If we don’t understand what makes ISIS tick we’ll never be able to defeat it. To view ISIS as simply a determined army of vicious psychopaths is a significant mistake. ISIS is far more complicated than that, in its origins, philosophy and strategies.
ISIS is an ultra-puritanical interpretation of Islam that traces its roots back 1300 years to early decades of the religion, when the prophet Muhammad and a small band of followers were surrounded by enemies and fighting for their lives on the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad and his lieutenants we’re skilled, fierce and intolerant warriors; the verses of the Koran written down in this period (and used by ISIS today to justify its actions) are from this period of puritanical bloodiness.
ISIS is not making up or misquoting the Koranic verses it cites, nor is it misreading a bloody period in the history of Islam. The uncompromising interpretation of the Koran that drives ISIS has always been part of Islam even as mainstream Islamic scholars (and most Muslims) have rejected it. These scholars stress instead Koranic verses urging peace and tolerance, verses handed down, Muslims believe, to Muhammad by God in more peaceful times before the nascent religion drew sufficient notice to create enemies determined to destroy it, and the Prophet was forced to become a warrior-king.
In short, ISIS has cherry-picked both the holy texts and Muhammad’s biography to support its philosophy and actions. It’s as if a small group of Christians or Jews decided to practice a religion based only on the most violent and intolerant parts of the Old Testament.
ISIS draws its most immediate inspiration from Wahhabism, a messianic, radical form of Islam that arose in the 18th century, hoping to restore a fantasized Caliphate centered on a desert, a sacred book, and two holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Wahhabism continues to have significant influence in the Islamic world, especially in Saudi Arabia where it exists in an uncomfortable alliance with the kingdom’s more secular rulers.
Following the Wahhabists, the ideology of ISIS is in large part based on three absolute rejections:
•The rejection of the modern Islamic tradition of tolerance for Christians and Jews (the “people of the book”). Christians and Jews under ISIS rule are forced to convert to Islam or pay a tax in order to escape death.
• The rejection of secular ideologies. Democracy is particularly despised because it allows people to shape policies and pass laws, ignoring the "unalterable" laws codified in Islamic Sharia law.
• The rejection of what are labelled "diluted" forms of Islam. For instance, Muslims who claim Islam is a religion of peace are not considered truly Muslim. For ISIS, Islam will be a religion of peace only after it has taken control of the world.
Is ISIS al Qaeda? Yes and no. The two groups share inspiration from more or less the same interpretation of the Koran and from Wahhabi Islam. Both employ indiscriminate violence as a major tactic. What is today ISIS operated as an Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq for years until it split from its parent when the Syrian internal war broke out in 2013.
Al Qaeda has made no secret of its current differences with ISIS. ISIS, for example, has insisted on reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate as a temporal empire, initially established by Muhammad and his immediate followers, but which has not existed since the Ottoman Empire. ISIS sees a Caliphate as essential to its strategy and ideology. ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet, has proclaimed himself Caliph, ruling over a temporal kingdom now straddling parts of Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has always operated as a scattered group of cells, with the establishment of a Caliphate a distant dream. Tactically, it has never tried to establish a land-based empire the way ISIS now does because of its vulnerability to air and ground attack.