National Correspondent, Atlantic; Former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs
Graeme Wood discusses The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, his intimate new account of what drives the jihadi group’s true believers.
ROSE: Graeme was teasing me for not wearing a tie, and he said if he knew you didn’t have to wear a tie, he wouldn’t have worn one. I don’t know. That made me—
WOOD: We’re unique here, so—
ROSE: That made me—(laughter)—that made me think about maybe I should go full BHL and do a couple of extra buttons. (Laughter.) But, you know, I was watching him on “Charlie Rose” the other night, and I don’t have the full pelth (ph), though, to be able to carry that off.
OK. So we are here tonight to celebrate and be educated from the author of a fabulous new book, Graeme Wood. So if you’re the editor of a magazine and a really good piece appears in some other magazine on the kind of subjects you cover, it kind of presents you with a dilemma, right, because one part of you wants to go, damn it, I should have had that, we want that, why is that schmuck publishing over there. And you want to sort of deny it and tout your own stuff instead and just basically say, well, it’s not really that good. (Laughter.)
But the more mature response, right, is to, if you can’t beat them, join them or to co-opt them. And so when Graeme published in my good friend David Bradley’s wonderful magazine The Atlantic a spectacular piece on the Islamic State and what they really think, and took the world by storm and got 500 zillion visits and everyone was talking about it, and putting our own wonderful content on ISIS and the Islamic State into the shadow even though it was just as intellectually legit but just a little less well-written and so forth—(laughter)—I faced a choice, and the choice we decided was, you know what, quality out, so let’s just bring Graeme back into the fold more generally rather than sort of isolate him for having published it somewhere else.
Now, of course he became the Council on Foreign Relations Murrow fellow last year and now has a book-length version of the work that ultimately had originated in the Atlantic article. And we are here to celebrate it. So no resentment and regrets for having published in competitors and other kind of things, but you’re now part of the family for the Council and Foreign Affairs more generally. So we’re very big about these kinds of things. That’s the way we maintain quality over time. If someone does good stuff, they come into the fold, wherever they may have originated.
So Graeme’s book is called “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.” And it’s—you know, these days in these times of alternative facts and fake news and all that kind of stuff, the number of serious nonfiction journalists going out and doing really good shoe-leather reporting in dangerous and difficult parts of the world—there really are very, very few of them. You know, back when the Murrow Fellowship actually started, it seemed like there were a whole lot of these people. We’ve actually gone through a hell of a lot of them in the Murrow thing, and—but they’re actually a dwindling breed.
And Graeme is one of the absolute best of this incredibly noble and important breed. These are people who basically are smart people, deeply curious minds, great reporters, and wonderful writers who take all those qualities and go into odd places in the world and dig around and find out what’s happening and what’s really going on and come back to report to the rest of us and tell us what is actually going on in the world.
These investigative reporters and serious nonfiction journalists and serious thinkers are the lifeblood of serious intellectual discussion about foreign policy and global affairs. And Graeme is at the absolute top of that profession. And we are delighted to be able to have had been able to host him here at the Council last year as a Murrow fellow and to be able to be with him tonight to talk about his book, “The Way of Strangers.”
So, with that, let me just get right to it. Oh, actually first, no, I have to do all these kind of things. OK. So welcome to today’s—well, actually, no, I don’t have to do the early ones now. At the—at 6:25 I have to do the bigger ones. OK. They yell at me if you don’t do the things specifically, right. I don’t like getting yelled at in that regard.
So, Graeme, what is the Islamic State, and what does it want?
WOOD: All right. Well, first of all, thank you for that florid introduction. (Laughter.) It’s great to be back here because this book was written upstairs here. This feels like home to me. My phone immediately recognizes the wi-fi password.
ROSE: If this feels like home, you need to redecorate.
WOOD: The decoration—it looks exactly the same. (Laughter.) So your question, what is the Islamic State—this was what I was trying to find out by many of the people I was speaking to who had jihadist sympathies, already this kind of longing for the instantiation of their beliefs in a state. And what I didn’t know at first was that they were discussing something that would actually come to pass.
So the Islamic State in one sense is a physical space that’s governed by some very nasty people. And in another sense it’s also this mental caliphate, the—it’s an idea of a state that has existed before the Islamic State, it will exist after the territorial Islamic State, and that represents a very specific interpretation of Islam that is reflected in what we see in these terrible videos but also in just the fulfillment that people feel in going there and joining what to them is a utopia and for the rest of us is a nightmare.
ROSE: And what are—actually a quick little word about nomenclature. There are a lot of ways of referring to this movement: the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh, lots of other kind of things. At Foreign Affairs, by the way, you know, in the old days, we used to worry what was the actual correct terminology to use. But these days because we’re actually trying to save many of you guys from having to pony up too much more to support Foreign Affairs, we want to do things like monetize lots of high traffic. And so we have do things like search engine optimization on the website.
And it turns out that whatever you actually call it and the experts call it, which—they say ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh—the one thing the experts don’t call it is ISIS anymore except for the fact that that’s the best—far and away best search term to use to get people to come to your articles. So, frankly, against the overriding objections of our authors and experts, at Foreign Affairs we often use a lot of ISIS terminology, especially in headlines, because that’s what draws the clicks.
