For most Americans, fears of terrorism have been fading from memory since the end of the Iraq War. As the world just witnessed, however, the threat of global terrorism is once again a reality thanks to the emergence of a radical, new, jihadist group – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Only by understanding how ISIS emerged and what exactly its leaders want can we address the threat it now poses. As it stands, the world’s leaders are ignoring vital information that may lead to disastrous consequences at the hands of ISIS.

So how did ISIS emerge?

As Kasra Shahhosseini reminds us, numerous factors contributed to the creation and growth of ISIS. The most commonly noted include: the invasion of Iraq and subsequent “early” withdrawal from that conflict, the civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces, and the new Iraqi government’s treatment of Sunni Muslims. Shahhosseini adds, however, that even these explanations are only the tip of the iceberg.

As Graeme Wood points out in The Atlantic: “Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.” But their ultimate aim – to establish an Islamic caliphate – is central to the radical fundamentalism that fuels the groups’ extraordinarily violent attacks. Their leader, caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi plays a unique role here as ISIS’s violent jihadi figurehead. As caliph, he must wage violent jihad at least once a year in order to maintain his legitimacy and his power.

This is just one of the many dangerously literalist interpretations that ISIS derives from the Qur’an. It is a less-well-known belief, however, that best explains ISIS’ motivation: ISIS believes it will bring about an apocalypse that is foretold by the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

In his interview with Musa Cerantonio, a notorious recruiter for ISIS, Wood found that ISIS believes they will continue to grow until they must wage a fateful battle in Dabiq, Syria. There, ISIS claims, it will meet the army of “Rome,” whose defeat “will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.” Here, “Rome” could be a reference to the Republic of Turkey which “ended the last self-identified caliphate 90 years ago.” However, some state that Rome may be any army of infidels, and there is adequate reason to suggest that the United State would fill this prophetic need exceptionally well.

After the fateful battle in Dabiq (where ISIS states it will suffer tremendous losses of soldiers until only 5,000 remain), the caliphate will expand to overtake Istanbul. Then, a figure claimed to be the anti-Messiah Dajjal will rise and nearly decimate the caliphate’s forces. “Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory,” Wood explains. Worryingly, most of ISIS’s members believe that these events will be coming soon.

What can we do to combat an enemy like this?

We have very good reason to believe that ISIS is attempting to coax the U.S. into a war right now to fulfill this prophecy. In an execution video filmed in November 2014, a masked executioner exclaimed “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.” Overlooking such radical intentions has clouded the judgement of many world leaders in attempting to counteract the group’s efforts.

The most disastrous move that the United States or any other developed nation could make would be to help fulfill the prophecy that ISIS has foretold. The more truth that ISIS can attribute to their predictions, the more certain radical Muslims around the world can be that ISIS is actually achieving its mission and be motivated to join its forces

Moreover, we cannot allow ourselves to be so easily convinced that ISIS is an enemy akin to, say, the army of an adversarial nation-state. While ISIS holds territory, the organization exists because of the weight of the idea it espouses. This idea has enabled ISIS to swell its ranks with recruits from a multitude of nations through a sophisticated social media campaign.

imrsGiven that ISIS derives its power from such ideas, many are rightly skeptical about the role an established nation can have in defeating it. Yet, arguments that the region should not be invaded leaves many citizens and government leaders around the world understandably dissatisfied. In light of ISIS’s capabilities as exemplified in the recent and tragic attacks in Paris, France, it appears the solution to the problem of ISIS cannot simply be to “do nothing.” If we are not to invade Syria and Iraq, creating a wellspring of new threats like ISIS in our wake, then what can the rest of the world do to eliminate this barbaric interpretation of Islam?

First, we must understand what would cause ISIS to lose its primary source of power: global appeal to impressionable recruits. Unlike al-Qaeda, which can survive by going underground, the very basis of its legitimacy is grounded in its Qur’anic imperative to maintain and expand the caliphate. If it loses its territory, it loses its legitimacy.

However – and this must be understood –  a boots-on-the-ground invasion in Iraq and Syria is an unacceptable response. This becomes clear if one recalls the series of events that led to ISIS’ emergence in the first place. Namely, the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Such a policy in Syria is highly likely to create only further instability in the region. History yields an unwavering insight: such intervention only breeds a feeding ground for more terror.

If the aim must be to decimate ISIS’s caliphate without initiating another foreign occupation, “continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options,” says Wood. The French have already initiated fierce retaliatory airstrikes in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Russia was not far behind. The U.S. may offer support in a similar fashion.

Other problems complicate matters, such as Russia’s forays in the Middle East. Perhaps worse, there is an American patriotism that, despite all earnest illustrations of the facts of history, convinces citizens and presidential candidates alike to support a foolhardy interventionist foreign policy. Such an agenda will assuredly meet ISIS’s desires for a clash of civilizations in Dabiq. There is still time to do the right thing, but it will require a comprehensive understanding of the mythology that fuels ISIS fighters, an acute reflection on the lessons of history, and an understanding that, in cases like this, there truly are no “good” options for ensuring a lasting peace.

This was originally written by Ty Hicks. 

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