Islamic State has been in the news a lot lately and it’s led many to ask why the terrorist organization is so hellbent on slaughtering innocent civilians in multiple countries. Author Nicolas Henin was for a time held hostage by the group and he has some key insights into what motivates it, as well as why it is so shockingly brutal in how it treats everyone who isn’t a member. Essentially, he’s found that ISIS is something of an apocalyptic cult whose goal is to provoke a massive world war that will lead to the end of days.
Does that sound crazy to you? Well, it should because it is.
Writing over in The Guardian, Henin describes the incredibly sadistic games that ISIS plays with prisoners along with the brutal executions they deliver:
All of those beheaded last year were my cellmates, and my jailers would play childish games with us – mental torture – saying one day that we would be released and then two weeks later observing blithely, “Tomorrow we will kill one of you.” The first couple of times we believed them but after that we came to realise that for the most part they were bullshitters having fun with us.
They would play mock executions. Once they used chloroform with me. Another time it was a beheading scene. A bunch of French-speaking jihadis were shouting, “We’re going to cut your head off and put it on to your arse and upload it to YouTube.” They had a sword from an antique shop.
In addition to being general sadists, Henin also says that ISIS fighters are obsessively connected to social media and follow reactions to their atrocities across the world very closely. Even though they essentially have the ideology of 7th century barbarians, they also are very adept at manipulating media coverage to build an image of themselves as a fearsome terrorist threat:
It struck me forcefully how technologically connected they are; they follow the news obsessively, but everything they see goes through their own filter. They are totally indoctrinated, clinging to all manner of conspiracy theories, never acknowledging the contradictions.
Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road. Consequently, everything is a blessing from Allah.
With their news and social media interest, they will be noting everything that follows their murderous assault on Paris, and my guess is that right now the chant among them will be “We are winning”. They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.
This echoes a lot of what we’ve heard about ISIS lately.
Writing in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood recently took a deep dive into ISIS’s theological underpinnings and found that the group is particularly obsessed with the Koran’s apocalyptic writings. The reason it wants to establish a country of its own in the Middle East is to act as a beacon for all “true believers” to join it for the final battle against non-believers. It should be noted here that it’s not enough to be a Muslim is ISIS’s eyes — they see all Shiite Muslims as apostates and also haven’t been shy about killing Sunni Muslims who don’t share their specific theological convictions.
At any rate, Henin’s whole essay is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with his conclusions that stepping up bombing attacks against ISIS isn’t the right way to battle against it.