What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State believes it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy.

An explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State (ISIS) group on a People's Protection Unit (YPG) position in the city center of Kobani, as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border.
National Journal
Graeme Wood, The Atlantic
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Graeme Wood, The Atlantic
Feb. 17, 2015, 5:49 a.m.

What is the Is­lam­ic State?

Where did it come from, and what are its in­ten­tions? The sim­pli­city of these ques­tions can be de­ceiv­ing, and few West­ern lead­ers seem to know the an­swers. In Decem­ber, The New York Times pub­lished con­fid­en­tial com­ments by Maj. Gen. Mi­chael K. Nagata, the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­mand­er for the United States in the Middle East, ad­mit­ting that he had hardly be­gun fig­ur­ing out the Is­lam­ic State’s ap­peal. “We have not de­feated the idea,” he said. “We do not even un­der­stand the idea.” In the past year, Pres­id­ent Obama has re­ferred to the Is­lam­ic State, vari­ously, as “not Is­lam­ic” and as al-Qaida’s “jayvee team,” state­ments that re­flec­ted con­fu­sion about the group, and that may have con­trib­uted to sig­ni­fic­ant stra­tegic er­rors.

The group seized Mo­sul, Ir­aq, last June, and already rules an area lar­ger than the United King­dom. Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi has been its lead­er since May 2010, but un­til last sum­mer, his most re­cent known ap­pear­ance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. cap­tiv­ity at Camp Bucca dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of Ir­aq. Then, on Ju­ly 5 of last year, he stepped in­to the pul­pit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mo­sul, to de­liv­er a Ra­madan ser­mon as the first ca­liph in gen­er­a­tions — up­grad­ing his res­ol­u­tion from grainy to high-defin­i­tion, and his po­s­i­tion from hunted guer­rilla to com­mand­er of all Muslims. The in­flow of ji­hadists that fol­lowed, from around the world, was un­pre­ced­en­ted in its pace and volume, and is con­tinu­ing.

Our ig­nor­ance of the Is­lam­ic State is in some ways un­der­stand­able: It is a her­mit king­dom; few have gone there and re­turned. Bagh­dadi has spoken on cam­era only once. But his ad­dress, and the Is­lam­ic State’s count­less oth­er pro­pa­ganda videos and en­cyc­lic­als, are on­line, and the ca­liphate’s sup­port­ers have toiled migh­tily to make their pro­ject know­able. We can gath­er that their state re­jects peace as a mat­ter of prin­ciple; that it hun­gers for gen­o­cide; that its re­li­gious views make it con­sti­tu­tion­ally in­cap­able of cer­tain types of change, even if that change might en­sure its sur­viv­al; and that it con­siders it­self a har­binger of — and head­line play­er in — the im­min­ent end of the world.

The Is­lam­ic State, also known as the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and al-Sham, fol­lows a dis­tinct­ive vari­ety of Is­lam whose be­liefs about the path to the Day of Judg­ment mat­ter to its strategy and can help the West know its en­emy and pre­dict its be­ha­vi­or. Its rise to power is less like the tri­umph of the Muslim Broth­er­hood in Egypt (a group whose lead­ers the Is­lam­ic State con­siders apostates) than like the real­iz­a­tion of a dysto­pi­an al­tern­ate real­ity in which Dav­id Kore­sh or Jim Jones sur­vived to wield ab­so­lute power over not just a few hun­dred people, but some 8 mil­lion.

We have mis­un­der­stood the nature of the Is­lam­ic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see ji­hadism as mono­lith­ic, and to ap­ply the lo­gic of al”‘Qaida to an or­gan­iz­a­tion that has de­cis­ively ec­lipsed it. The Is­lam­ic State sup­port­ers I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of hon­or. But ji­hadism has evolved since al-Qaida’s hey­day, from about 1998 to 2003, and many ji­hadists dis­dain the group’s pri­or­it­ies and cur­rent lead­er­ship.

Bin Laden viewed his ter­ror­ism as a pro­logue to a ca­liphate he did not ex­pect to see in his life­time. His or­gan­iz­a­tion was flex­ible, op­er­at­ing as a geo­graph­ic­ally dif­fuse net­work of autonom­ous cells. The Is­lam­ic State, by con­trast, re­quires ter­rit­ory to re­main le­git­im­ate, and a top-down struc­ture to rule it. (Its bur­eau­cracy is di­vided in­to civil and mil­it­ary arms, and its ter­rit­ory in­to provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-in­ten­tioned but dis­hon­est cam­paign to deny the Is­lam­ic State’s me­di­ev­al re­li­gious nature. Peter Ber­gen, who pro­duced the first in­ter­view with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to ac­know­ledge bin Laden as a creature of the mod­ern sec­u­lar world. Bin Laden cor­por­at­ized ter­ror­ism and fran­chised it out. He re­ques­ted spe­cif­ic polit­ic­al con­ces­sions, such as the with­draw­al of U.S. forces from Saudi Ar­a­bia. His foot sol­diers nav­ig­ated the mod­ern world con­fid­ently. On Mo­hammad At­ta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Wal­mart and ate din­ner at Pizza Hut.

There is a tempta­tion to re­hearse this ob­ser­va­tion — that ji­hadists are mod­ern sec­u­lar people, with mod­ern polit­ic­al con­cerns, wear­ing me­di­ev­al re­li­gious dis­guise — and make it fit the Is­lam­ic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks non­sensic­al ex­cept in light of a sin­cere, care­fully con­sidered com­mit­ment to re­turn­ing civil­iz­a­tion to a sev­enth-cen­tury leg­al en­vir­on­ment, and ul­ti­mately to bring­ing about the apo­ca­lypse.

The most-ar­tic­u­late spokes­men for that po­s­i­tion are the Is­lam­ic State’s of­fi­cials and sup­port­ers them­selves. They refer de­ris­ively to “mod­erns.” In con­ver­sa­tion, they in­sist that they will not — can­not — waver from gov­ern­ing pre­cepts that were em­bed­ded in Is­lam by the Proph­et Muhammad and his earli­est fol­low­ers. They of­ten speak in codes and al­lu­sions that sound odd or old-fash­ioned to non-Muslims, but refer to spe­cif­ic tra­di­tions and texts of early Is­lam.

To take one ex­ample: In Septem­ber, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Ad­nani, the Is­lam­ic State’s chief spokes­man, called on Muslims in West­ern coun­tries such as France and Canada to find an in­fi­del and “smash his head with a rock,” pois­on him, run him over with a car, or “des­troy his crops.” To West­ern ears, the bib­lic­al-sound­ing pun­ish­ments — the ston­ing and crop de­struc­tion — jux­ta­posed strangely with his more mod­ern-sound­ing call to vehicu­lar hom­icide. (As if to show that he could ter­ror­ize by im­agery alone, Ad­nani also re­ferred to Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry as an “un­cir­cum­cised geez­er.”)

But Ad­nani was not merely talk­ing trash. His speech was laced with theo­lo­gic­al and leg­al dis­cus­sion, and his ex­horta­tion to at­tack crops dir­ectly echoed or­ders from Muhammad to leave well wa­ter and crops alone — un­less the armies of Is­lam were in a de­fens­ive po­s­i­tion, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuf­far, or in­fi­dels, should be un­mer­ci­ful, and pois­on away.

The real­ity is that the Is­lam­ic State is Is­lam­ic. Very Is­lam­ic. Yes, it has at­trac­ted psy­cho­paths and ad­ven­ture seekers, drawn largely from the dis­af­fected pop­u­la­tions of the Middle East and Europe. But the re­li­gion preached by its most ar­dent fol­low­ers de­rives from co­her­ent and even learned in­ter­pret­a­tions of Is­lam.

Vir­tu­ally every ma­jor de­cision and law pro­mul­gated by the Is­lam­ic State ad­heres to what it calls, in its press and pro­nounce­ments, and on its bill­boards, li­cense plates, sta­tion­ery, and coins, “the Proph­et­ic meth­od­o­logy,” which means fol­low­ing the proph­ecy and ex­ample of Muhammad, in punc­tili­ous de­tail. Muslims can re­ject the Is­lam­ic State; nearly all do. But pre­tend­ing that it isn’t ac­tu­ally a re­li­gious, mil­len­ari­an group, with theo­logy that must be un­der­stood to be com­bated, has already led the United States to un­der­es­tim­ate it and back fool­ish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get ac­quain­ted with the Is­lam­ic State’s in­tel­lec­tu­al gene­a­logy if we are to re­act in a way that will not strengthen it but in­stead help it self-im­mol­ate in its own ex­cess­ive zeal.

In Novem­ber, the Is­lam­ic State re­leased an in­fomer­cial-like video tra­cing its ori­gins to bin Laden. It ac­know­ledged Abu Musab al-Za­r­qawi, the bru­tal head of al”‘Qaida in Ir­aq from roughly 2003 un­til his killing in 2006, as a more im­me­di­ate pro­gen­it­or, fol­lowed se­quen­tially by two oth­er guer­rilla lead­ers be­fore Bagh­dadi, the ca­liph. Not­ably un­men­tioned: bin Laden’s suc­cessor, Ay­man al-Za­wahiri, the owl­ish Egyp­tian eye sur­geon who cur­rently heads al”‘Qaida. Za­wahiri has not pledged al­le­gi­ance to Bagh­dadi, and he is in­creas­ingly hated by his fel­low ji­hadists. His isol­a­tion is not helped by his lack of cha­risma; in videos, he comes across as squinty and an­noyed. But the split between al-Qaida and the Is­lam­ic State has been long in the mak­ing, and it be­gins to ex­plain, at least in part, the out­sized blood­lust of the lat­ter.

