How Bad Is ISIS?

Worse than the Taliban. And al-Qaida, too.

Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. 
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Bobby Ghosh, Quartz
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Bobby Ghosh, Quartz
Aug. 8, 2014, 12:12 p.m.

Now the world has fi­nally turned its at­ten­tion to the carnage sweep­ing through north­ern Ir­aq, many are strug­gling to place the per­pet­rat­ors — the death cult known as the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and the Le­vant, or ISIL — in the con­text of mod­ern-day ter­ror­ism. I’m get­ting the same ques­tions from friends and fel­low journ­al­ists: Are these guys the new al-Qaeda? Or are they like the Taliban? Or is this move­ment more like Hezbol­lah”¦ Boko Haram”¦ Hamas?

My re­sponse: all of the above, and then much more.

Led by the self-ap­poin­ted “Ca­liph” Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, ISIL is both gen­er­ic and sui gen­er­is. Its rhet­or­ic sounds fa­mil­i­ar, be­cause it is de­livered in the lan­guage (lit­er­ally and meta­phor­ic­ally) of most Is­lam­ist mil­it­ant groups. There’s much talk about ji­had — the mod­ern, ma­lign in­ter­pret­a­tion of that word, rather than its spir­itu­al mean­ing — and the de­sire to at­tain “mar­tyr­dom.” Some of ISIL’s tac­tics are fa­mil­i­ar, too, like the use of sui­cide bomb­ings, and snuff videos pos­ted on­line.

But the sim­il­ar­it­ies end at the sur­face. Delve deep­er, and ISIL is a more com­plex and more ter­ri­fy­ing creature. If it helps to in­voke oth­er mon­stros­it­ies to bet­ter un­der­stand it, I re­com­mend widen­ing the field bey­ond Is­lam­ist mil­it­ancy, as well as delving in­to hor­rors of the past.

Simply put, ISIL is an un­holy com­bin­a­tion of al-Qaeda, the Kh­mer Rouge, and the Nazis.

The group sprang from al-Qaeda. Its founder, Abu Musab al-Za­r­qawi, had trained as amu­jahid, or holy war­ri­or, in Afgh­anistan, the forge of so many Is­lam­ist mil­it­ant or­gan­iz­a­tions, in­clud­ing Osama bin Laden’s. Za­r­qawi formed a ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tion in Ir­aq after the U.S.-led in­va­sion of 2003, and then pledged al­le­gi­ance to bin Laden. But al-Qaeda in Meso­pot­amia (AQIM), the name he ori­gin­ally took for his fran­chise, was a new kind of ter­ror. Za­r­qawi, much like bin Laden, talked about driv­ing West­ern troops out of Muslim lands, but in real­ity his op­er­a­tions were mostly dir­ec­ted at fel­low Muslims. Ir­aq’s Shi’ites faced the brunt of his wrath, but Za­r­qawi also killed fel­low Sun­nis who didn’t agree with his own per­ver­ted in­ter­pret­a­tion of Is­lam. Only re­cently, in Syr­ia and now in north­ern Ir­aq, has ISIL turned its at­ten­tion to Chris­ti­ans and oth­er minor­it­ies.

For sheer, bru­tal ef­fi­ciency, ISIL is sev­er­al steps above Hamas, Hezbol­lah, Boko Haram or even the Taliban. The closest ana­log I can think of is the Kh­mer Rouge, the Cam­bod­i­an move­ment that killed more than two mil­lion people in the mid-1970s. There was a re­mind­er of those hor­rors this week, when two top Kh­mer Rouge lead­ers were fi­nally sen­tenced for their crimes. In their re­morse­less ad­vance through east­ern Syr­ia and north­ern Ir­aq, ISIL’s fight­ers have demon­strated the same iron will and dis­cip­line that Kh­mer Rouge de­ployed against the Cam­bod­i­an army and the Cam­bod­i­an people. In ter­rit­ory Al-Bagh­dadi con­trols, he uses the same tac­tics of in­tim­id­a­tion and pub­lic pun­ish­ment that Pol Pot used to cow his fel­low Cam­bod­i­ans.

In its ap­pet­ite for gen­o­cide, ISIL seems to bor­row from Ad­olf Hitler’s Nazis. It, too, has iden­ti­fied for ex­term­in­a­tion en­tire cat­egor­ies of people. Its fight­ers have sys­tem­at­ic­ally roun­ded up groups of “un­be­liev­ers” — and re­mem­ber, that can mean any­body, in­clud­ing their fel­low Sun­nis — and slaughtered them in a man­ner Hein­rich Himmler would have ap­proved of. If the dis­turb­ing pho­to­graphs (and be warned, they are very dis­turb­ing) in this Wash­ing­ton Post story were in grainy black-and-white, they could have come from a Nazi death camp. And on­line videos of these mass killings clearly show miss the zeal­ous glee with which the ex­e­cu­tion­ers go about the work.

That, then, is the nature of the mon­ster on which the US is fi­nally turn­ing its guns. It will not die eas­ily.

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