Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid at the NYRB:
As our own research has shown—in interviews with youth in Paris, London, and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda) fighters from Syria—simply treating the Islamic State as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Dismissing the group as “nihilistic” reflects a dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. What many in the international community regard as acts of senseless, horrific violence are to ISIS’s followers part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation. This is the purposeful violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, has called “the volcanoes of Jihad”—creating an international jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world to create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner.
Indeed, ISIS’s theatrical brutality—whether in the Middle East or now in Europe—is part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies. This strategy was outlined in the 2004 manifesto Idarat at Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery), a tract written for ISIS’s precursor, the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda; tawahoushcomes from wahsh or “beast,” so an animal-like state. Here are some of its main axioms:
Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.