Za­wahiri’s com­pan­ion in isol­a­tion is a Jord­ani­an cler­ic named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to be­ing al-Qaida’s in­tel­lec­tu­al ar­chi­tect and the most im­port­ant ji­hadist un­known to the av­er­age Amer­ic­an news­pa­per read­er. On most mat­ters of doc­trine, Maqdisi and the Is­lam­ic State agree. Both are closely iden­ti­fied with the ji­hadist wing of a branch of Sun­nism called Salafism, after the Ar­ab­ic al salaf al sa­lih, the “pi­ous fore­fath­ers.” These fore­fath­ers are the Proph­et him­self and his earli­est ad­her­ents, whom Salafis hon­or and emu­late as the mod­els for all be­ha­vi­or, in­clud­ing war­fare, cou­ture, fam­ily life, even dentistry.

Maqdisi taught Za­r­qawi, who went to war in Ir­aq with the older man’s ad­vice in mind. In time, though, Za­r­qawi sur­passed his ment­or in fan­at­icism, and even­tu­ally earned his re­buke. At is­sue was Za­r­qawi’s pen­chant for bloody spec­tacle — and, as a mat­ter of doc­trine, his hatred of oth­er Muslims, to the point of ex­com­mu­nic­at­ing and killing them. In Is­lam, the prac­tice of tak­fir, or ex­com­mu­nic­a­tion, is theo­lo­gic­ally per­il­ous. “If a man says to his broth­er, ‘You are an in­fi­del,’”‰” the Proph­et said, “then one of them is right.” If the ac­cuser is wrong, he him­self has com­mit­ted apostasy by mak­ing a false ac­cus­a­tion. The pun­ish­ment for apostasy is death. And yet Za­r­qawi heed­lessly ex­pan­ded the range of be­ha­vi­or that could make Muslims in­fi­dels.

Maqdisi wrote to his former pu­pil that he needed to ex­er­cise cau­tion and “not is­sue sweep­ing pro­clam­a­tions of tak­fir” or “pro­claim people to be apostates be­cause of their sins.” The dis­tinc­tion between apostate and sin­ner may ap­pear subtle, but it is a key point of con­ten­tion between al-Qaida and the Is­lam­ic State.

Deny­ing the holi­ness of the Kor­an or the proph­ecies of Muhammad is straight­for­ward apostasy. But Za­r­qawi and the state he spawned take the po­s­i­tion that many oth­er acts can re­move a Muslim from Is­lam. These in­clude, in cer­tain cases, selling al­co­hol or drugs, wear­ing West­ern clothes or shav­ing one’s beard, vot­ing in an elec­tion — even for a Muslim can­did­ate — and be­ing lax about call­ing oth­er people apostates. Be­ing a Shiite, as most Ir­aqi Ar­abs are, meets the stand­ard as well, be­cause the Is­lam­ic State re­gards Shiism as in­nov­a­tion, and to in­nov­ate on the Kor­an is to deny its ini­tial per­fec­tion. (The Is­lam­ic State claims that com­mon Shiite prac­tices, such as wor­ship at the graves of im­ams and pub­lic self-fla­gel­la­tion, have no basis in the Kor­an or in the ex­ample of the Proph­et.) That means that roughly 200 mil­lion Shia are marked for death. So, too, are the heads of state of every Muslim coun­try, who have el­ev­ated man-made law above sharia by run­ning for of­fice or en­for­cing laws not made by God.

Fol­low­ing tak­firi doc­trine, the Is­lam­ic State is com­mit­ted to puri­fy­ing the world by killing vast num­bers of people. The lack of ob­ject­ive re­port­ing from its ter­rit­ory makes the true ex­tent of the slaughter un­know­able, but so­cial-me­dia posts from the re­gion sug­gest that in­di­vidu­al ex­e­cu­tions hap­pen more or less con­tinu­ally, and mass ex­e­cu­tions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most com­mon vic­tims. Ex­emp­ted from auto­mat­ic ex­e­cu­tion, it ap­pears, are Chris­ti­ans who do not res­ist their new gov­ern­ment. Bagh­dadi per­mits them to live, as long as they pay a spe­cial tax, known as the jizya, and ac­know­ledge their sub­jug­a­tion. The Kor­an­ic au­thor­ity for this prac­tice is not in dis­pute.

Cen­tur­ies have passed since the wars of re­li­gion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dy­ing in large num­bers be­cause of ar­cane theo­lo­gic­al dis­putes. Hence, per­haps, the in­credu­lity and deni­al with which West­ern­ers have greeted news of the theo­logy and prac­tices of the Is­lam­ic State. Many re­fuse to be­lieve that this group is as de­vout as it claims to be, or as back­ward-look­ing or apo­ca­lyptic as its ac­tions and state­ments sug­gest.

Their skep­ti­cism is com­pre­hens­ible. In the past, West­ern­ers who ac­cused Muslims of blindly fol­low­ing an­cient scrip­tures came to de­served grief from aca­dem­ics — not­ably the late Ed­ward Said — who poin­ted out that call­ing Muslims “an­cient” was usu­ally just an­oth­er way to den­ig­rate them. Look in­stead, these schol­ars urged, to the con­di­tions in which these ideo­lo­gies arose — the bad gov­ernance, the shift­ing so­cial mores, the hu­mi­li­ation of liv­ing in lands val­ued only for their oil.

Without ac­know­ledg­ment of these factors, no ex­plan­a­tion of the rise of the Is­lam­ic State could be com­plete. But fo­cus­ing on them to the ex­clu­sion of ideo­logy re­flects an­oth­er kind of West­ern bi­as: that if re­li­gious ideo­logy doesn’t mat­ter much in Wash­ing­ton or Ber­lin, surely it must be equally ir­rel­ev­ant in Raqqa or Mo­sul. When a masked ex­e­cu­tion­er says “Al­lahu ak­bar” while be­head­ing an apostate, some­times he’s do­ing so for re­li­gious reas­ons.

Many main­stream Muslim or­gan­iz­a­tions have gone so far as to say the Is­lam­ic State is, in fact, un-Is­lam­ic. It is, of course, re­as­sur­ing to know that the vast ma­jor­ity of Muslims have zero in­terest in re­pla­cing Hol­ly­wood movies with pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions as even­ing en­ter­tain­ment. But Muslims who call the Is­lam­ic State un-Is­lam­ic are typ­ic­ally, as the Prin­ceton schol­ar Bern­ard Haykel, the lead­ing ex­pert on the group’s theo­logy, told me, “em­bar­rassed and polit­ic­ally cor­rect, with a cot­ton-candy view of their own re­li­gion” that neg­lects “what their re­li­gion has his­tor­ic­ally and leg­ally re­quired.” Many deni­als of the Is­lam­ic State’s re­li­gious nature, he said, are rooted in an “in­ter­faith-Chris­ti­an-non­sense tra­di­tion.”

Every aca­dem­ic I asked about the Is­lam­ic State’s ideo­logy sent me to Haykel. Of par­tial Le­banese des­cent, Haykel grew up in Le­ban­on and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephis­topheli­an goat­ee, there is a hint of an un­place­able for­eign ac­cent.

Ac­cord­ing to Haykel, the ranks of the Is­lam­ic State are deeply in­fused with re­li­gious vig­or. Kor­an­ic quo­ta­tions are ubi­quit­ous. “Even the foot sol­diers spout this stuff con­stantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cam­er­as and re­peat their ba­sic doc­trines in for­mu­laic fash­ion, and they do it all the time.” He re­gards the claim that the Is­lam­ic State has dis­tor­ted the texts of Is­lam as pre­pos­ter­ous, sus­tain­able only through will­ful ig­nor­ance. “People want to ab­solve Is­lam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace’ man­tra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Is­lam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they in­ter­pret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Is­lam­ic State. “And these guys have just as much le­git­im­acy as any­one else.”

All Muslims ac­know­ledge that Muhammad’s earli­est con­quests were not tidy af­fairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Kor­an and in the nar­ra­tions of the Proph­et’s rule were cal­ib­rated to fit a tur­bu­lent and vi­ol­ent time. In Haykel’s es­tim­a­tion, the fight­ers of the Is­lam­ic State are au­then­t­ic throw­backs to early Is­lam and are faith­fully re­pro­du­cing its norms of war. This be­ha­vi­or in­cludes a num­ber of prac­tices that mod­ern Muslims tend to prefer not to ac­know­ledge as in­teg­ral to their sac­red texts. “Slavery, cru­ci­fix­ion, and be­head­ings are not something that freak­ish [ji­hadists] are cherry-pick­ing from the me­di­ev­al tra­di­tion,” Haykel said. Is­lam­ic State fight­ers “are smack in the middle of the me­di­ev­al tra­di­tion and are bring­ing it whole­sale in­to the present day.”

The Kor­an spe­cifies cru­ci­fix­ion as one of the only pun­ish­ments per­mit­ted for en­emies of Is­lam. The tax on Chris­ti­ans finds clear en­dorse­ment in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Kor­an’s ninth chapter, which in­structs Muslims to fight Chris­ti­ans and Jews “un­til they pay the jizya with will­ing sub­mis­sion, and feel them­selves sub­dued.” The Proph­et, whom all Muslims con­sider ex­em­plary, im­posed these rules and owned slaves.

