My takeaway - let's give ISIS, correctly described by Obama as an "apocalyptic cult", exactly what it wants. ISIS adherents believe there will be an apocalyptic showdown between their caliphate and the "Army of Rome" in the area of Dabiq. Dabiq is a village north of Aleppo, near the Turkish border in an area that Turkey and the US were planning to turn into a safe haven for rebels and refugees. So, the notion (Mr. Wood's if you like it, mine otherwise) - if ISIS wants to die there and we want to kill them, let's send in some US-led troops and give them their apocalypse. That should be much easier than liberating and occupying all of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq.
On with the article:
What ISIS Really Wants
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
A brief excerpt will not do the article justice. But let me isolate the apocalyptic vision:
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 mujahideen (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.
Dabiq, per Google Maps, is roughly 60 Km (37 miles) North North east of rebel-held Aleppo. It is somewhat near the Turkish border and well within the area described in this July 2015 Times piece as a space that Turkey and the US may turn into a safe haven for Syrian rebels and refugees. See map below.
Need I explain further? Send enough US led troops to liberate Dabiq, then hold it against what should be the inevitable ISIS counterattacks. Hey, they want to die there and we want to kill them, so this is what we call a win-win. A battle over limited real estate will surely be easier to manage than Obama's hypothetical liberation of all of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq.
And if this does not draw them into the long-awaited apocalypse, well, we were planning (last summer, at least) to sweep that zone and make it a haven anyway. Where is the downside? Rhetorical question, I know Obama will find one.
Lest you wonder, the possibilities did not escape the author; this is from his discussion of military alternatives:
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.
And just to display my knack for confirmation bias, let me note that the possibilities may not have escaped Mr. Wood's readers either. Mr. Wood actually heard praise for his fair-handedness from some ISIS jihadists, one of whom passed along these thoughts: (note - I have substituted 'ISIS jihadists' for "Muslims" for clarity]:
One ISIS supporter wrote to me to note the peculiarity in all this. The piece, he said,
is grounded in realism, and argues that not understanding what is happening is very dangerous, especially if fighting a war, one must fight the war that is real, not the invented one that one wishes to fight. Perhaps ironically, your [writings] ... are most dangerous to the [ISIS jihadists] (not that it is necessarily meant to be so on your behalf), yet they are celebrated by [ISIS jihadists] who see them as pieces that speak the truth that so many try to deny, but also because [ISIS Jihadists] know that deep down the idealists of the world will still ignore them.
What stands out to me that others don't seem to discuss much, is how the Islamic State, Osama [bin Laden] and others are operating as if they are reading from a script that was written 1,400 years ago. They not only follow these prophecies, but plan ahead based upon them. One would therefore assume that the enemies of Islam would note this and prepare adequately, but [it’s] almost as if they feel that playing along would mean that they believe in the prophecies too, and so they ignore them and go about things their own way. ... [The] enemies of the [ISIS jihadists] may be aware of what the [ISIS jihadists] are planning, but it won't benefit them at all as they prefer to either keep their heads in the sand, or to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen. With this in mind, maybe you can understand to some degree one of the reasons why many [ISIS jihadists] will share your piece. It’s not because we don't understand what it is saying in terms of how to defeat the [ISIS jihadists], rather it’s because we know that those in charge will ignore it and screw things up anyway.
On behalf of those who simultaneously have their head in the sand and up their posterior let me just say - that's interesting.
That reader reaction certainly makes me want to read the article again to see what other ideas for defeating ISIS may have jumped off the page for the ISIS readership. But having the enemy name the battlefield on which they want to die seems like a clue to me.
HATE SPEECH ALERT: If Obama was reading this article he probably threw it down in disgust here:
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature....
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 combatted, 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.
Adherents to the Islamic variation of the "No True Scotsman" defense will recoil, of course. There is more on this much later in the article:
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.
THE APOCALYPTIC MEME IS OUT THERE:
“There is a time for soft power and playing the long game in the Middle East, but there is also a time for the ruthless application of hard power. It is NATO’s responsibility to recognize our current moment qualifies as the latter,” James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and former NATO top commander in Europe, wrote in Foreign Policy. “The Islamic State is an apocalyptic organization overdue for eradication.”
The meme also makes an appearance in this Federalist list, point 3:
16 Of The Worst Ways To Respond To ISIS' PAris Attack
3) Opining On “What ISIS Wants”
ISIS leaders are actually pretty straightforward about what they want. And if you want to read just one article that gets to the heart of who they are and why they exist, I’d recommend “What ISIS Really Wants” from Graeme Wood earlier this year in The Atlantic. It’s not perfect — toward the end it pooh-poohs the idea that ISIS fighters might want to bring the fight back to their home countries — but it does a good job of explaining their motivation and what they seek.
Wood explains that ISIS is committed “to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” ISIS probably does want you to respond to their attacks by playing Yoko Ono tunes rather than killing them before they can strike again, but that in itself is not reason to avoid playing “Imagine.”
GREAT MINDS RUN IN THE SAME CHANNEL. Of course, it is also said that fools think alike.