You Don’t Know What ISIS Wants

In August of 2014, James Foley, an American journalist, became the first American casualty in the current conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) . Executed by beheading in a propaganda video distributed to a global audience via YouTube, Foley would quickly become a common name in foreign policy circles. His brutal execution would catalyze a strong American response which has surpassed, according to a report from CNN in early December of 2015, 20,000 missiles and bombs fired from American ships, warplanes, and drones, according to a report from CNN in early December, 2015. Within the American political scheme, there is a near unanimous fervor suggesting that a fight must be taken to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In his final State of the Union Address, President Obama asked Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to provide legal grounds to wage war against ISIS, and some Republican leaders, like Speaker Paul Ryan, have agreed. Naturally, there is disagreement on how that fight should take shape; Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellopposes an AUMF, but still believes that there should be a robust military response to the ISIS threat. But there has been an unusual development occurring in the rhetoric surrounding America’s response to ISIS. It has appeared that, overnight, politicians across the globe became experts in counterterrorism, psychoanalysis, and Islam. Since joining the fight against ISIS, Americans across the nation have become worried that our actions might be exactly what ISIS wants us to do.  ISIS, a vast network of fighters that has assembled supporters from West Africa to the Caucuses, is a complex organization with many goals and desires. We do not know their intentions, and shaping U.S. policy on ideological prejudices prevents realistic policy discussions from taking place.

We must wonder, how do so many people have such a firm grasp on what terrorists located over 6,000 miles away from the United States desire? Countless media pundits have written opinion pieces in dozens of respectable newspapers and journals claiming to know what ISIS wants and exactly how they want to achieve their goals. Politicians have begun to claim that their political opponents are potential allies to the terrorist group. An article ran in liberal news blogThinkProgress entitled “Trump’s Muslim Ban Is Exactly What ISIS Wants.” Several days later, Democratic presidential frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in the December, 2015 Democratic debate that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was “becoming ISIS’s best recruiter” and that “They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.” Aside from Politfact’s conclusion that Secretary Clinton’s statement was purely false, they raise important points regarding the ongoing rhetoric used to discuss ISIS.  President Obama urged the nation during his State of the Union to not buy into the belief that ISIS “[does] not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell.” Senator Ted Cruz, a leading Republican candidate for President, issued a statement in November 2015 after the deadly attacks in Paris, France that left over 100 dead and over 300 seriously injured, that ISIS “will not be appeased by outreach or declarations of tolerance,” advocating a much more forceful avenue against the terrorist group. There are many conflicting opinions as to what ISIS truly wants, and while this debate rages on, the capacity for American leadership in the efforts against ISIS fades.

In response to cries of racism and Islamophobia, Queen Rania of Jordan said in March of 2015 that there was “nothing Islamic about [ISIS].” This is rhetoric repeated in the U.S. by throngs of people, tending to be on the American political left. Following Queen Rania’s logic, attempting to find the long-term goals of the new “State in Iraq and Syria” should be relatively simple. All states, at some level, have the inherent goal to perpetuate their own existence and provide for (at least some of) their people. This non-Islamic state has done a relatively poor job at that theologically bereft goal through its rejection of participation in the international order.   A modern state would interact with other states by establishing embassies and attempting to achieve diplomatic recognition. Although ISIS has actually begun minting new coins to replace America’s “capitalist financial system of enslavement” according to a piece in Vice News, coupled with a vast bureaucracy governing issues from leisure to education as detailed in a December, 2015 profile in the Guardian, it has not attempted on any level to engage with the world resembling any level of modernity.  If the motivations of ISIS were absolutely devoid of Islamic theology, however unreflective it is of mainstream Islamic theology, the established Islamic State should then resemble any modern state.