But technically, what should we be calling it, by the way?
WOOD: So I’ve had my hand slapped for calling it ISIS by Islamic State supporters, who say ISIS doesn’t exist anymore; as soon as we declared a caliphate, it’s just the Islamic State. But then later on when they got to know me a bit better, they said, you know, we don’t really care that much what you call us; we just like the idea that you’re spending a lot of time thinking about what to call us because as long as you’re doing that, you’re not discussing—
ROSE: What does Daesh mean?
WOOD: Daesh just means ISIS. It’s the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
ROSE: So Daesh is ISIS. And what’s the difference between ISIS and ISIL for some of these people?
WOOD: ISIS, with the S on the end, the last S stands for Sham, which means the Levant, basically, in Arabic. So L for Levant, S for Sham, ISIS/ISIL—same thing.
ROSE: So for all practical purposes, ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh can be used interchangeably for the purposes of this discussion?
WOOD: Yes, that’s right. I do not spend too much time thinking about—
ROSE: Got it. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
WOOD: There are—there is the fact that Daesh sounds a bit like some words in Arabic that are not nice. And so if you call them Daesh, they feel like it’s maybe a bit of an insult. But you know, in the end, they would much prefer that we discuss nomenclature than discuss how to kill them, like most people. (Laughter.)
ROSE: OK, so what is—what is the idea that these people have that is the ideational version of this movement?
WOOD: It’s a kind of theological purity, for one thing. So they spend far more time than other similar types of jihadist groups insisting on questions like who is a Muslim, whether there is a particular kind of view of scriptural interpretation that one takes. So that’s part of it.
The other part, though, is political. They have—they have declared a caliphate, and they think that’s very, very important, that by declaring a caliphate, everybody has to go to them, that—
ROSE: Explain for a second what a caliphate is.
WOOD: And a caliphate—a caliphate is a—it is a resurrection of an institution that most people think was—has been extinct since 1924 when the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished by the republican Turks. But it is a Muslim state that is led by one person, who is a caliph, which—a word which literally means a successor, successor usually considered to the prophet Muhammad as the political leader of Muslims all coming together.
So what ISIS—what they did by declaring a caliphate, for many of the people I spoke to, was—it’s as if they switched a light on. There was suddenly an entity that required the allegiance of all Muslims, caused them to be required, obliged individually to come to fight under the direction of the caliph.
ROSE: So, like, they send out a big bat signal, and now everybody has to come?
WOOD: It’s the ultimate jihadist bat sign, that’s right. And sure enough, you know, that’s what we observed from 2013 and then really in force once the declaration happened in 2014 up until the point where the bat sign turned out to be too dangerous to heed. Like, the Islamic State actually said, if you follow the bat sign, apparently you’re going to get killed, stopped, arrested; we’d rather you ignore it and then just attack where you are.
ROSE: You said that this is Islamic, but it’s a kind of oddball or extreme or not universally accepted operationalization of some strands of Islam. Is that basically correct?
WOOD: Yeah, it—
ROSE: And how would you gloss that?
WOOD: It’s not just that I say it. That’s what ISIS itself says, that they recognize that their interpretation is an extreme minority among Muslims. And they say that that interpretation, that means that most Muslims who have actively rejected them—which is most Muslims—are no longer Muslims. So they—
ROSE: So by definition, if you’re a Muslim but don’t agree that this is the new caliphate, you are an apostate?
WOOD: They’ve got a long list of things that they say would nullify your Islam. And these include voting in an election, any kind of worship of a grave or a saint. These—it—the list just goes on and on and on. But yeah, being persnickety about these questions is really their favorite sport, and they practice it pretty avidly.
ROSE: I don’t want to make any invidious comparisons, but there are lots of religions and there are lots of small subgroups in those religions who think they have sort of the true faith and bash their other co-religionists for not being—could you make any—what—is it useful at all to think in terms of, well, ISIS is to Islam as X is to Christianity or Y is to Judaism or whatever?
WOOD: Yeah, again, I can—I can actually put the comparison in someone else’s mouth here. I, in part of my prior reporting, had been reporting on the Westboro Baptist Church, this famous group out of Kansas, pickets the funerals of American soldiers. And I actually had someone from the Westboro Baptist Church, whom I had interviewed, read the story in The Atlantic and say, I read it, that’s us; that is us; we are the Christian version of ISIS. And—
ROSE: OK. So ISIS is the Islamic version of the Westboro Baptist Church.
WOOD: And the analogy can be extended too. She had left the church at that point and said—I was trembling a bit when I noticed the comparisons—but one of the comparisons was that ISIS is constantly—was constantly, as of 2014, being denigrated as not knowing anything about Islam; not being concerned with Islamic texts, scripture, history. And the Westboro Baptist Church, she said, would constantly have people drive by them when they’re on these horrible pickets and say, you don’t know anything about Christianity, you’ve never read the Bible.
And she said, the problem was not that we hadn’t read the Bible; we had definitely read the Bible. The problem was we had an interpretation of the Bible that favored us to the exclusion of 99.9 percent of other Christians, and that required us to have a literal reading that compelled us to do these things that she had at that point rejected.
But the comparison, she said, was almost perfect.