Lead­ers of the Is­lam­ic State have taken emu­la­tion of Muhammad as strict duty, and have re­vived tra­di­tions that have been dormant for hun­dreds of years. “What’s strik­ing about them is not just the lit­er­al­ism, but also the ser­i­ous­ness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an as­sidu­ous, ob­sess­ive ser­i­ous­ness that Muslims don’t nor­mally have.”

Be­fore the rise of the Is­lam­ic State, no group in the past few cen­tur­ies had at­temp­ted more-rad­ic­al fi­del­ity to the Proph­et­ic mod­el than the Wah­h­abis of 18th”‘cen­tury Ar­a­bia. They conquered most of what is now Saudi Ar­a­bia, and their strict prac­tices sur­vive in a di­luted ver­sion of Sharia there. Haykel sees an im­port­ant dis­tinc­tion between the groups, though: “The Wah­h­abis were not wan­ton in their vi­ol­ence.” They were sur­roun­ded by Muslims, and they conquered lands that were already Is­lam­ic; this stayed their hand. “IS­IS, by con­trast, is really re­liv­ing the early peri­od.” Early Muslims were sur­roun­ded by non-Muslims, and the Is­lam­ic State, be­cause of its tak­firi tend­en­cies, con­siders it­self to be in the same situ­ation.

If al-Qaida wanted to re­vive slavery, it nev­er said so. And why would it? Si­lence on slavery prob­ably re­flec­ted stra­tegic think­ing, with pub­lic sym­path­ies in mind: When the Is­lam­ic State began en­slav­ing people, even some of its sup­port­ers balked. Non­ethe­less, the ca­liphate has con­tin­ued to em­brace slavery and cru­ci­fix­ion without apo­logy. “We will con­quer your Rome, break your crosses, and en­slave your wo­men,” Ad­nani, the spokes­man, prom­ised in one of his peri­od­ic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave mar­ket.”

In Oc­to­ber, Dabiq, the magazine of the Is­lam­ic State, pub­lished “The Re­viv­al of Slavery Be­fore the Hour,” an art­icle that took up the ques­tion of wheth­er Yazid­is (the mem­bers of an an­cient Kur­d­ish sect that bor­rows ele­ments of Is­lam, and had come un­der at­tack from Is­lam­ic State forces in north­ern Ir­aq) are lapsed Muslims, and there­fore marked for death, or merely pa­gans and there­fore fair game for en­slave­ment. A study group of Is­lam­ic State schol­ars had con­vened, on gov­ern­ment or­ders, to re­solve this is­sue. If they are pa­gans, the art­icle’s an­onym­ous au­thor wrote, “Yazidi wo­men and chil­dren [are to be] di­vided ac­cord­ing to the Shari­ah amongst the fight­ers of the Is­lam­ic State who par­ti­cip­ated in the Sin­jar op­er­a­tions [in north­ern Ir­aq] “¦ En­slav­ing the fam­il­ies of the kuf­far [in­fi­dels] and tak­ing their wo­men as con­cu­bines is a firmly es­tab­lished as­pect of the Shari­ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be deny­ing or mock­ing the verses of the Kor­an and the nar­ra­tions of the Proph­et “¦ and thereby apostat­iz­ing from Is­lam.”

Tens of thou­sands of for­eign Muslims are thought to have im­mig­rated to the Is­lam­ic State. Re­cruits hail from France, the United King­dom, Bel­gi­um, Ger­many, Hol­land, Aus­tralia, In­done­sia, the United States, and many oth­er places. Many have come to fight, and many in­tend to die.

Peter R. Neu­mann, a pro­fess­or at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, told me that on­line voices have been es­sen­tial to spread­ing pro­pa­ganda and en­sur­ing that new­comers know what to be­lieve. On­line re­cruit­ment has also widened the demo­graph­ics of the ji­hadist com­munity, by al­low­ing con­ser­vat­ive Muslim wo­men — phys­ic­ally isol­ated in their homes — to reach out to re­cruit­ers, rad­ic­al­ize, and ar­range pas­sage to Syr­ia. Through its ap­peals to both genders, the Is­lam­ic State hopes to build a com­plete so­ci­ety.

In Novem­ber, I traveled to Aus­tralia to meet Musa Cer­ant­o­nio, a 30-year-old man whom Neu­mann and oth­er re­search­ers had iden­ti­fied as one of the two most im­port­ant “new spir­itu­al au­thor­it­ies” guid­ing for­eign­ers to join the Is­lam­ic State. For three years he was a tel­ev­an­gel­ist on Iqraa TV in Cairo, but he left after the sta­tion ob­jec­ted to his fre­quent calls to es­tab­lish a ca­liphate. Now he preaches on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Cer­ant­o­nio — a big, friendly man with a book­ish de­mean­or — told me he blanches at be­head­ing videos. He hates see­ing the vi­ol­ence, even though sup­port­ers of the Is­lam­ic State are re­quired to en­dorse it. (He speaks out, con­tro­ver­sially among ji­hadists, against sui­cide bomb­ing, on the grounds that God for­bids sui­cide; he dif­fers from the Is­lam­ic State on a few oth­er points as well.) He has the kind of un­kempt fa­cial hair one sees on cer­tain over­grown fans of The Lord of the Rings, and his ob­ses­sion with Is­lam­ic apo­ca­lypti­cism felt fa­mil­i­ar. He seemed to be liv­ing out a drama that looks, from an out­sider’s per­spect­ive, like a me­di­ev­al fantasy nov­el, only with real blood.

Last June, Cer­ant­o­nio and his wife tried to emig­rate — he wouldn’t say to where (“It’s il­leg­al to go to Syr­ia,” he said ca­gily) — but they were caught en route, in the Phil­ip­pines, and he was de­por­ted back to Aus­tralia for over­stay­ing his visa. Aus­tralia has crim­in­al­ized at­tempts to join or travel to the Is­lam­ic State, and has con­fis­cated Cer­ant­o­nio’s pass­port. He is stuck in Mel­bourne, where he is well known to the loc­al con­stabu­lary. If Cer­ant­o­nio were caught fa­cil­it­at­ing the move­ment of in­di­vidu­als to the Is­lam­ic State, he would be im­prisoned. So far, though, he is free — a tech­nic­ally un­af­fili­ated ideo­logue who non­ethe­less speaks with what oth­er ji­hadists have taken to be a re­li­able voice on mat­ters of the Is­lam­ic State’s doc­trine.

We met for lunch in Footscray, a dense, mul­ti­cul­tur­al Mel­bourne sub­urb that’s home to Lonely Plan­et, the travel-guide pub­lish­er. Cer­ant­o­nio grew up there in a half-Ir­ish, half-Ca­lab­ri­an fam­ily. On a typ­ic­al street one can find Afric­an res­taur­ants, Vi­et­namese shops, and young Ar­abs walk­ing around in the Salafi uni­form of scrag­gly beard, long shirt, and trousers end­ing halfway down the calves.

Cer­ant­o­nio ex­plained the joy he felt when Bagh­dadi was de­clared the ca­liph on June 29 — and the sud­den, mag­net­ic at­trac­tion that Meso­pot­amia began to ex­ert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Phil­ip­pines], and I saw the de­clar­a­tion on tele­vi­sion,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?”

The last ca­liphate was the Ot­to­man Em­pire, which reached its peak in the 16th cen­tury and then ex­per­i­enced a long de­cline, un­til the founder of the Re­pub­lic of Tur­key, Mustafa Kemal Ata­türk, eu­th­an­ized it in 1924. But Cer­ant­o­nio, like many sup­port­ers of the Is­lam­ic State, doesn’t ac­know­ledge that ca­liphate as le­git­im­ate, be­cause it didn’t fully en­force Is­lam­ic law, which re­quires ston­ings and slavery and am­pu­ta­tions, and be­cause its ca­liphs were not des­cen­ded from the tribe of the Proph­et, the Quray­sh.

Bagh­dadi spoke at length of the im­port­ance of the ca­liphate in his Mo­sul ser­mon. He said that to re­vive the in­sti­tu­tion of the ca­liphate — which had not func­tioned ex­cept in name for about 1,000 years — was a com­mun­al ob­lig­a­tion. He and his loy­al­ists had “hastened to de­clare the ca­liphate and place an im­am” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims — a duty that has been lost for cen­tur­ies. “¦ The Muslims sin by los­ing it, and they must al­ways seek to es­tab­lish it.” Like bin Laden be­fore him, Bagh­dadi spoke flor­idly, with fre­quent scrip­tur­al al­lu­sion and com­mand of clas­sic­al rhet­or­ic. Un­like bin Laden, and un­like those false ca­liphs of the Ot­to­man Em­pire, he is Quray­shi.

