The Sunday Magazine

Islam is central to ISIS, says journalist who spent years interviewing fighters

The violent activities of the terrorist organization known as Islamic State, have confounded the world's great powers, and attracted young people from across the globe to its ranks. Yet we know little about who its adherents are, or why they act as they do. For more than a decade, journalist Graeme Wood immersed himself in the world of the Islamic State. His new book is called The Way of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Militant Website, File (Canadian Press)

In the 5th Century BC, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote this in his book, "The Art of War":  "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

Little wonder there's such fear of ISIS. Or ISIL. Or Islamic State. Or Daesh. Not only do we not know the enemy, we hardly know what to call it.

The rise of the Islamic State can be traced to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Islamic State became ISIS — Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It grew in size and power, and began to shock the world with its barbarism.

Graphic videos of beheadings and mass executions were soon just a click away. Ancient monuments have been destroyed; women, kidnapped and raped. The stated goal is a global caliphate, brought about by global war.

The urge is to dismiss ISIS as lacking all logic — as maniacal and immoral. But its emotional and religious appeal is undeniable. Tens of thousands of men and women have left their homes to join the Islamic State, and to kill for it. To its followers, its violence is beautiful and holy. 

For more than a decade, Graeme Wood immersed himself in the world of the Islamic State, speaking to scholars, and to its followers around the world. He shares his findings in a new book, The Way of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.

Graeme Wood is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and teaches political science at Yale University.

Click the 'play' button above to hear Michael's interview with Graeme Wood. 
 

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