ROSE: OK, so let’s stick with ideology for 200. If this is an instantiation ideologically of a particular subset—extreme subset of Islamic theology and practice, what are the main characteristics, according to its believers, that—you know, what are the essential principles of their version of Islam.
WOOD: So they believe a particular type of theological interpretation. We could—there are some religious scholars who would debate this, but call it a kind of literalism. They reject allegorical readings of religious text. They reject basically anything other than the—a very clear reading of—for example, when the Koran refers to the hand of God, doesn’t mean power of God, doesn’t mean authority of God, means the thing at the end of one’s arm. So it’s—
ROSE: Do they believe in a corporeal God with a big hand or—
WOOD: Well, this is one of the debates that they have, which really shows that they—you know, this doesn’t say anything about who you shoot next. So it’s not merely trying to figure out whether the Shia or the Kurds should be attacked first as a matter of expansion. They have—at least in some of their followers they have a whole discourse that’s going on on purely theological matters that they care about a lot. So—
ROSE: So their version of do the—how many angels stand on the head of a pin.
WOOD: Exactly. So—and we can say if God has a hand, does that mean he’s corporeal? Well, only if we think of his hand as a corporeal humanlike hand. So it gets much more complicated, and we don’t need to go there.
WOOD: So that’s the theological side. Politically, legally, they believe the resurrection of a particular form of government, caliphate, which we described before, and legally they believe in the resurrection of bygone institutions, laws, punishments that—you know, most of the ISIS propaganda has consisted of photo essays, videos of these—of these laws being put into motion, that is, people’s hands being cut off; beheading of sorcerers, apostates, and so forth; stoning of adulterers. That’s the—that’s the typical fare if you’re—you know, if you’re unlucky enough like me to be looking at their telegram channels.
ROSE: OK. So you said you talked to some of these people who were supporters of this concept and approach and idea and group before there was even an actual instantiation of the group on the ground. So what did that mean? There was a movement in this direction, which at some point a few years ago suddenly became instantiated in the thing? I mean, were there Winklevosses before the Zuckerberg, Baghdadi, took over the idea—(laughter)—and made it real? How does that work? What are you—
WOOD: Yeah, without making any claims about who invented Facebook, I will say there are definitely al-Qaeda ideologues who had made a career out of saying things that are completely compatible with the Islamic State and who were left out of the Islamic State once it was actually founded.
ROSE: So there are people talking about this kind of stuff in various ways, and then Baghdadi and others create it.
WOOD: He actually did it.
ROSE: What did he do?
WOOD: So you find people like—there’s a cleric I mentioned several times in my book named Maqdisi, who’s somewhat famous now, in Oman, a well-known al-Qaeda ideologue who had said, well, a lot of people who claim to be Muslim are not, that one of the things that we need to do is create a state. The type of state that we would create is a caliphate. Well, that sounds familiar. He was left out of that because he was in Oman rather than inside the brain trust of the Islamic State. What Baghdadi did is to stand up and say these are the criteria for being a caliph, and they include lineage, they include physical characteristics, they include the fact that he is a free Muslim male. I fulfill all of these things, and I also have enough power to implement law along the lines that we were describing. That’s it.
ROSE: So he basically declared himself the new caliph.
WOOD: I’m the caliph, now bow down before me, follow me, come to me, and follow my orders.
ROSE: Now this happened in this sort of Syria/Iraq chaos where in the wake of the Syrian civil war, the Iraqi invasion and the—essentially, there were badlands that weren’t essentially being governed by anybody, and this is where that new state sort of emerged?
WOOD: Yes, it incubated in Syria, expanded militarily into Iraq, and then he sort of crowned himself in the city of Mosul. Now, what was interesting for me to find in talking to sympathizers was to discover that many of them, they had this idea that a caliphate needed to be declared. They also knew what the criteria were for a caliph. And they were insistent enough on this that once they saw that Baghdadi actually had the characteristics that he would have to have to declare himself caliph—that he actually controlled space or he could govern the way he would have to govern—that they went to him before he declared himself caliph and said: You've got to do it. You don’t have a choice. You are the only one who can do this, and the fact that you have not done it means that if you persist in this error, you yourself will be removed from Islam and we’ll fight you. So actually, before the moment when he publicly declared himself caliph, he and his people had gone to dissident factions within the Islamic State support group and said chill out. Just give us a few moments. We’re going to declare Baghdadi a caliph, and then we’ll go from there.
ROSE: OK. So he creates—he and his followers create the Islamic State, they declare it, they take over some territory, and they declare themselves in charge of this territory with no other political authority around. And in a Syrian version of Waco, there’s now an Islamic version of the Branch Davidian compound, and it’s there, sitting there in Syria, governing its followers, trying to create a 21st century version of a pure Islamic life and community.
WOOD: Yeah, well said. I would say also that the kind of revival element of this is very important. It’s not just like a Waco on a grand scale. It’s almost Jurassic Park-like in the idea that they are going to take bygone things and then make them so. So the idea that you would revive an institution like slavery—which, you know, the Muslim world has not put this high on its list of priorities, reinstituting the institution of slavery—the Islamic State said it happened before, it has to happen again now. It’s not an optional element of our religion. We’ve got to do it. If we’re going to take over a space and we have men, women, and children who are now under our control, one of the options that we have is to enslave them. So, by golly, we’re going to do it.
