My cover story in The Atlantic’s March issue asked, as simply as possible, What does ISIS believe, and what are its ideological roots? I read every ISIS statement I could find, including fatwas and tweets and road signs, and I front-loaded my mornings with execution videos in hopes that by bedtime I’d have forgotten enough of the imagery to sleep without nightmares. I picked through every spoken or written word in search of signals of what ISIS cares about and how its members justify their violence. I also asked a small group of its most doctrinaire overseas supporters for guidance, and they obliged.
At the time, the dominant cliché about ISIS was that it was a thrill-kill group that had hijacked Islam for its own ends, and that these ends were cynical, pathological, and secular. The investigation yielded something like the opposite conclusion: ISIS had hijacked secular sources of power and grievance, and was using them for religious ends—ends that are, at least among some supporters, sincere and carefully thought through. They include a belief in the imminent fulfillment of prophecy, with the group in a key role.
I am grateful for thoughtful reaction from many sources. (I’ll examine separately the pushback to my claim that ISIS is within the Islamic tradition.) Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution emphasized that ideology is deeply embedded in social and political facts, and that ignoring those facts is at least as dangerous as ignoring the ideology. I agree completely: ISIS achieved its successes in a hellish setting where all authority was predatory and nothing was safe; it offered certainty, sincerity, and the promise of reliability; it did this in ways that were antithetical to traditional interpretations of Islam (though not quite as antithetical as some believe).