Sun Tzu, generally considered a reliable source on Good War Ideas, said something along the lines of, “You’ve got to know your enemy in order to beat him, because some dudes hate being kicked in the junk and others seem to enjoy it.” The difficulty we’ve had defeating ISIS suggests that, maybe, we don’t really understand who and what the fuck they are. Everything we hear is filtered through politicians and pundits, each with their own agenda (“You know what ISIS is afraid of? Me, Donald Goddamned Trump!”). Fortunately, it turns out that finding out what ISIS wants is like finding out what a vegan eats: They’ll tell you. Which is to say that ISIS has a magazine.
No, really. It’s an actual glossy, full-color magazine called Dabiq, complete with feature articles and photo spreads. So, in the interest of understanding just what makes these violent lunatics tick, I read through 700-plus pages of this oddly well-put-together propaganda and learned …
#7. The Islamic State’s Official Publication Is Pretty Slick
Maybe it’s not surprising that the Islamic State has a regular periodical: Every crazy group of violent assholes in the world has some sort of leaflet or zine they publish. But Dabiq, the ISIS equivalent of Time mixed with People and a Chick tract, is something very different.
I read every single issue.
That’s a pretty darn competent (if simple) Photoshop of the Vatican flying an ISIS flag. Every issue runs 60 to 80 pages, all of them in color and all of them laid out with clear skill and experience in graphic design. A lot of it’s what you’d expect, like scripture-dense articles quoting the angriest verses of various holy books to make an insane point:
But it also features fawning People Magazine-like spreads of “celebrities,” a word which, for the Islamic State, means dead suicide bombers and insurgents.
Note the American rifle in his hands. That’ll come up later.
Most articles start with a solid two or three paragraphs of “all this happened only by God’s will,” “praise Allah for granting us victory,” etc. … but there’s also a regular series of columns by a British journalist, John Cantlie, imprisoned by the Islamic State since 2012. They’re … weird reads, to say the least. Cantlie’s clearly been edited in places, but a lot of the frustration and anger he spews toward British and American foreign policy at least seems genuine. Who knows, though?
Cantlie regularly praises the intelligence of the Islamic State’s leadership, but he also regularly calls them terrorists and refers to their horrific actions without being edited. Likewise, ISIS is only too happy to post the angry speeches of American politicians for their readers to study. “In The Words Of The Enemy” is a regular feature:
Which narrowly beat out “LOL, U MAD?”
Over the course of reading through 700-ish pages of ISIS propaganda, I learned a few things about their vocabulary: “Crusader” is the title for every Western soldier, civilian, and politician, regardless of party or nation. Obama and John McCain are both “Crusaders.” Another big word is “Hijrah,” which basically means “packing up your shit and moving to join the Islamic State.” Every issue includes multiple reminders that ISIS considers Hijrah a duty for all non-apostate Muslims.
Wait … look at the row of pictures on the left, third one down. Is that a fucking dead guy in their otherwise idyllic ad trying to convince people to join them? Yeah, as it turns out …
#6. They Are Very Honest About Some Things
Most propaganda endeavors to make one’s enemies appear as ugly and brutal as possible while portraying one’s own side as shining and blameless. The Islamic State does not do this. For one thing, their fawning ads about various jihadis don’t show only happy pictures … they almost always include a picture of the man’s corpse.
ISIS also doesn’t shy away from showing off their own nightmarish brutality: On top of being OK with the “terrorist” label, there are many, many pictures in the magazine of captives they’ve beheaded, mass graves filled with massacred civilians, and tons of explosion porn. This stark honesty about the physical realities of the war they are waging surprised me for a while. Eventually, after dozens of articles, I started to understand: Every story of some terrorist attack or execution started with “thanks be to Allah for this” or some comment about how the tragedy was part of the “perfect will” of Allah. It’s the same thing as the Westboro Baptist Church praising hurricanes and IEDs because, if God is all-powerful, then even awful and ugly things are God’s will and, thus, to be celebrated. That’s why every picture of jihadis at the site of some battle or terrorist attack has them pointing up at the sky:
“Uh, no thanks.” -God
The warriors of ISIS are proud to be terrorists and proud to be brutal. And learning this has made the Internet crusade to convince people to call them “Daesh” seem extra dumb.
Daesh is an acronym for the original name ISIS fought under before declaring their “caliphate” (a formal religious-led Islamic state) and, so the argument goes, they just hate it when you call them that. But from what I can tell, ISIS doesn’t seem to care much about that themselves. On Page 38 of Issue 4, they note that some Westerners call them Daesh matter-of-factly, without seeming to care much about it either way. It’s never brought up again and barely comes off as an annoyance within the context of the article.
“They even imitated the nusayriyyah and secularist opposition by labelling the Islamic State as ‘Daesh’ and ‘Tandhim ad-Dawlah,’ in a manner precisely mimicking the satellite channels and palace scholars of Al Salul and Qat …”
Attention Internet: People who celebrate pictures of civilians they’ve killed as well as pictures of their own friend’s murdered corpses don’t give a shit what you call them. I’ve heard it said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. But the folks at ISIS don’t consider “freedom” a good thing (they refer to themselves as “slaves of Allah” on virtually every page), and they are happy calling themselves “Soldiers of Terror” …
At the same time, it’s inaccurate to picture them as slavering bands of psychotic crazies, because …
#5. They Are Unbelievably Media-Savvy
The PR wing of ISIS, the Al-Hayat Media Center, understands social media at least as well as their counterparts in the U.S. Army. Part of this comes down to the fact that they’re well-informed: Their “In The Words Of The Enemy” column quotes American politicians extensively and shows a clear understanding of current events.
They’ve gotten very good at using Twitter to organize, as well as to spread their message:
Except for the whole “#HASHTAG” thing.