ROSE: OK, so you have this area controlled by these people in the badlands of Syria, then expands a little bit to the badlands of Syria and Iraq. Why is this a major problem for people outside this community?
WOOD: Well, one of the elements of their belief is that the frontiers of the state must be expanded. So they believe that it’s possible to have diplomacy of a sort. There can be a truce. It may not last more than 10 years. But the borders of the caliphate must expand, and they must expand through force, conquest. They must expand against the will of the people they’re expanding into. So it’s not a group that has in its DNA the ability to play well with others.
ROSE: So what happens in Raqqa doesn’t stay in Raqqa. You know, there’s—
WOOD: It’s going to (creep further ?). There has to be some—
ROSE: And so do they take the early Islamic conquests throughout the region more generally as a model for what they would like to do as well now?
WOOD: Yes, they flatter themselves with the comparisons to the earliest Muslims, and one of those comparisons is the fact that Islam spread very quickly in its early stages. So they say, look, we took over a space this large. We’ll compare it to how much space Mohammed had taken at the same stage in his reign and say, oh, looks pretty good. We’re on the right track.
ROSE: Three kinds of people: believers in their community, Muslims who do not believe their version of Islam, non-Muslims. What are their attitudes and relations toward those three different groups?
WOOD: So themselves in their own community—
ROSE: Themselves, other non-IS Muslims, and non-Muslims.
WOOD: Yeah, so non-IS Muslims, if you’re willing to submit to their rule and you’re a Sunni Muslim, then that’s basically fine. You become one of them, even if you’re not one of the hardcore believers that are in the inner circle. They think of themselves as spreading a kind of truth to other Sunni Muslims. Now, if you are a non-Muslim, which includes, of course, many people who would describe themselves as Muslim, but they’re Shia or they’re Sufi, and you fall under their—under their control, well, if you’re a fake Muslim, then you’re an apostate, you get killed.
ROSE: So apostates are worse than nonbelievers.
WOOD: Yes. If you’re a nonbeliever, then there are different options for you. You don’t get to choose, but one of those options is death, one of them is freedom, another one is ransom, and another one is enslavement. And then the fifth—this is if you actually allow yourself, if you submit to them rather than being captured, if you’re a Jew, a Zoroastrian or a Christian, then you have the option of living under their protection after paying a tax and a kind of token humiliation.
ROSE: OK. So we’ve got this community. They’ve instantiated themselves. They have an aggressive ideology that says we need to have sort of jihad and expand our writ. It’s particularly bad for pretty much anybody who comes under their sway, but particularly non-IS Muslims who are apostates. This produces, first, in the chaos a spread from their initial base to a lot of areas around it, but then a pushback—sorry, first, why does this manage to spread so quickly a couple of years ago to other areas in Iraq and Syria?
WOOD: So the first really dramatic period of spread was when they took Mosul. I was in Mosul at the beginning of 2013. Very dangerous time to be there. And one of the observations that anyone who just walked the streets there could see was that the presence of the Iraqi central government, in the form of the military, was extremely restricted. They were in little garrisons at the airport, another base. And the streets themselves, according to everyone I spoke to, were very dangerous places where al-Qaeda could strike at any moment, could kidnap, could kill, could extort. So I think that that’s the context we need to think of in the space where ISIS eventually expanded. It was an area where they—it was a very soft target because of the weakness of the central government and also because of the need of ordinary people for some kind of rule of law. And that is one of the things that ISIS provided. As soon as they arrive in a town, in a city, they say, look, we have this 3-by-5 card that has all the important rules of living under ISIS, and we will implement these rules with brutal force. That sounds pretty good if what you’re used to is the chance of just being killed at any moment.
ROSE: We saw something like that with the Taliban in Afghanistan in the ’90s. Are you saying that what happened in Iraq and Syria and those areas was somewhat similar to the Taliban’s in effect taking over/being welcomed by local populations who preferred severity and religious orthodoxy to complete anarchy and chaos?
WOOD: That’s exactly what I’m saying, and it’s part of the mode of expansion that ISIS has had not just in Iraq but elsewhere in its periphery. It looks for places where there is criminality, where there is—where there is a lack of unity among Muslim groups—so places like Mindanao, southern Philippines. This is a place where there is plenty of violence, that there’s no one who’s really in charge. The chances of you getting kidnapped are pretty high compared to other parts of the world. And ISIS will come in and say, look, we will provide the unity, we will provide the rule of law, and we will provide, as kind of the topping to this, Islam. We will provide the proper way to be Muslim. They believe that the expansion starts with a disunity and chaos, and then ends with a purity.
ROSE: By the way, actually, if they’re similar to the Taliban, how are they different from the Taliban? Why isn’t this just the Taliban II?
WOOD: I think the main thing would be that element of theological purity. So they actually write about the Taliban and how the Taliban are Deobandi, that they’re Hanafi-influenced, and that they’re on the wrong track in that way, that the legal systems that they would implement would be wrong. And they say if you’re wrong enough, then you’re out of the club.
ROSE: So right idea, but we’re the ones to actually operationalize it.
WOOD: Yeah, there are many different groups that have basic similarities of creed that are not close enough, and ISIS will make a big deal out of those differences.