The ca­liphate, Cer­ant­o­nio told me, is not just a polit­ic­al en­tity but also a vehicle for sal­va­tion. Is­lam­ic State pro­pa­ganda reg­u­larly re­ports the pledges of baya’a (al­le­gi­ance) rolling in from ji­hadist groups across the Muslim world. Cer­ant­o­nio quoted a Proph­et­ic say­ing, that to die without pledging al­le­gi­ance is to die jahil (ig­nor­ant) and there­fore die a “death of dis­be­lief.” Con­sider how Muslims (or, for that mat­ter, Chris­ti­ans) ima­gine God deals with the souls of people who die without learn­ing about the one true re­li­gion. They are neither ob­vi­ously saved nor defin­it­ively con­demned. Sim­il­arly, Cer­ant­o­nio said, the Muslim who ac­know­ledges one om­ni­po­tent god and prays, but who dies without pledging him­self to a val­id ca­liph and in­cur­ring the ob­lig­a­tions of that oath, has failed to live a fully Is­lam­ic life. I poin­ted out that this means the vast ma­jor­ity of Muslims in his­tory, and all who passed away between 1924 and 2014, died a death of dis­be­lief. Cer­ant­o­nio nod­ded gravely. “I would go so far as to say that Is­lam has been rees­tab­lished” by the ca­liphate.

I asked him about his own baya’a, and he quickly cor­rec­ted me: “I didn’t say that I’d pledged al­le­gi­ance.” Un­der Aus­trali­an law, he re­minded me, giv­ing baya’a to the Is­lam­ic State was il­leg­al. “But I agree that [Bagh­dadi] ful­fills the re­quire­ments,” he con­tin­ued. “I’m just go­ing to wink at you, and you take that to mean whatever you want.”

To be the ca­liph, one must meet con­di­tions out­lined in Sunni law — be­ing a Muslim adult man of Quray­sh des­cent; ex­hib­it­ing mor­al prob­ity and phys­ic­al and men­tal in­teg­rity; and hav­ing ‘amr, or au­thor­ity. This last cri­terion, Cer­ant­o­nio said, is the hard­est to ful­fill, and re­quires that the ca­liph have ter­rit­ory in which he can en­force Is­lam­ic law. Bagh­dadi’s Is­lam­ic State achieved that long be­fore June 29, Cer­ant­o­nio said, and as soon as it did, a West­ern con­vert with­in the group’s ranks — Cer­ant­o­nio de­scribed him as “something of a lead­er” — began mur­mur­ing about the re­li­gious ob­lig­a­tion to de­clare a ca­liphate. He and oth­ers spoke quietly to those in power and told them that fur­ther delay would be sin­ful.

Cer­ant­o­nio said a fac­tion arose that was pre­pared to make war on Bagh­dadi’s group if it delayed any fur­ther. They pre­pared a let­ter to vari­ous power­ful mem­bers of IS­IS, air­ing their dis­pleas­ure at the fail­ure to ap­point a ca­liph, but were pa­ci­fied by Ad­nani, the spokes­man, who let them in on a secret — that a ca­liphate had already been de­clared, long be­fore the pub­lic an­nounce­ment. They had their le­git­im­ate ca­liph, and at that point there was only one op­tion. “If he’s le­git­im­ate,” Cer­ant­o­nio said, “you must give him the baya’a.”

After Bagh­dadi’s Ju­ly ser­mon, a stream of ji­hadists began flow­ing daily in­to Syr­ia with re­newed mo­tiv­a­tion. Jür­gen Tod­en­höfer, a Ger­man au­thor and former politi­cian who vis­ited the Is­lam­ic State in Decem­ber, re­por­ted the ar­rival of 100 fight­ers at one Turk­ish-bor­der re­cruit­ment sta­tion in just two days. His re­port, among oth­ers, sug­gests a still-steady in­flow of for­eign­ers, ready to give up everything at home for a shot at para­dise in the worst place on Earth.

In Lon­don, a week be­fore my meal with Cer­ant­o­nio, I met with three ex-mem­bers of a banned Is­lam­ist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emig­rants): An­jem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Ab­dul Muhid. They all ex­pressed de­sire to emig­rate to the Is­lam­ic State, as many of their col­leagues already had, but the au­thor­it­ies had con­fis­cated their pass­ports. Like Cer­ant­o­nio, they re­garded the ca­liphate as the only right­eous gov­ern­ment on Earth, though none would con­fess to hav­ing pledged al­le­gi­ance. Their prin­cip­al goal in meet­ing me was to ex­plain what the Is­lam­ic State stands for, and how its policies re­flect God’s law.

Choudary, 48, is the group’s former lead­er. He fre­quently ap­pears on cable news, as one of the few people pro­du­cers can book who will de­fend the Is­lam­ic State vo­ci­fer­ously, un­til his mike is cut. He has a repu­ta­tion in the United King­dom as a loath­some blow­hard, but he and his dis­ciples sin­cerely be­lieve in the Is­lam­ic State and, on mat­ters of doc­trine, speak in its voice. Choudary and the oth­ers fea­ture prom­in­ently in the Twit­ter feeds of Is­lam­ic State res­id­ents, and Abu Baraa main­tains a You­Tube chan­nel to an­swer ques­tions about Sharia.

Since Septem­ber, au­thor­it­ies have been in­vest­ig­at­ing the three men on sus­pi­cion of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism. Be­cause of this in­vest­ig­a­tion, they had to meet me sep­ar­ately: com­mu­nic­a­tion among them would have vi­ol­ated the terms of their bail. But speak­ing with them felt like speak­ing with the same per­son wear­ing dif­fer­ent masks. Choudary met me in a candy shop in the East Lon­don sub­urb of Il­ford. He was dressed smartly, in a crisp blue tu­nic reach­ing nearly to his ankles, and sipped a Red Bull while we talked.

Be­fore the ca­liphate, “maybe 85 per­cent of the Sharia was ab­sent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abey­ance un­til we have khilafa” — a ca­liphate — “and now we have one.” Without a ca­liphate, for ex­ample, in­di­vidu­al vi­gil­antes are not ob­liged to am­pu­tate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But cre­ate a ca­liphate, and this law, along with a huge body of oth­er jur­is­pru­dence, sud­denly awakens. In the­ory, all Muslims are ob­liged to im­mig­rate to the ter­rit­ory where the ca­liph is ap­ply­ing these laws. One of Choudary’s prize stu­dents, a con­vert from Hinduism named Abu Ru­maysah, evaded po­lice to bring his fam­ily of five from Lon­don to Syr­ia in Novem­ber. On the day I met Choudary, Abu Ru­maysah tweeted out a pic­ture of him­self with a Kalash­nikov in one arm and his new­born son in the oth­er. Hasht­ag: #Gen­er­a­tionKhila­fah.

The ca­liph is re­quired to im­ple­ment Sharia. Any de­vi­ation will com­pel those who have pledged al­le­gi­ance to in­form the ca­liph in private of his er­ror and, in ex­treme cases, to ex­com­mu­nic­ate and re­place him if he per­sists. (“I have been plagued with this great mat­ter, plagued with this re­spons­ib­il­ity, and it is a heavy re­spons­ib­il­ity,” Bagh­dadi said in his ser­mon.) In re­turn, the ca­liph com­mands obed­i­ence — and those who per­sist in sup­port­ing non-Muslim gov­ern­ments, after be­ing duly warned and edu­cated about their sin, are con­sidered apostates.

Choudary said Sharia has been mis­un­der­stood be­cause of its in­com­plete ap­plic­a­tion by re­gimes such as Saudi Ar­a­bia, which does be­head mur­der­ers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The prob­lem,” he ex­plained, “is that when places like Saudi Ar­a­bia just im­ple­ment the pen­al code, and don’t provide the so­cial and eco­nom­ic justice of the Sharia — the whole pack­age — they simply en­gender hatred to­ward the Sharia.” That whole pack­age, he said, would in­clude free hous­ing, food, and cloth­ing for all, though of course any­one who wished to en­rich him­self with work could do so.

Ab­dul Muhid, 32, con­tin­ued along these lines. He was dressed in mu­ja­hedeen chic when I met him at a loc­al res­taur­ant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wal­let out­side of his clothes, at­tached with what looked like a shoulder hol­ster. When we sat down, he was eager to dis­cuss wel­fare. The Is­lam­ic State may have me­di­ev­al-style pun­ish­ments for mor­al crimes (lashes for booz­ing or for­nic­a­tion, ston­ing for adul­tery), but its so­cial-wel­fare pro­gram is, at least in some as­pects, pro­gress­ive to a de­gree that would please an MS­N­BC pun­dit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Bri­tain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some pro­ced­ures aren’t covered, such as vis­ion.”) This pro­vi­sion of so­cial wel­fare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Is­lam­ic State, but a policy ob­lig­a­tion in­her­ent in God’s law.

All Muslims ac­know­ledge that God is the only one who knows the fu­ture. But they also agree that he has offered us a peek at it, in the Kor­an and in nar­ra­tions of the Proph­et. The Is­lam­ic State dif­fers from nearly every oth­er cur­rent ji­hadist move­ment in be­liev­ing that it is writ­ten in­to God’s script as a cent­ral char­ac­ter. It is in this cast­ing that the Is­lam­ic State is most boldly dis­tinct­ive from its pre­de­cessors, and clearest in the re­li­gious nature of its mis­sion.

