounds our perception of the Islamic state, its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, its
followers and their guiding ideologies. This according to the author, has caused the west, and the United
States to make vital miscalculations in its strategy in the war against ISIS. This he attributes to assumptions
made at the top hierarchy by the west about ISIS, about the seriousness of ISIS in its ideals. President
Obama referring to the Islamic state as “non-Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “Jayvee team (Junior varsity team)”
according to the author proves this point. These misconceptions, the author calls somewhat
‘understandable’ (p1), and attributes this to the nature of ISIS’ propaganda, secretiveness of its leader and
its somewhat unrealistic ideals and interpretations of the Quran.

The author suggests that careful observation of the Islamic state’s policies and principles would reveal our
misconceptions of our knowledge of ISIS, which in turn would enable the west and America come up with
a comprehensive strategy to battle ISIS. He proceeds to elaborate on the observed misconceptions about
the Islamic state.

Firstly, he attributes it to our view of the jihadism as uniform, predictable, repetitive. This stems from the
generalization of the ideals of Jihadist al-Qaeda as the manual for jihadism, and assumption that ISIS
emulates the ideals of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and operates using the same principles.
This has led the west to devise strategies to counter ISIS using this false assumption which results in failure
to arrest the ideology. Osama bin Laden is highly revered in the Islamic state, He was after all the precursor
to the coming of the Islamic state, but bin Laden’s view on terrorism was as an antecedent to the caliphate,
one he didn’t expect to come anytime soon, not in his lifetime at least. The Islamic state on the other hand
is a reincarnation of the early Islamic movement, spurred on by the dictates of the prophet Mohammed and
the ideals of the caliphate.

Secondly, he attributes it to our inability to want to see the medieval religious nature of the Islamic state,
in contrast with Osama bin Laden and his somewhat secularist and modernist al-Qaeda. Our perception of
ISIS as a ‘modern secular organization, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious
disguise’ (p2). The Islamic state has no regards for modern ideals. It seeks to reenact the ideals of old, of
the time of the prophet. This is seen in the comments made by the chief spokesperson of the Islamic state,
Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani where he says “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over
with a car, or “destroy his crops.” (p3), these are not just comments, they span from their ‘just” interpretation
of the Quran which subsequently gives it a religious and legal backing.

The main argument of the author is that it is possible to predict the behavior and actions of ISIS, hence
develop an effective strategy to combat it. This he argues can be gotten by careful observations and plainly
put following the Quran. He further elaborates his argument in five points: Devotion, Territory, Apocalypse,
Fight and Dissuasion.


The article is presented in the form of a reportage as the author rarely presents his own views on issues, he
rather chooses to augment his points by quoting notable figures (Bernard Haykel), and presenting interviews
with other individuals (Musa Cerantonio, Anjem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Abdul Muhid). He also
provides evidences in his argument to back up his claims. A good strategy to maintain objectiveness yet
hide bias. He also notably responds with witty and sometimes satirical remarks about the Islamic state when
presenting his thoughts. The author tries to maintain a good analysis of arguments and logic despite the
wittiness and a seeming subtle bias towards Islam.
The author’s choice of title however catchy is purely a supposition and at best, an estimation. To assume
complete knowledge of what ISIS wants is impossible. The author then begins a build up to his argument
by highlighting the ignorance of the west and the United States of “what ISIS wants”, from which he
proceeds to repeat the now reoccurring “theme of ignorance of the people” about the true nature of ISIS.
The writer does a good job of building up his argument in the subsequent arguments.

‘We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign’ (p2), the author provides
no explanation on this issue, leaving its meaning to be implied. Questions such as “Who leads this dishonest
campaign?” arises.

The authors build-up to the presentation of his five points (devotion, territory, apocalypse, fight and
dissuasion) is incoherent, as he offers no explanation about what these points indicate, up until the end of
these points the reason for their enumeration is clearly which leaves the reader with uncertainty. He offers
a very compelling argument which is well supported with interviews, names, key figures and quotations
from the Quran.


I would argue about the authors view on the nature of jihadism. ‘We tend to see jihadism as monolithic’
(p2). Jihadism as a concept embodies certain values that are universal in all of its occurrences. In all of its
occurrences the following themes are repeated; “Enthroning Islam in the locale where it exists ”, “A salient
hatred for the west and its policies”, “Enforcement of sharia in the locale of its existence”, “religious
Justification of actions with the Quran ”. These themes are visible and repetitive in all instances of its
occurrence from the inception of al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Nusra, ISIS, Boko-Haram, They
constitute its ideals and are universal. The motives may differ as well as its means of achieving and
enthroning its ideals but it is in fact to a certain degree monolithic.

The author consistently repeats the theme of “ignorance of the people about the true nature of ISIS”, as can
be seen here. There has been consistent condemnation about the activities of the Islamic states, its violence
and gore, its disregard for life and the intensity of its ideals. “People” are not ignorant of the true nature of
The author shows his beliefs that ISIS is completely and honestly being Islamic in their actions and ideals,
where he says Muslims who refer to the Islamic state as un-Islamic as ‘embarrassed and politically correct,
with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ (p7). This brings up the argument that persists in many
circles about the true nature of Islam. “Is Islam truly a religion of peace?” If so, why are there so many
“misinterpretations” that all tend towards the same stereotypes of “violence, jihadism, implementing sharia
to the letter” and other extremist views? Precedence continues to repeat itself at various periods e.g. al-
Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS etc., all speaking the same ideals with different motivations and pious convictions. If
this is the case, what then becomes of the majority of Muslims, who claim that Islam is a religion of peace
and abhor the activities of ISIS and other Islamist jihadi organizations? Do they now truly now become
apostates and dishonest followers of the Prophet Mohammed?”

Overall, the author provides compelling proof to support his argument. There are quite a number of
suppositions made by the author but he provides ample evidence to support his claim. The true nature of
ISIS as an Islamic jihadist group which justifies its actions with the dictates of Prophet Mohammed and the
Quran is proven beyond reasonable doubt. The lingering argument remains the true nature of Islam