ROSE: So they expand to these areas. They provide this kind of stuff. The world wakes up. The Iraqi Shia and government wake up. The Kurds wake up. The U.S. government wakes up. And everyone realizes, oh, shit, we have to do something about this now. They put pressure back, and over the course of the next three, four years you get this gradual slow squeeze push in the back. Have the—has the operation on the—one of the things that other people have commented on—you’ve talked about as well—is that once you have a state, that becomes a target for people who want to suppress you and contain you, and so once they had their territory and their state, they became something that you could attack on the ground in the region with traditional conventional forces. You don’t have to worry about whether there’s a giant hand of God coming down because the hand of the U.S. could actually come down physically and root you out. So you have this pushback. How is—very briefly, how is the pushback on the ground, the slow squeeze, the anaconda crunching against them going?
WOOD: My read on it is that it’s been very successful. So the percentage of territory I don’t know. It fluctuates day by day, but it’s on the order of 70 percent of the original footprint of ISIS has been taken away and does not look like it’s going to—
ROSE: Say it again out loud?
WOOD: Seventy percent of the—
ROSE: Seventy percent of the territory they controlled at their peak has now been taken away. So they’re now back into—they’re forced back into a 30 percent share of what their peak was.
WOOD: Yes, and that 30 percent share is the city of Mosul—now just West Mosul—the city of Raqqa, and other little spots here and there. So that’s all to the good. The problem that I’ve seen—and in writing this book I was not most—for most of the time in Mosul, in Syria. I was talking to people elsewhere. I was talking in Tokyo, in Melbourne. You were very nice to suggest that I’m intrepid in going to places, but, believe me, Tokyo is a very safe place, even if you’re talking to someone who has nice things to say about the Islamic State. So there’s also this global element. You know, these people, not all of them are dangerous, but they exist in a lot of places because they have a mental view of a caliphate that they think the Islamic State represents.
ROSE: OK, so talk about that. The relationship between the central organization on the ground in—you know, in Syria and Iraq, and the wannabes, the affiliates, the franchises—how should we think about the non-geographically—the noncontiguous members of ISIS?
WOOD: There are different types. So there might be—in Mindanao there are actual groups that affiliate themselves with ISIS, that wave the flags whenever they take over a town for a day or two, and these are groups that are aspirationally a part of ISIS. ISIS will have direct contact with them. And once they have vetted them, once they’re sure that they’re willing to admit them as full members, then they become provinces of ISIS. So that’s probably the closest type of association we could think of. But there are many others, and these were really the fodder for my discussions: people who themselves are standing up and saying ISIS is the greatest thing ever and we need to support it as Muslims. So these people, they range from I’m just a guy who heard about ISIS, and I stand up and I parrot its views, to some people, like the guy I talked to in Melbourne who has been in direct contact with ISIS regularly—on an hourly basis, it seemed, when I was talking to him—and he has been asked by ISIS to fulfill specific roles as a translator of their propaganda into English. He was told—I don’t know what Foreign Affairs’ editorial process looks like, but he had somewhere in the flowchart of how an article gets published his spot where he was supposed to translate it, edit it, and then send it off to the design team. So there are in some cases—
ROSE: Was this for—
WOOD: This was—this was for the statements made by the caliph and by the caliph spokesman.
ROSE: Is the Beacon an actual sort of publication of theirs and—
WOOD: I’ve never seen a printed copy of Dabiq being handed out in the Islamic State. For those of you who don’t know, this is the glossy magazine that the Islamic State produced that frankly was an incredible thing. The production values were extremely high, and the sole purpose of it was to get the word out about what the Islamic State was all about and to describe in greater detail than I’ve given here what the kind of—
ROSE: Is it an accurate guide to what they’re actually thinking? Can you read it that way?
WOOD: It’s coming out of ISIS central command. So, yes, this is as close to a canonical statement as you will find.
ROSE: Where does terrorism against Americans fit into the broader mission? Is this what they wake up thinking? Gee, I want to strike the far enemy? Is this thinking, gee, these guys are just coming at me?
WOOD: It’s really changed from month to month—
ROSE: Because the way you describe it, terrorist group is not the terminology that would come to mind, first and foremost.
WOOD: No, I mean we were talking about a group that has its own inflight magazine. It’s not the kind of thing—you know, some of the people I would meet, they were—you know, they would have soccer clubs and so on. So, terrorist group does not fit comfortably with our mental picture of what these people actually are.
That said, they have at different points had different directives to their followers. In the beginning, it was definitely not to attack where you are, it was go to the Islamic State. If you’re an American, you have a passport, you’re not on the no-fly list, then you must collect cans by the side of the road or do whatever it takes to get enough money so you can get to Turkey and then cross the border. That has changed, though. So, as I mentioned, the bat signal no longer means what it used to mean, and as of May 2016, the Islamic State said attack where you are, it’s not worth trying to get here anymore. When you wake up you should just be thinking about how you can end the day dead.
ROSE: I love playing Ask Mr. Wizard. It’s one of my favorite games. The best part of the job at Foreign Affairs is that I get to hang out with and interact with all these world experts on every subject under the sun and stuff that I don’t know jack all about and I get to simply ask them and have them tell me, which is really great, but I want to broaden this so that you, too, can play Ask Mr. Wizard.