In broad strokes, al-Qaida acts like an un­der­ground polit­ic­al move­ment, with worldly goals in sight at all times — the ex­pul­sion of non-Muslims from the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula, the ab­ol­ish­ment of the state of Is­rael, the end of sup­port for dic­tat­or­ships in Muslim lands. The Is­lam­ic State has its share of worldly con­cerns (in­clud­ing, in the places it con­trols, col­lect­ing garbage and keep­ing the wa­ter run­ning), but the End of Days is a leit­mot­if of its pro­pa­ganda. Bin Laden rarely men­tioned the apo­ca­lypse, and when he did, he seemed to pre­sume that he would be long dead when the glor­i­ous mo­ment of di­vine comeup­pance fi­nally ar­rived. “Bin Laden and Za­wahiri are from elite Sunni fam­il­ies who look down on this kind of spec­u­la­tion and think it’s something the masses en­gage in,” says Will Mc­Cants of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, who is writ­ing a book about the Is­lam­ic State’s apo­ca­lyptic thought.

Dur­ing the last years of the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion of Ir­aq, the Is­lam­ic State’s im­me­di­ate found­ing fath­ers, by con­trast, saw signs of the end times every­where. They were an­ti­cip­at­ing, with­in a year, the ar­rival of the Mahdi — a mes­si­an­ic fig­ure destined to lead the Muslims to vic­tory be­fore the end of the world. Mc­Cants says a prom­in­ent Is­lam­ist in Ir­aq ap­proached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was be­ing led by mil­len­ari­ans who were “talk­ing all the time about the Mahdi and mak­ing stra­tegic de­cisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was go­ing to ar­rive. “Al-Qaida had to write to [these lead­ers] to say ‘Cut it out.’”‰”

For cer­tain true be­liev­ers — the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles — vis­ions of apo­ca­lyptic blood­baths ful­fill a deep psy­cho­lo­gic­al need. Of the Is­lam­ic State sup­port­ers I met, Musa Cer­ant­o­nio, the Aus­trali­an, ex­pressed the deep­est in­terest in the apo­ca­lypse and how the re­main­ing days of the Is­lam­ic State — and the world — might look. Parts of that pre­dic­tion are ori­gin­al to him, and do not yet have the status of doc­trine. But oth­er parts are based on main­stream Sunni sources and ap­pear all over the Is­lam­ic State’s pro­pa­ganda. These in­clude the be­lief that there will be only 12 le­git­im­ate ca­liphs, and Bagh­dadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Is­lam in north­ern Syr­ia; and that Is­lam’s fi­nal show­down with an anti-Mes­si­ah will oc­cur in Jer­u­s­alem after a peri­od of re­newed Is­lam­ic con­quest.

The Is­lam­ic State has at­tached great im­port­ance to the Syr­i­an city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its pro­pa­ganda magazine after the town, and cel­eb­rated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s stra­tegic­ally un­im­port­ant plains. It is here, the Proph­et re­portedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Is­lam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Wa­ter­loo or its Anti­etam.

“Dabiq is ba­sic­ally all farm­land,” one Is­lam­ic State sup­port­er re­cently tweeted. “You could ima­gine large battles tak­ing place there.” The Is­lam­ic State’s pro­pa­gand­ists drool with an­ti­cip­a­tion of this event, and con­stantly im­ply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Za­r­qawi as say­ing, “The spark has been lit here in Ir­aq, and its heat will con­tin­ue to in­tensi­fy “¦ un­til it burns the cru­sader armies in Dabiq.” A re­cent pro­pa­ganda video shows clips from Hol­ly­wood war movies set in me­di­ev­al times — per­haps be­cause many of the proph­ecies spe­cify that the armies will be on horse­back or car­ry­ing an­cient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Is­lam­ic State awaits the ar­rival of an en­emy army there, whose de­feat will ini­ti­ate the count­down to the apo­ca­lypse. West­ern me­dia fre­quently miss ref­er­ences to Dabiq in the Is­lam­ic State’s videos, and fo­cus in­stead on lur­id scenes of be­head­ing. “Here we are, bury­ing the first Amer­ic­an cru­sader in Dabiq, eagerly wait­ing for the re­mainder of your armies to ar­rive,” said a masked ex­e­cu­tion­er in a Novem­ber video, show­ing the severed head of Peter (Ab­dul Rah­man) Kassig, the aid work­er who’d been held cap­tive for more than a year. Dur­ing fight­ing in Ir­aq in Decem­ber, after mu­ja­hedeen (per­haps in­ac­cur­ately) re­por­ted hav­ing seen Amer­ic­an sol­diers in battle, Is­lam­ic State Twit­ter ac­counts erup­ted in spasms of pleas­ure, like over­enthu­si­ast­ic hosts or host­esses upon the ar­rival of the first guests at a party.

The Proph­et­ic nar­ra­tion that fore­tells the Dabiq battle refers to the en­emy as Rome. Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, re­mains a mat­ter of de­bate. But Cer­ant­o­nio makes a case that Rome meant the East­ern Ro­man em­pire, which had its cap­it­al in what is now Istan­bul. We should think of Rome as the Re­pub­lic of Tur­key — the same re­pub­lic that ended the last self-iden­ti­fied ca­liphate, 90 years ago. Oth­er Is­lam­ic State sources sug­gest that Rome might mean any in­fi­del army, and the Amer­ic­ans will do nicely.

After its battle in Dabiq, Cer­ant­o­nio said, the ca­liphate will ex­pand and sack Istan­bul. Some be­lieve it will then cov­er the en­tire Earth, but Cer­ant­o­nio sug­ges­ted its tide may nev­er reach bey­ond the Bospor­us. An anti-Mes­si­ah, known in Muslim apo­ca­lyptic lit­er­at­ure as Da­j­jal, will come from the Khor­asan re­gion of east­ern Ir­an and kill a vast num­ber of the ca­liphate’s fight­ers, un­til just 5,000 re­main, cornered in Jer­u­s­alem. Just as Da­j­jal pre­pares to fin­ish them off, Je­sus — the second-most-revered proph­et in Is­lam — will re­turn to Earth, spear Da­j­jal, and lead the Muslims to vic­tory.

“Only God knows” wheth­er the Is­lam­ic State’s armies are the ones fore­told, Cer­ant­o­nio said. But he is hope­ful. “The Proph­et said that one sign of the im­min­ent ar­rival of the End of Days is that people will for a long while stop talk­ing about the End of Days,” he said. “If you go to the mosques now, you’ll find the preach­ers are si­lent about this sub­ject.” On this the­ory, even set­backs dealt to the Is­lam­ic State mean noth­ing, since God has pre­or­dained the near-de­struc­tion of his people any­way. The Is­lam­ic State has its best and worst days ahead of it.

The ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity of the Is­lam­ic State has one com­pens­at­ing vir­tue: it al­lows us to pre­dict some of the group’s ac­tions. Osama bin Laden was sel­dom pre­dict­able. He ended his first tele­vi­sion in­ter­view cryptic­ally. CNN’s Peter Ar­nett asked him, “What are your fu­ture plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the me­dia, God will­ing.” By con­trast, the Is­lam­ic State boasts openly about its plans — not all of them, but enough so that by listen­ing care­fully, we can de­duce how it in­tends to gov­ern and ex­pand.

In Lon­don, Choudary and his stu­dents provided de­tailed de­scrip­tions of how the Is­lam­ic State must con­duct its for­eign policy, now that it is a ca­liphate. It has already taken up what Is­lam­ic law refers to as “of­fens­ive ji­had,” the for­cible ex­pan­sion in­to coun­tries that are ruled by non-Muslims. “Hitherto, we were just de­fend­ing ourselves,” Choudary said; without a ca­liphate, of­fens­ive ji­had is an in­ap­plic­able concept. But the wa­ging of war to ex­pand the ca­liphate is an es­sen­tial duty of the ca­liph.

Choudary took pains to present the laws of war un­der which the Is­lam­ic State op­er­ates as policies of mercy rather than of bru­tal­ity. He told me the state has an ob­lig­a­tion to ter­ror­ize its en­emies — a holy or­der to scare the shit out of them with be­head­ings and cru­ci­fix­ions and en­slave­ment of wo­men and chil­dren, be­cause do­ing so hastens vic­tory and avoids pro­longed con­flict.

Choudary’s col­league Abu Baraa ex­plained that Is­lam­ic law per­mits only tem­por­ary peace treat­ies, last­ing no longer than a dec­ade. Sim­il­arly, ac­cept­ing any bor­der is ana­thema, as stated by the Proph­et and echoed in the Is­lam­ic State’s pro­pa­ganda videos. If the ca­liph con­sents to a longer-term peace or per­man­ent bor­der, he will be in er­ror. Tem­por­ary peace treat­ies are re­new­able, but may not be ap­plied to all en­emies at once: The ca­liph must wage ji­had at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall in­to a state of sin.

One com­par­is­on to the Is­lam­ic State is the Kh­mer Rouge, which killed about a third of the pop­u­la­tion of Cam­bod­ia. But the Kh­mer Rouge oc­cu­pied Cam­bod­ia’s seat at the United Na­tions. “This is not per­mit­ted,” Abu Baraa said. “To send an am­bas­sad­or to the U.N. is to re­cog­nize an au­thor­ity oth­er than God’s.” This form of dip­lomacy is shirk, or poly­the­ism, he ar­gued, and would be im­me­di­ate cause to hereti­cize and re­place Bagh­dadi. Even to hasten the ar­rival of a ca­liphate by demo­crat­ic means — for ex­ample by vot­ing for polit­ic­al can­did­ates who fa­vor a ca­liphate — is shirk.