De-Islamizing ISIS has several pointed political goals, chief among them, to disaffiliate the 1.6 billion global Muslim population from the several tens (or hundreds) of thousands of extremely radicalized fighters in ISIS-held territory. This goal is unabashedly noble in intent; however, its adherents practice a veiled form of Islamic apologism. Shadi Hamid with the Center for Middle East Policy headquartered in Washington, D.C., wrote in a November, 2015 Op-ed, “There is a role forIslamic apologetics – if defending Islam rather than analyzing it is your objective…. But if the goal is to understand ISIS, then I, and other analysts who happen to be Muslim, would be better served by cordoning off our personal assumptions and preferences.” Hamid makes a sound point; it seems that those who caution against potential actions against ISIS seem to have their own political preferences line up with “what ISIS wants.” For example, a non-interventionist who opposed both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars likely believes that anti-Muslim rhetoric is what ISIS wants, whereas an American right-winger possibly believes that accepting 10,000 refugees fleeing Syria is a form of capitulation and will allow for ISIS elements to slip into the United States undetected. Both perspectives tend to fail to listen to actual ISIS rhetoric which often focuses on Islamic scripture and tradition from the 7th and 8th centuries. While it is true that Dabiq, ISIS’s English-language magazine, does often share snippets of American politician’s speeches in its regular section “In the Words of the Enemy,” it barely amounts to a footnote in the larger context of ISIS propaganda.

Radical movements in the past few decades have shared an unintended unholy alliance with the philosophical left. Bits and pieces of videos created by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden share much of the same rhetoric as used in post-colonial scholarship, focusing fire on the imperialist powers of the global West, for example by noted scholar Noam Chomsky. Academics and bloggers have hounded on the messaging that people should be wary of viewing Muslims as the enemy as it potentially only feeds into ISIS’s supposed rhetoric.  Proponents of this ideology are often those who believe that calling ISIS by its Arabic equivalent Daesh. The final issue of Dabiq in 2015 was titled “Just Terror,” showcasing that brutal terrorists likely do not pay attention to what names they are called in American media, since they seem to be quite content with being viewed as terrorists.

America’s military responses to external threats should be informed by experienced military and counterterrorism experts. People often overestimate themselves when it comes to complex geopolitical issues.  The sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has mocked ISIS several times, but recently poked fun at the uninformed American understanding of ISIS. In its 2015 Thanksgiving episode, cast member Aidy Bryant played Aunt Kathy, the blissfully unaware family member who claims to have “seen an ISIS” in the grocery store and is very grateful that her governor rejected Syrian refugees, who are all supposedly “ISIS in disguise.”  We all have an Aunt Kathy in our families. We likely listen to an Aunt Kathy-like figure from the left on television being interviewed on MSNBC or as the stock-liberal on Fox News. My own mother stated her belief that ISIS did not want Americans to go to Times Square for New Year’s celebrations so that we might live in fear. The newly elected Mayor of Philadelphia Jim Kenney claimed that the January 9th attack by a self-professed ISIS supporter on Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett had nothing to do with Islam and “does not represent the religion in any shape or form or any of the teachings.”

For the past several years, Americans have been hearing an uninformed or semi-informed debate take place around “what ISIS wants” as it becomes muddied, it seems more like what “America wants.” Sun Tzu teaches us that it is crucial to “know your enemy,” but he believed that it was equally important to know oneself in order to win battles. The politicized rhetoric over ISIS’ desires prevents a thoughtful policy discussion from taking place.  Our political leaders should take measured actions without regard for “what ISIS wants,” as it is likely untrue and otherwise irrelevant to American interests in the region. ISIS propaganda videoshave professed a basic ISIS belief that America and other Western powers want to initiate another round of crusades in the Holy Land: a claim that most Westerners would dispute.  But as scary as it may be, we should come to terms that we do not “know what ISIS wants” short of what they tell us. And so far, they have told us that their goal is singular: to establish an Islamic caliphate.  In 2016, ISIS-watchers should make a collective resolution to stop wasting time discussing the (non)theological aspects of the terrorist organization and return to proposing sound policies to defeat another one of America’s enemies.

Kevin Michael Levy is a student in the School of International Service class of 2016. He can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.