So, at this point, having set up some of the basic facts and got them out there, I’m going to throw this open for more general discussion. At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. Note, please do not refer to members as audience. (Laughter.) A reminder, this meeting is on the record. Wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question and keep it concise.
And so, with that, let me throw it open to you guys so you can ask Graeme anything you would like. Consider him a one-stop-shopping for everything ISIS-related; it’s fair game, and he will answer to the best of his ability.
In the back, standing up.
Q: Hi. Mike Derham, Novam Portam.
The obvious question is, what has ISIS’s reaction been to the events over the weekend? You know, you see news headlines about they think that Donald Trump and especially the Executive Order on immigration is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Does this really change, kind of, their approach to the West or their kind of strategy or is it just a flash in the pan?
WOOD: The question is their reaction to the so-called Muslim ban? I have seen no reaction at all; certainly no reaction from the official sources about the Islamic State. Their news agencies—they will occasionally have stand-alone articles that they will publish about things, and nothing has been said about the Muslim ban. There’s an obvious interpretation of it, of course, which is to say that our view of the world is also that Muslims should not be going to the United States. Our view is that they should all be coming to us. So, there’s an obvious kind of congruence there.
Their actual statements about Donald Trump, though, have been pretty interesting. There was an article that was published in a, kind of, Dabiq-like format, as a stand-alone piece called The Apostate Vote, which I believe was written by the senior American within ISIS, and it was right before the election. And although many people were saying ISIS would sure like Donald Trump to win this election, that article made very clear: We don’t care who wins. You’re both completely evil, so there’s no distinction between you. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Yes, back there—woman in the back row.
Q: Hello. Who is the senior American in ISIS, and how did he end up there?
WOOD: The senior American in ISIS is a young fellow, about 33 years old from Plano, Texas. He’s a convert. His name is John Georgelas. And of the—
ROSE: Was he an Evangelical? Was he, like, a Branch Davidian type before ISIS, just switched the nature of his radicalism?
WOOD: He was a very enthusiastic Greek Orthodox kid, an altar boy. His dad is a U.S. Air Force Colonel and a radiologist. His granddad served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs for a few years in the 1960s. So, he didn’t come out of a background that was either poor or less than patriotic or—he didn’t suffer as a kid. But at some point, in his teens, he decided this is not the life for me so he converted, quickly went jihadist and over the course of about 10 years he radicalized to a point that once the Islamic State came into being, he recognized it as the thing he had been talking about for all these years. He just said, there’s a caliph here. He fulfills all the criteria. He’s calling me and I must go. So as of 2014—2013, he had taken his family of four to Syria. His wife and kids fled at the last minute. But he made it to Raqqa, and now he is one of the principal writers of Dabiq Magazine. He is of the 50-odd Americans who have gone over there, by far the most important in the group.
Q: Have you interacted with him?
ROSE: Actually, take—I’m sorry, what?
Q: Has he interacted with him? Has he interviewed him?
ROSE: Have you met him? Have you talked to him?
WOOD: I have not met him. Part of the exploration of this book was to find out who he was and how he got to be so crazy. So, I spent a long time reading everything that he’d written. He had littered the internet with these bizarre essays about the permissibility of marijuana, about the ideal form of Muslim government, every topic under the sun; again, some of them purely theological with no political or terroristic element to them. And eventually, I got a pretty good picture of him, but a conversation has not yet happened.
ROSE: So ISIS is in favor of drug reform? (Laughter.)
WOOD: This particular ISIS member thinks that cannabis is a pretty awesome thing. (Laughter.)
ROSE: A quick two-finger on that. Are the Americans connected with ISIS, like this guy, basically very similar to the Americans who popped up in the Taliban, the Americans who popped up in al-Qaida, the Adam Gadahn types and so forth? Or is there some difference with this particular group of American sympathizers, wannabes, et cetera?
WOOD: So we’re talking about small numbers in each of these cases, but you do see people like Adam Gadahn, who went to al-Qaida; and then John Walker Lindh, who went to the Taliban—
WOOD: —who have very similar kind of mental model of what they’re doing. They think of themselves as scholars, first and foremost, and you know, they go over there to fulfill what they view as a—what you discover about the requirements of Islam if you study it for years and years and years.
What we see, also, in the case of ISIS is a bunch of complete knuckleheads; people who know nothing about Islam, but who have enough of a sense of adventure and credulity to go over there without that kind of scholarly background.
ROSE: OK, next question. Yes? One second. Wait for the mic. Both. You can do both.
Q: OK. I’m Hillary Wiesner from Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Your article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” caused a sensation and huge debate. You were trying to place this movement as a current Muslim identity movement, as a political movement, and your placing it—your recognizing it as something in the spectrum of Muslim movements was kind of verified when a former grand imam of the mosque in Mecca, Adil al Kalbani, recognized ISIS saying, yeah, that’s us; that’s basically our form of Islam—just a bit harsher. I wanted to give you an opportunity to address maybe the most usual critique of the book, which is that in illustrating the theology of ISIS, people believe that you are saying that theology is the reason people join, is the reason that people come, and so the scientists who study extremism say; but that’s not the reason that most people join and therefore Graeme Woods’ argument is just a theological, kind of, something on the side. It can’t be true if that’s not why people are joining.