It’s hard to over­state how ham­strung the Is­lam­ic State will be by its rad­ic­al­ism. The mod­ern in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem, born of the 1648 Peace of West­phalia, re­lies on each state’s will­ing­ness to re­cog­nize bor­ders, however grudgingly. For the Is­lam­ic State, that re­cog­ni­tion is ideo­lo­gic­al sui­cide. Oth­er Is­lam­ist groups, such as the Muslim Broth­er­hood and Hamas, have suc­cumbed to the bland­ish­ments of demo­cracy and the po­ten­tial for an in­vit­a­tion to the com­munity of na­tions, com­plete with a U.N. seat. Ne­go­ti­ation and ac­com­mod­a­tion have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Un­der Taliban rule, Afgh­anistan ex­changed am­bas­sad­ors with Saudi Ar­a­bia, Pakistan, and the United Ar­ab Emir­ates, an act that in­val­id­ated the Taliban’s au­thor­ity in the Is­lam­ic State’s eyes.) To the Is­lam­ic State these are not op­tions, but acts of apostasy.

The United States and its al­lies have re­acted to the Is­lam­ic State be­latedly and in an ap­par­ent daze. The group’s am­bi­tions and rough stra­tegic blue­prints were evid­ent in its pro­nounce­ments and in so­cial-me­dia chat­ter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many ter­ror­ist groups in Syr­ia and Ir­aq and hadn’t yet com­mit­ted mass at­ro­cit­ies. Ad­nani, the spokes­man, told fol­low­ers then that the group’s am­bi­tion was to “re­store the Is­lam­ic ca­liphate,” and he evoked the apo­ca­lypse, say­ing, “There are but a few days left.” Bagh­dadi had already styled him­self “com­mand­er of the faith­ful,” a title or­din­ar­ily re­served for ca­liphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Ad­nani de­clared the move­ment “ready to re­draw the world upon the Proph­et­ic meth­od­o­logy of the ca­liphate.” In Au­gust 2013, he said, “Our goal is to es­tab­lish an Is­lam­ic state that doesn’t re­cog­nize bor­ders, on the Proph­et­ic meth­od­o­logy.” By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syr­i­an pro­vin­cial cap­it­al of per­haps 500,000 people, and was draw­ing in sub­stan­tial num­bers of for­eign fight­ers who’d heard its mes­sage.

If we had iden­ti­fied the Is­lam­ic State’s in­ten­tions early, and real­ized that the va­cu­um in Syr­ia and Ir­aq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a min­im­um, have pushed Ir­aq to harden its bor­der with Syr­ia and pree­mpt­ively make deals with its Sun­nis. That would at least have avoided the elec­tri­fy­ing pro­pa­ganda ef­fect cre­ated by the de­clar­a­tion of a ca­liphate just after the con­quest of Ir­aq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New York­er that he con­sidered IS­IS to be al-Qaida’s weak­er part­ner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uni­forms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bry­ant,” the pres­id­ent said.

Our fail­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate the split between the Is­lam­ic State and al-Qaida, and the es­sen­tial dif­fer­ences between the two, has led to dan­ger­ous de­cisions. Last fall, to take one ex­ample, the U.S. gov­ern­ment con­sen­ted to a des­per­ate plan to save Peter Kassig’s life. The plan fa­cil­it­ated — in­deed, re­quired — the in­ter­ac­tion of some of the found­ing fig­ures of the Is­lam­ic State and al-Qaida, and could hardly have looked more hast­ily im­pro­vised.

It en­tailed the en­list­ment of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Za­r­qawi ment­or and al-Qaida grandee, to ap­proach Turki al-Bin­ali, the Is­lam­ic State’s chief ideo­logue and a former stu­dent of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s cri­ti­cism of the Is­lam­ic State. Maqdisi had already called for the state to ex­tend mercy to Alan Hen­ning, the Brit­ish cab­bie who had entered Syr­ia to de­liv­er aid to chil­dren. In Decem­ber, The Guard­i­an re­por­ted that the U.S. gov­ern­ment, through an in­ter­me­di­ary, had asked Maqdisi to in­ter­cede with the Is­lam­ic State on Kassig’s be­half.

Maqdisi was liv­ing freely in Jordan but had been banned from com­mu­nic­at­ing with ter­ror­ists abroad, and he was be­ing mon­itored closely. After Jordan gran­ted the United States per­mis­sion to re­in­tro­duce Maqdisi to Bin­ali, Maqdisi bought a phone with Amer­ic­an money and was al­lowed to cor­res­pond mer­rily with his former stu­dent for a few days, be­fore the Jord­ani­an gov­ern­ment stopped the chats and used them as a pre­text to jail Maqdisi. Kassig’s severed head ap­peared in the Dabiq video a few days later.

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twit­ter by the Is­lam­ic State’s fans, and al”‘Qaida is held in great con­tempt for re­fus­ing to ac­know­ledge the ca­liphate. Cole Bunzel, a schol­ar who stud­ies Is­lam­ic State ideo­logy, read Maqdisi’s opin­ion on Hen­ning’s status and thought it would hasten his and oth­er cap­tives’ death. “If I were held cap­tive by the Is­lam­ic State, and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass good­bye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s suc­cess would have been a big­ger one. A re­con­cili­ation between Maqdisi and Bin­ali would have be­gun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest ji­hadist or­gan­iz­a­tions. It’s pos­sible that the gov­ern­ment wanted only to draw out Bin­ali for in­tel­li­gence pur­poses or as­sas­sin­a­tion. (Mul­tiple at­tempts to eli­cit com­ment from the FBI were un­suc­cess­ful.) Re­gard­less, the de­cision to play match­maker for Amer­ica’s two main ter­ror­ist ant­ag­on­ists re­veals as­ton­ish­ingly poor judg­ment.

Chastened by our earli­er in­dif­fer­ence, we are now meet­ing the Is­lam­ic State via Kur­d­ish and Ir­aqi proxy on the bat­tle­field, and with reg­u­lar air as­saults. Those strategies haven’t dis­lodged the Is­lam­ic State from any of its ma­jor ter­rit­ori­al pos­ses­sions, al­though they’ve kept it from dir­ectly as­sault­ing Bagh­dad and Er­bil and slaughter­ing Shia and Kur­ds there.

Some ob­serv­ers have called for es­cal­a­tion, in­clud­ing sev­er­al pre­dict­able voices from the in­ter­ven­tion­ist right (Max Boot, Fre­d­er­ick Kagan), who have urged the de­ploy­ment of tens of thou­sands of Amer­ic­an sol­diers. These calls should not be dis­missed too quickly: an avowedly gen­o­cid­al or­gan­iz­a­tion is on its po­ten­tial vic­tims’ front lawn, and it is com­mit­ting daily at­ro­cit­ies in the ter­rit­ory it already con­trols.

One way to un-cast the Is­lam­ic State’s spell over its ad­her­ents would be to over­power it mil­it­ar­ily and oc­cupy the parts of Syr­ia and Ir­aq now un­der ca­liphate rule. Al”‘Qaida is in­erad­ic­able be­cause it can sur­vive, cock­roach-like, by go­ing un­der­ground. The Is­lam­ic State can­not. If it loses its grip on its ter­rit­ory in Syr­ia and Ir­aq, it will cease to be a ca­liphate. Ca­liphates can­not ex­ist as un­der­ground move­ments, be­cause ter­rit­ori­al au­thor­ity is a re­quire­ment: Take away its com­mand of ter­rit­ory, and all those oaths of al­le­gi­ance are no longer bind­ing. Former pledges could, of course, con­tin­ue to at­tack the West and be­head their en­emies, as freel­an­cers. But the pro­pa­ganda value of the ca­liphate would dis­ap­pear, and with it the sup­posed re­li­gious duty to im­mig­rate and serve it. If the United States were to in­vade, the Is­lam­ic State’s ob­ses­sion with battle at Dabiq sug­gests that it might send vast re­sources there, as if in a con­ven­tion­al battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might nev­er re­cov­er.

Abu Baraa, who main­tains a You­Tube chan­nel about Is­lam­ic law, says the ca­liph, Bagh­dadi, can­not ne­go­ti­ate or re­cog­nize bor­ders, and must con­tinu­ally make war, or he will re­move him­self from Is­lam.

And yet the risks of es­cal­a­tion are enorm­ous. The biggest pro­ponent of an Amer­ic­an in­va­sion is the Is­lam­ic State it­self. The pro­voc­at­ive videos, in which a black-hooded ex­e­cu­tion­er ad­dresses Pres­id­ent Obama by name, are clearly made to draw Amer­ica in­to the fight. An in­va­sion would be a huge pro­pa­ganda vic­tory for ji­hadists world­wide: Ir­re­spect­ive of wheth­er they have giv­en baya’a to the ca­liph, they all be­lieve that the United States wants to em­bark on a mod­ern-day Cru­sade and kill Muslims. Yet an­oth­er in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion would con­firm that sus­pi­cion, and bol­ster re­cruit­ment. Add the in­com­pet­ence of our pre­vi­ous ef­forts as oc­cu­pi­ers, and we have reas­on for re­luct­ance. The rise of IS­IS, after all, happened only be­cause our pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pa­tion cre­ated space for Za­r­qawi and his fol­low­ers. Who knows the con­sequences of an­oth­er botched job?

