Dexter Filkins in the New York Times:
In early 2011, as American forces were packing up to leave Iraq after eight years of fighting and occupying, one of the war’s most hideous byproducts was lurching toward what appeared to be certain death: Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had recently renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq, had seen most of its leaders killed and its membership whittled to a handful of dead-enders, who were huddled in sanctuaries in and around the northern city of Mosul.
But then the Americans departed, and a vast uprising against the government across the border, in neighboring Syria, took off. Suddenly, the Islamic State in Iraq, led by an ambitious former graduate student who called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saw its fortunes brighten anew. Baghdadi dispatched a handful of fighters to Syria and within a few months they were running operations across much of the country. Iraq promptly returned to chaos, and in April 2013, Baghdadi, presiding over a vast fief that stretched from the Iraqi desert to the outskirts of Damascus, rechristened his group yet again — as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — and appointed himself caliph. Tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world flocked to defend his far-off kingdom in the sand.
In the years since, ISIS’ breathtaking lust for anarchy — temple-smashings, beheadings, crucifixions — has inevitably prompted the question: What do these people want? The usual answers — money, power, status — do not seem to suffice. Graeme Wood, a correspondent for The Atlantic and a lecturer at Yale, believes he has found something like an answer, and that it can be located in the sacred texts, teachings and folklore of early Islam. In “The Way of the Strangers,” Wood, through a series of conversations with ISIS enthusiasts, shows that many of them claim to want the same thing: a theocratic state without borders, ruled by a leader who meets a series of strict qualifications, and who adheres to a brand of Islam that most people — including most Muslims — would find stifling and abhorrent.