Please, tell me what you think about that.
The data that we have on why people join ISIS in particular, are at a point still, I would say, incomplete. You find people like John Georgelas, who goes by the name Yahya Abu Hassan—the Plano, Texas, cannabis, ISIS cleric—(laughter)—he is clearly attracted to this because of a long period of—and we know this because he was talking about this before ISIS ever existed. He was describing a utopia, and then that utopia or something that claimed to be that utopia came into existence and then he went over there. So, I don’t think in his case, for example, that it would be easy to attribute his movement and his allegiance to some other hankering beyond that.
Now, there are definitely other people who are going to be going over there for other reasons. There is certainly a—how should we put it? There’s a record of misbehavior, I think, on the part of a lot of people who have gone to ISIS—and actually, to extricate that from the theological questions is harder than it looks. So, people will often point out that, hey, these people that are going to ISIS—they’re petty criminals, they’re drug users, they are prostitutes, et cetera—and ISIS, they say, well, that’s true. You know, we’ve got a lot of sinners that have come to our movement. They have come to our movement to purge themselves of the sins of their former life. So, often people will point to that and say, look, these are people who just engaged in serial criminality and ISIS is the culmination of that. That is not exactly false, except that ISIS is the culmination of that because of the religious message that it has.
So it’s—at this point, I don’t think we can generalize about why people are going or what comes first—the religion or the misbehavior.
ROSE: How similar is something like this to a cult, like a Jonestown kind of thing, in terms of people with troubled lives or are in need of spiritual guidance, find a community with a charismatic leader and an ideology and subordinate themselves to it and we call it a cult in some cases or a small group of a sect in others? Is that a way to think about this intelligently?
WOOD: It’s a very productive way to think about it, and I make that exact comparison in the book. The Jonestown comparison is a good one because Jonestown—it collected a lot of people who were very troubled in a lot of different ways. But to say that they were not there for religious reasons would be a weird interpretation of what they were doing. They were talking about what the ultimate good was in the world. They were considering questions that were ultimate questions about the nature of God, and they were there for that as well as whatever, again, kind of weird behavior that they’ve had before that brought them there. These things are all very closely tied together.
Q: I think, actually, even following that question—
ROSE: Can you stand up and state your name?
Q: Oh, sorry. Sorry. Eileen O’Connor at Yale.
Following that question is, what are the motivations for—I mean, maybe they’re troubled or whatever, but when we’re looking at eradicating ISIS, as been a stated policy goal, what about joining forces with Russia? Is that going to be a positive for eradicating, or a negative? And what are the actual effective tactics, particularly in the stopping the recruitment of foreign fighters? You talked about some in Tokyo. What about those who have been recruited in Russia and in Central Asia and former Soviet republics? Are they high numbers? And why are they recruited?
WOOD: So, on the Russia question in particular, the number of Russians who have gone to ISIS, I think, is not adequately appreciated. It’s above 5,000; probably fewer than 10,000. This is a huge number. We’re talking about—
ROSE: Are we talking Russian nationals or Russian ethnicity?
WOOD: We’re talking about Russian nationals, yeah.
ROSE: Are they—are they Muslim minority peoples from the Soviet Union or Russia, or?
WOOD: They are often Dagestanis, Chechens. And there are—
ROSE: So, it’s not like Ivan Ivanov is going off and joining ISIS.
WOOD: Ten percent of them might be Ivan Ivanov. So there’s a significant number of converts, but usually they’re from Muslim backgrounds.
This is a point of possible cooperation between the United States and Russia. But there are, need I say, downsides to cooperation as well because of the actions that Russia has taken in Syria already. The dangers of that cooperation for a number of reasons, PR included, are significant.
Q: Isn’t some of the reasons that they’re recruited in Russia is because of this, you know, discrimination?
WOOD: The question is, are they recruited in Russia because of discrimination or mistreatment there?
Q: Most of them don’t—
WOOD: That’s certainly a—it helps a great deal that Russia is not a comfortable place to be an observant Dagestani Muslim. And so, yeah, that’s one reason that so many are coming from there.
The other reason that so many have come from Russia is that it’s been fairly easy for them to do so, and there’s some evidence that Russia has even given people the option. You know, we can—we can really abuse you seriously here or you can go, get out of here, and Raqqa is the place that will take you.
ROSE: Yes, over here.
Q: Bob Scott, Adelphi University.
What are the points of argument about Muhammad’s teaching that inform the Shi’a and Sunni adherence or opponents to ISIS?
WOOD: What are the points that—
Q: The interpretation of Muhammad’s teaching that provide the basis for the argument for this caliphate.
WOOD: Well, these are foundational issues. The same issues that were—the theological issues that were behind the original split between the Sunni and Shi’a persist in the mind of ISIS as reasons enough for the divisions that they are so aggressively pursuing. I mean, these are questions about who succeeds the prophet, what are the sources of authority, is there—should we be looking to part of the prophet’s bloodline as interpreters of scripture; or are we looking to people who have piety and learning no matter who they are as Muslims? These are—these are very basic questions that ISIS takes seriously enough to cut people’s heads off over.