Giv­en everything we know about the Is­lam­ic State, con­tinu­ing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy war­fare, ap­pears the best of bad mil­it­ary op­tions. Neither the Kur­ds nor the Shia will ever sub­due and con­trol the whole Sunni heart­land of Syr­ia and Ir­aq — they are hated there, and have no ap­pet­ite for such an ad­ven­ture any­way. But they can keep the Is­lam­ic State from ful­filling its duty to ex­pand. And with every month that it fails to ex­pand, it re­sembles less the con­quer­ing state of the Proph­et Muhammad than yet an­oth­er Middle East­ern gov­ern­ment fail­ing to bring prosper­ity to its people.

The hu­man­it­ari­an cost of the Is­lam­ic State’s ex­ist­ence is high. But its threat to the United States is smal­ler than its all too fre­quent con­fla­tion with al-Qaida would sug­gest. Al-Qaida’s core is rare among ji­hadist groups for its fo­cus on the “far en­emy” (the West); most ji­hadist groups’ main con­cerns lie closer to home. That’s es­pe­cially true of the Is­lam­ic State, pre­cisely be­cause of its ideo­logy. It sees en­emies every­where around it, and while its lead­er­ship wishes ill on the United States, the ap­plic­a­tion of Sharia in the ca­liphate and the ex­pan­sion to con­tigu­ous lands are para­mount. Bagh­dadi has said as much dir­ectly: In Novem­ber he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first “¦ then al-Su­lul [Sunni sup­port­ers of the Saudi mon­archy] “¦ be­fore the cru­saders and their bases.”

The for­eign fight­ers (and their wives and chil­dren) have been trav­el­ing to the ca­liphate on one-way tick­ets: They want to live un­der true Sharia, and many want mar­tyr­dom. Doc­trine, re­call, re­quires be­liev­ers to reside in the ca­liphate if it is at all pos­sible for them to do so. One of the Is­lam­ic State’s less bloody videos shows a group of ji­hadists burn­ing their French, Brit­ish, and Aus­trali­an pass­ports. This would be an ec­cent­ric act for someone in­tend­ing to re­turn to blow him­self up in line at the Louvre or to hold an­oth­er chocol­ate shop host­age in Sydney.

A few “lone wolf” sup­port­ers of the Is­lam­ic State have at­tacked West­ern tar­gets, and more at­tacks will come. But most of the at­tack­ers have been frus­trated am­a­teurs, un­able to im­mig­rate to the ca­liphate be­cause of con­fis­cated pass­ports or oth­er prob­lems. Even if the Is­lam­ic State cheers these at­tacks — and it does in its pro­pa­ganda — it hasn’t yet planned and fin­anced one. (The Charlie Hebdo at­tack in Par­is in Janu­ary was prin­cip­ally an al”‘Qaida op­er­a­tion.) Dur­ing his vis­it to Mo­sul in Decem­ber, Jür­gen Tod­en­höfer in­ter­viewed a portly Ger­man ji­hadist and asked wheth­er any of his com­rades had re­turned to Europe to carry out at­tacks. The ji­hadist seemed to re­gard re­turnees not as sol­diers but as dro­pouts. “The fact is that the re­turnees from the Is­lam­ic State should re­pent from their re­turn,” he said. “I hope they re­view their re­li­gion.”

Prop­erly con­tained, the Is­lam­ic State is likely to be its own un­do­ing. No coun­try is its ally, and its ideo­logy en­sures that this will re­main the case. The land it con­trols, while ex­pans­ive, is mostly un­in­hab­ited and poor. As it stag­nates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the en­gine of God’s will and the agent of apo­ca­lypse will weak­en, and few­er be­liev­ers will ar­rive. And as more re­ports of misery with­in it leak out, rad­ic­al Is­lam­ist move­ments else­where will be dis­cred­ited: No one has tried harder to im­ple­ment strict Sharia by vi­ol­ence. This is what it looks like.

Even so, the death of the Is­lam­ic State is un­likely to be quick, and things could still go badly wrong: If the Is­lam­ic State ob­tained the al­le­gi­ance of al”‘Qaida — in­creas­ing, in one swoop, the unity of its base — it could wax in­to a worse foe than we’ve yet seen. The rift between the Is­lam­ic State and al-Qaida has, if any­thing, grown in the past few months; the Decem­ber is­sue of Dabiq fea­tured a long ac­count of an al”‘Qaida de­fect­or who de­scribed his old group as cor­rupt and in­ef­fec­tu­al, and Za­wahiri as a dis­tant and un­fit lead­er. But we should watch care­fully for a rap­proche­ment.

Without a cata­strophe such as this, however, or per­haps the threat of the Is­lam­ic State’s storm­ing Er­bil, a vast ground in­va­sion would cer­tainly make the situ­ation worse.

It would be fa­cile, even ex­culp­at­ory, to call the prob­lem of the Is­lam­ic State “a prob­lem with Is­lam.” The re­li­gion al­lows many in­ter­pret­a­tions, and Is­lam­ic State sup­port­ers are mor­ally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply de­noun­cing the Is­lam­ic State as un-Is­lam­ic can be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive, es­pe­cially if those who hear the mes­sage have read the holy texts and seen the en­dorse­ment of many of the ca­liphate’s prac­tices writ­ten plainly with­in them.

Muslims can say that slavery is not le­git­im­ate now, and that cru­ci­fix­ion is wrong at this his­tor­ic­al junc­ture. Many say pre­cisely this. But they can­not con­demn slavery or cru­ci­fix­ion out­right without con­tra­dict­ing the Kor­an and the ex­ample of the Proph­et. “The only prin­cipled ground that the Is­lam­ic State’s op­pon­ents could take is to say that cer­tain core texts and tra­di­tion­al teach­ings of Is­lam are no longer val­id,” Bern­ard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

The Is­lam­ic State’s ideo­logy ex­erts power­ful sway over a cer­tain sub­set of the pop­u­la­tion. Life’s hy­po­cris­ies and in­con­sist­en­cies van­ish in its face. Musa Cer­ant­o­nio and the Salafis I met in Lon­don are un­stump­able: No ques­tion I posed left them stut­ter­ing. They lec­tured me gar­rulously and, if one ac­cepts their premises, con­vin­cingly. To call them un-Is­lam­ic ap­pears, to me, to in­vite them in­to an ar­gu­ment that they would win. If they had been froth-spew­ing ma­ni­acs, I might be able to pre­dict that their move­ment would burn out as the psy­cho­paths det­on­ated them­selves or be­came drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an aca­dem­ic pre­ci­sion that put me in mind of a good gradu­ate sem­in­ar. I even en­joyed their com­pany, and that frightened me as much as any­thing else.

Non-Muslims can­not tell Muslims how to prac­tice their re­li­gion prop­erly. But Muslims have long since be­gun this de­bate with­in their own ranks. “You have to have stand­ards,” An­jem Choudary told me. “Some­body could claim to be a Muslim, but if he be­lieves in ho­mo­sexu­al­ity or drink­ing al­co­hol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a non­prac­ti­cing ve­get­ari­an.”

There is, however, an­oth­er strand of Is­lam that of­fers a hard-line al­tern­at­ive to the Is­lam­ic State — just as un­com­prom­ising, but with op­pos­ite con­clu­sions. This strand has proved ap­peal­ing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psy­cho­lo­gic­al long­ing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts im­ple­men­ted as they were in the earli­est days of Is­lam. Is­lam­ic State sup­port­ers know how to re­act to Muslims who ig­nore parts of the Kor­an: with tak­fir and ri­dicule. But they also know that some oth­er Muslims read the Kor­an as as­sidu­ously as they do, and pose a real ideo­lo­gic­al threat.

Bagh­dadi is Salafi. The term Salafi has been vil­lain­ized, in part be­cause au­then­t­ic vil­lains have rid­den in­to battle wav­ing the Salafi ban­ner. But most Salafis are not ji­hadists, and most ad­here to sects that re­ject the Is­lam­ic State. They are, as Haykel notes, com­mit­ted to ex­pand­ing Dar al-Is­lam, the land of Is­lam, even, per­haps, with the im­ple­ment­a­tion of mon­strous prac­tices such as slavery and am­pu­ta­tion — but at some fu­ture point. Their first pri­or­ity is per­son­al puri­fic­a­tion and re­li­gious ob­serv­ance, and they be­lieve any­thing that thwarts those goals — such as caus­ing war or un­rest that would dis­rupt lives and pray­er and schol­ar­ship — is for­bid­den.

They live among us. Last fall, I vis­ited the Phil­adelphia mosque of Bre­ton Po­cius, 28, a Salafi im­am who goes by the name Ab­dul­lah. His mosque is on the bor­der between the crime-rid­den North­ern Liber­ties neigh­bor­hood and a gentri­fy­ing area that one might call Dar al-Hip­ster; his beard al­lows him to pass in the lat­ter zone al­most un­noticed.

Po­cius con­ver­ted 15 years ago after a Pol­ish Cath­ol­ic up­bring­ing in Chica­go. Like Cer­ant­o­nio, he talks like an old soul, ex­hib­it­ing deep fa­mili­ar­ity with an­cient texts, and a com­mit­ment to them mo­tiv­ated by curi­os­ity and schol­ar­ship, and by a con­vic­tion that they are the only way to es­cape hell­fire. When I met him at a loc­al cof­fee shop, he car­ried a work of Kor­an­ic schol­ar­ship in Ar­ab­ic and a book for teach­ing him­self Ja­pan­ese. He was pre­par­ing a ser­mon on the ob­lig­a­tions of fath­er­hood for the 150 or so wor­shipers in his Fri­day con­greg­a­tion.

