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ISIS: 5 essential things to know about the jihadi group's ideology

Recent terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Ankara are unsettling evidence of ISIS’s power to destabilize foreign countries. A closer look at the group’s ideology may help explain its often confounding approach.

Group's mentality echoes that of organizations of 'similarly minded thugs'

The stated goal of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is to establish and maintain its caliphate in the Middle East. So why is it staging foreign attacks? (Reuters)

Recent terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Ankara, and an ensuing state of panic in much of the world, are unsettling evidence of ISIS's power to destabilize foreign countries.

But if the jihadist group's stated goal is to establish and maintain its caliphate in the Middle East, the foreign attacks almost seem to defy logic — won't they simply spur these countries to ensure ISIS's demise?

Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., says ISIS's strategy "doesn't make sense to us, but it makes sense to the sort of mentality that one finds in organizations, even governments, that are similarly minded thugs."

Here's a closer look at some of the key details about the group's ideology that may help explain its often confounding approach.

1. ISIS believes it is more powerful and resolute than its enemies.

French President Francois Hollande, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama have been trying to build a broader coalition to step up the fight against ISIS. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Through its propaganda and its tactics — which include a seemingly inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers — the Sunni jihadist group portrays itself as ruthless and willing to go to any lengths to impose its brutal interpretation of Islam on kuffar, or non-believers.

One of the group's underlying assumptions is that it is tougher than everyone else, says White, and can frighten its enemies with foreign attacks or its tactics on the battlefield.

White acknowledges that intimidation has worked in other circumstances – he cites the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which were orchestrated by al-Qaeda and led the European country to pull out of the coalition fighting in Iraq at the time.

But countries such as France, Russia and the U.S., which have large, fearsome armies, won't be so easily cowed, says White.

He says groups such as ISIS "misinterpret the mentality of the West, believing that the sensitivity to civilian casualties and heavy losses will bring about despair and a desire to simply avoid pain and quit the field."

ISIS believes that it is "strong, determined, powerful and has God on its side" and those countries that "don't have sufficient faith in God will basically become faint-hearted," says White.

Basically, ISIS "misreads democracies as being weak."

2. ISIS must constantly appear to be gaining momentum.

ISIS's attack in Paris on Nov. 13, which killed 130 people, has put France on a war footing. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
In recent months, the anti-ISIS coalition, which includes the U.S., Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias, has managed to claw back some of the territory ISIS overran in recent years, including key towns such as Kobani, Syria and Sinjar, Iraq.

According to Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, the group is engaging in more "terrorism and destruction against other countries to compensate for its territorial losses."

While the recent onslaught in Paris doesn't directly benefit the caliphate, it bolsters the ISIS narrative that the group is unstoppable, says Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University with an expertise in the Middle East.

"They very much thrive on being seen as the caliphate on the march, and therefore you have to be seen to be marching and not seen to be playing defence," says Brynen.

3. Recruitment is paramount.

Attacks such as the ones that killed more than 100 in Ankara, Turkey, in October not only put coalition countries back on their heels, but their sheer daring can also inspire potential ISIS recruits, says Brynen.

And if the caliphate is indeed losing territory and soldiers, it has to find new volunteers to replenish its fighting ranks.

4. Recruits aren't necessarily devout.

In cities such as Raqqa, Syria, or Mosul, Iraq, ISIS commanders rely on religious justification for their actions — from outlawing cigarettes and alcohol to forcing women to adhere to strict dress codes to slaughtering fellow Muslims whom they deem insufficiently devout.

But Brynen says that when seeking recruits abroad, a religious background is secondary.

For example, Hasna Aitboulahcen, the female ISIS collaborator who died in a police raid in Paris last week, had only sketchy knowledge of Islam's holy book, according to reports.

"She was unstable," Aitboulahcen's brother told RTL radio. "In no way did she want to study her religion. I never saw her open a Qur'an."

Brynen says that when you look at the people who have carried out ISIS-sanctioned attacks in foreign lands, what unites many of them is not piety but their marginalization due to ethnicity, religion or income.

"These are people who want to stick it to the man," says Brynen, and whether it's through a recruiter or online propaganda, an angry individual can fall under the group's sway. "It's not a difficult transition from marginalized, poor, low-life criminal to ISIS volunteer."

5. ISIS is essentially an apocalyptic suicide cult.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the child of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighbourhood in Brussels, Belgium, was identified by French authorities as the presumed mastermind of the Paris terror attacks. (Militant photo via Associated Press)
Because of its brutality and utter disdain for diplomacy, ISIS has made enemies of almost every country in the Middle East, and in fact most of the planet. For many people, this strategy seems suicidal, but Brynen says it may be a way for ISIS to try to hasten the apocalypse that lies at the heart of its ideology.

According to ISIS's interpretation of the Koran, its fighters are due for a mythical confrontation with the "crusader armies" — which historically referred to Christian soldiers, but in the current context probably means the west — in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq. (Not coincidentally, this is also the name of ISIS's monthly magazine.)

After triumphing there, ISIS will continue to fight non-believers until the organization is down to only 5,000 soldiers. A final decisive battle will then occur in Jerusalem, at which point Jesus — the second-most revered prophet in Islam — will return to slay the anti-Messiah, and Islam will be victorious.

This scenario is "not just some side part of their ideology, it's actually very important to them," says Brynen.

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