Q: And what are the opposing arguments? I mean, what’s the dynamic?
WOOD: Well, to give one—and this applies to not just Shia, but Sufis as well—ISIS is very insistent that there is—that if you are worshiping a shrine, that if you’re venerating a human being, then you are sharing the lordship of God with someone who’s not God, and that is a form of polytheism. So, if you do it, then you’re out.
ROSE: Yes, over here.
Q: Tim Phillips with CFR.
How do you destroy the Islamic State without occupying the territory that the control, and rob them of the legitimacy?
WOOD: Well, destroying them without occupying the territory, that is—
Q: Taking the territory back.
WOOD: Yeah, so the very fact that they controlled territory in the beginning distinguished them from other groups, like al-Qaida, and there was a moment that the fact that they could say they had that territory, it just magnetized people to come to that—to that space. So I do think it’s important to make sure that they don’t control any territory, for that reason and also because the people who live in that territory deserve better. How do you—but actually defeating the Islamic State without taking the territory back seems to be an impossible task.
ROSE: We will take a couple more. Yes, one over here.
Q: Hi. Rodney Culney (ph) with NYPD.
To the extent that ISIL is predicated on its theology, to what extent do you see that theology—do you see any signs of that theology coming under increasing pressure due to military losses on the ground and as it seeks to accommodate these affiliates kind of in far-flung places of the globe?
WOOD: No, I don’t. The question is, is the—are the setbacks of—the territorial setbacks things that compromise the appeal of the theology? Theology just doesn’t work that way. You know, there are particular claims that they’ve made about their eventual success, but the word “eventual” does a lot of work in those claims. So when they say we’re going to lose Mosul, we’re likely to lose Mosul, they don’t take that to—they interpret the prophecies in a way that includes setbacks along the way. And I don’t see that that causes their theology per se to be—to be destroyed or made less appealing.
ROSE: Yes, over here. Yeah. No, no, no. You, and the woman in front of you next.
Q: Sorry. Juan Ocampo with Trajectory.
Following up on that comment you just made, suppose General Mattis takes care of all of the territory in ISIS, you know, for the moment, and it’s gone. What happens next in the immediate aftermath for a few years? And are they more dangerous to us at that point?
WOOD: If the territory is taken back in Iraq and Syria—and the timetable that I hear right now is six months or so for that—for that to happen; that seems like a possible timetable—ISIS itself has directed its fighters to just retreat into the desert, to melt away, and then to do what they’ve done before—what they did after the Awakening, after the departure of American forces—and harass the authorities, whoever they are—American, Iraqi, Syrian—until such time as they can take back the territory.
The other thing that they have done, and have been working at it for a while, is those peripheral spots like northern Nigeria, Yemen, southern Philippines, Bangladesh, pursuing this second strategy of expansion, which is creating carnage, chaos, conditions that would get people to contemplate welcoming the Islamic State as an arbiter and a provider of order.
Then the last thing that they’ll do is, speaking to your last point about the danger that we face because of this, attacking American allies. They have spent a lot of time looking at ways to destabilize Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, we could go down the list of predictable suspects. And they’ll continue with that.
ROSE: Let’s see, over here.
Q: Thank you. Leah Pedersen Thomas.
We spoke a lot about the ideology and theology of ISIS. But in terms of its origination, I was under the impression that Baghdadi’s predecessor was very much involved in creating some sort of manifesto to demonstrate to Osama bin Laden that he was a—in fact, superior to Osama bin Laden or a peer of, and had we not—the United States—intervened in Iraq and recognized that manifesto, there’s a chance ISIS would not be in existence today. So I was just curious if you could talk a little bit more about the human element of the creation of ISIS, and about in particular Baghdadi’s predecessor.
WOOD: That’s a very interesting question. I mean, there is, you can—we’ve intercepted letters between al-Qaida and predecessors of Baghdadi, so we have a sense of how they were interacting with each other. And the personal enmity and lack of respect played a very big role in the—in the split between the two groups.
So the letter that I would direct your attention to, if you’re curious about this, is between Zawahiri and Zarqawi, who—Zawahiri directed Zarqawi to cut it out when it came to beheadings, seemingly random carnage against Shia, and said, look, we need to be open, to be inclusive; look, even Mullah Omar, he’s not theologically pure, but we got to line up behind him. And the response was—from Zarqawi himself, as far as we know, was none at all. It was just I’m going to just—I’m going to keep doing my thing. And the split was fateful, eventually, between al-Qaida and ISIS, as you say, and it has to do with a lot of those personal grudges, I think. They’ve been very important.
ROSE: One of the Council’s strict rules is we end on time. I’m already over and getting dirty looks from organizers.
On the other hand, we have one of the world experts on one of the most important questions of the day, who’s actually a calm, rational, serious person who could answer any question you might have, however unsatisfactorily. (Laughter.) And so here’s what we’re going to do. One, we’re going to go to the cocktail reception. And, second, I promise you on behalf of the Council that at some point over the course of 2017 we will find a way to bring Graeme Wood back for some sort of discussion, whether by himself or as part of a panel on ISIS, so you can have further opportunities to question him over time. Thank you all very much.
Thank you, Graeme.
WOOD: Thank you. (Applause.)