Po­cius said his main goal is to en­cour­age a halal life for wor­shipers in his mosque. But the rise of the Is­lam­ic State has forced him to con­sider polit­ic­al ques­tions that are usu­ally very far from the minds of Salafis. “Most of what they’ll say about how to pray and how to dress is ex­actly what I’ll say in my masjid [mosque]. But when they get to ques­tions about so­cial up­heav­al, they sound like Che Guevara.”

When Bagh­dadi showed up, Po­cius ad­op­ted the slo­gan “Not my khal­ifa.” “The times of the Proph­et were a time of great blood­shed,” he told me, “and he knew that the worst pos­sible con­di­tion for all people was chaos, es­pe­cially with­in the umma [Muslim com­munity].” Ac­cord­ingly, Po­cius said, the cor­rect at­ti­tude for Salafis is not to sow dis­cord by fac­tion­al­iz­ing and de­clar­ing fel­low Muslims apostates.

In­stead, Po­cius — like a ma­jor­ity of Salafis — be­lieves that Muslims should re­move them­selves from polit­ics. These quiet­ist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Is­lam­ic State that God’s law is the only law, and they es­chew prac­tices like vot­ing and the cre­ation of polit­ic­al parties. But they in­ter­pret the Kor­an’s hatred of dis­cord and chaos as re­quir­ing them to fall in­to line with just about any lead­er, in­clud­ing some mani­festly sin­ful ones. “The Proph­et said: As long as the ruler does not enter in­to clear ku­fr [dis­be­lief], give him gen­er­al obed­i­ence,” Po­cius told me, and the clas­sic “books of creed” all warn against caus­ing so­cial up­heav­al. Quiet­ist Salafis are strictly for­bid­den from di­vid­ing Muslims from one an­oth­er — for ex­ample, by mass ex­com­mu­nic­a­tion. Liv­ing without baya’a, Po­cius said, does in­deed make one ig­nor­ant, or be­nighted. But baya’a need not mean dir­ect al­le­gi­ance to a ca­liph, and cer­tainly not to Abu Bakr al”‘Bagh­dadi. It can mean, more broadly, al­le­gi­ance to a re­li­gious so­cial con­tract and com­mit­ment to a so­ci­ety of Muslims, wheth­er ruled by a ca­liph or not.

Quiet­ist Salafis be­lieve that Muslims should dir­ect their en­er­gies to­ward per­fect­ing their per­son­al life, in­clud­ing pray­er, ritu­al, and hy­giene. Much in the same way ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jews de­bate wheth­er it’s kosh­er to tear off squares of toi­let pa­per on the Sab­bath (does that count as “rend­ing cloth”?), they spend an in­or­din­ate amount of time en­sur­ing that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in oth­ers. Through this fas­ti­di­ous ob­serv­ance, they be­lieve, God will fa­vor them with strength and num­bers, and per­haps a ca­liphate will arise. At that mo­ment, Muslims will take ven­geance and, yes, achieve glor­i­ous vic­tory at Dabiq. But Po­cius cites a slew of mod­ern Salafi theo­lo­gians who ar­gue that a ca­liphate can­not come in­to be­ing in a right­eous way ex­cept through the un­mis­tak­able will of God.

The Is­lam­ic State, of course, would agree, and say that God has anoin­ted Bagh­dadi. Po­cius’s re­tort amounts to a call to hu­mil­ity. He cites Ab­dul­lah Ibn Ab­bas, one of the Proph­et’s com­pan­ions, who sat down with dis­sent­ers and asked them how they had the gall, as a minor­ity, to tell the ma­jor­ity that it was wrong. Dis­sent it­self, to the point of blood­shed or split­ting the umma, was for­bid­den. Even the man­ner of the es­tab­lish­ment of Bagh­dadi’s ca­liphate runs con­trary to ex­pect­a­tion, he said. “The khilafa is something that Al­lah is go­ing to es­tab­lish,” he told me, “and it will in­volve a con­sensus of schol­ars from Mecca and Med­ina. That is not what happened. IS­IS came out of nowhere.”

The Is­lam­ic State loathes this talk, and its fan­boys tweet de­ris­ively about quiet­ist Salafis. They mock them as “Salafis of men­stru­ation,” for their ob­scure judg­ments about when wo­men are and aren’t clean, and oth­er low-pri­or­ity as­pects of life. “What we need now is fat­wa about how it’s haram [for­bid­den] to ride a bike on Jupiter,” one tweeted drily. “That’s what schol­ars should fo­cus on. More press­ing than state of Ummah.” An­jem Choudary, for his part, says that no sin mer­its more vig­or­ous op­pos­i­tion than the usurp­a­tion of God’s law, and that ex­trem­ism in de­fense of mono­the­ism is no vice.

Po­cius doesn’t court any kind of of­fi­cial sup­port from the United States, as a coun­ter­weight to ji­hadism. In­deed, of­fi­cial sup­port would tend to dis­cred­it him, and in any case he is bit­ter to­ward Amer­ica for treat­ing him, in his words, as “less than a cit­izen.” (He al­leges that the gov­ern­ment paid spies to in­filt­rate his mosque and har­assed his moth­er at work with ques­tions about his be­ing a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist.)

Still, his quiet­ist Salafism of­fers an Is­lam­ic an­ti­dote to Bagh­dadi-style ji­hadism. The people who ar­rive at the faith spoil­ing for a fight can­not all be stopped from ji­hadism, but those whose main mo­tiv­a­tion is to find an ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive, un­com­prom­ising ver­sion of Is­lam have an al­tern­at­ive here. It is not mod­er­ate Is­lam; most Muslims would con­sider it ex­treme. It is, however, a form of Is­lam that the lit­er­al-minded would not in­stantly find hy­po­crit­ic­al, or blas­phem­ously purged of its in­con­veni­ences. Hy­po­crisy is not a sin that ideo­lo­gic­ally minded young men tol­er­ate well.

West­ern of­fi­cials would prob­ably do best to re­frain from weigh­ing in on mat­ters of Is­lam­ic theo­lo­gic­al de­bate al­to­geth­er. Obama him­self drif­ted in­to tak­firi wa­ters when he claimed that the Is­lam­ic State was “not Is­lam­ic” — the irony be­ing that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may him­self be clas­si­fied as an apostate, and yet is now prac­ti­cing tak­fir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ prac­ti­cing tak­fir eli­cits chuckles from ji­hadists (“Like a pig covered in fe­ces giv­ing hy­giene ad­vice to oth­ers,” one tweeted).

I sus­pect that most Muslims ap­pre­ci­ated Obama’s sen­ti­ment: The pres­id­ent was stand­ing with them against both Bagh­dadi and non-Muslim chau­vin­ists try­ing to im­plic­ate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t sus­cept­ible to join­ing ji­had. The ones who are sus­cept­ible will only have had their sus­pi­cions con­firmed: The United States lies about re­li­gion to serve its pur­poses.

With­in the nar­row bounds of its theo­logy, the Is­lam­ic State hums with en­ergy, even cre­ativ­ity. Out­side those bounds, it could hardly be more ar­id and si­lent: a vis­ion of life as obed­i­ence, or­der, and des­tiny. Musa Cer­ant­o­nio and An­jem Choudary could men­tally shift from con­tem­plat­ing mass death and etern­al tor­ture to dis­cuss­ing the vir­tues of Vi­et­namese cof­fee or treacly pastry, with ap­par­ent de­light in each, yet to me it seemed that to em­brace their views would be to see all the fla­vors of this world grow in­sip­id com­pared with the vivid grot­esquer­ies of the here­after.

I could en­joy their com­pany, as a guilty in­tel­lec­tu­al ex­er­cise, up to a point. In re­view­ing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Or­well con­fessed that he had “nev­er been able to dis­like Hitler”; something about the man pro­jec­ted an un­der­dog qual­ity, even when his goals were cow­ardly or loath­some. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Is­lam­ic State’s par­tis­ans have much the same al­lure. They be­lieve that they are per­son­ally in­volved in struggles bey­ond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of right­eous­ness, is a priv­ilege and a pleas­ure — es­pe­cially when it is also a bur­den.

Fas­cism, Or­well con­tin­ued, is “psy­cho­lo­gic­ally far sounder than any he­don­ist­ic con­cep­tion of life “¦ Where­as So­cial­ism, and even cap­it­al­ism in a more grudging way, have said to people, ‘I of­fer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I of­fer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a res­ult a whole na­tion flings it­self at his feet “¦ We ought not to un­der­rate its emo­tion­al ap­peal.”

Nor, in the case of the Is­lam­ic State, its re­li­gious or in­tel­lec­tu­al ap­peal. That the Is­lam­ic State holds the im­min­ent ful­fill­ment of proph­ecy as a mat­ter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our op­pon­ent. It is ready to cheer its own near-ob­lit­er­a­tion, and to re­main con­fid­ent, even when sur­roun­ded, that it will re­ceive di­vine suc­cor if it stays true to the Proph­et­ic mod­el. Ideo­lo­gic­al tools may con­vince some po­ten­tial con­verts that the group’s mes­sage is false, and mil­it­ary tools can lim­it its hor­rors. But for an or­gan­iz­a­tion as im­per­vi­ous to per­sua­sion as the Is­lam­ic State, few meas­ures short of these will mat­ter.

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