Members of ISIS use Twitter to recruit soldiers, as well as wives; they target young and vulnerable kids in a similar manner as sexual predators. (Likely because many of them are sexual predators.) ISIS’s media team also puts together a series of slick videos all aimed at convincing young people to undertake Hijrah and journey to the Islamic State. The most confusing part of reading Dabiq is seeing all this tech savvy on display with straight-up medieval barbarism. Take this ad for a video that features a man’s execution … complete with instructions for how to play it on VLC.
Poor VLC. You never wanted this.
Note how that video’s in a shitload of languages? So is Dabiq, the magazine itself, and the English in it is extremely good. ISIS is operating a multilingual recruitment campaign that has so far succeeded in winning them at least 25,000 foreign fighters and probably many more. Dabiq regularly prints advice for would-be recruits trying to make their way to the caliphate:
“So do not say to yourself, ‘I will never succeed in my Hijrah.’ Most of those who have tried, have successfully reached the Khilafah. Amongst them are those who travelled by land, sometimes on foot, from country to country, crossing border after border, and Allah brought them safely to the Khilafah.”
“Shirk” is probably their favorite word. It shows up in every single issue, often dozens of times.
They also regularly urge “true” Muslims who aren’t able to physically join the Islamic State to go out and murder a “crusader” near them. Sometimes this call to action works, as with the two men who attempted to shoot up that Draw Mohammed event (they received a full spread in Dabiq, despite failing to hurt anyone). When these calls end in horrific bloodshed, like last week’s attack in Paris, many people’s natural instinct is to say, “IF THE FUCKERS WANT TO DIE LET’S GO OVER THERE AND KILL ‘EM!” But Dabiq makes it incredibly clear that …
#4. Violent Reprisals Are Exactly What They Want
Every issue of Dabiq begins with the same quote: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” And here’s where the magazine gets its name.
Dabiq is an area in Northern Syria where, according to prophecy, Allah will do the whole “pillar of salt” thing on the armies of the West. For that to happen, we need to actually put our armies in Dabiq first. One thing reading 11 issues of Dabiq makes very clear is that ISIS considers a future U.S.-led invasion to be inevitable. They view the regional powers around them as destined to fall and, when that happens, in rides Uncle Sam and out pops the apocalypse.
Within the context of ISIS propaganda, being killed by a hellfire rocket isn’t a bad thing. And for the thousands and thousands of fighters who willingly flock to their banner, it’s the only expected outcome of that choice. The fanatics who signed up to fight are eager to die. Meanwhile, the civilians stuck where the Islamic State operates have to live through this nightmare, described by imprisoned columnist John Cantlie (and whoever is editing him):
Same guy from earlier.
“There was a heavy airstrike some time ago in the dead of night and I promise that you don’t sit there thinking, ‘Hurray, it’s the United States Air Force.’ As the doors shake on their hinges and the walls bulge momentarily inward from the shockwaves, you become incandescent with fury. For 20 minutes afterwards there are the sounds of babies crying in fear, mothers trying to soothe their children, and sirens as casualties are taken to hospital. It’s a side to ‘precision’ bombing that you never see back in the West.”
But while ISIS fighters consider a U.S. invasion fulfillment of prophecy and their own deaths a given, something does worry their top brass …
#3. Here’s What Scares ISIS
Obviously, Dabiq is propaganda. But you can learn a lot about what scares a given regime by reading its propaganda, and ISIS is no exception. For example: ISIS is having financial trouble right now. Roughly half of their income last year was from robbing Iraqi banks (a one-time source of cash). ISIS is currently spending around half of their revenue just paying their soldiers. One big cause for this economic collapse is that taxpayers are fleeing ISIS-held territory, because duh.
What exactly did you think all those refugees are refugeeing from?
Earlier this year, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on shore after his boat from Egypt sank. ISIS reprinted the image in Dabiq, along with a message warning their residents that THIS is what would happen if they tried to leave. ISIS knows most people who enter Islamic State territory wind up wanting to get the fuck out.
There was more clear evidence of this in the third issue of Dabiq, which concluded an article full of advice for people looking to join the Islamic State with these warnings:
Come on, guys! Don’t be so hard on yourselves.
Another major issue vexing ISIS is the difficulty of getting enough qualified specialists (doctors, mechanics, urban planners) to run their “state.” At least three of their articles issued pleading calls for physicians and other experts to please leave their comfortable lives behind for the explosion-filled cities occupied by the Islamic State group. At one point they ran a whole multi-page article about “Healthcare In The Islamic State,” complete with professional photos of their pristine facilities:
“Filled with the finest equipment blood money can buy.”
But while the article functions as propaganda for how great ISIS is at being a modern state, the last paragraph of that article reveals some desperation:
#2. They Consider The U.S. A Reliable Source Of Weapons
One thing ISIS isn’t short on is weaponry. Another word that pops up over and over again is “ghanimah,” an early Islamic term for “war booty.” The pages of Dabiq are regularly filled with pictures of tanks and artillery pieces taken as ghanimah, and the act of pilfering enemy weapons is so common that you’ll frequently see pictures like this:
Told you we’d be coming back to this.
Yeah, one guess as to where that rifle came from. Not long ago ISIS captured some 2,300 humvees we left in the care of the Iraqi military. You can actually browse this website for a comprehensive list of all the heavy hardware ISIS has and which countries it came from: The U.S. and Russia dominate the list.
Oh, great, a giant cannon. That’s exactly what they needed.
Some of this weaponry was left with the Iraqi Army … but a bunch of it comes from American efforts to arm “friendly” militant groups in Syria. Unfortunately, it’s often not easy to discern which groups are friendly to which side, let alone the motivation behind the different groups’ actions. In fact …
#1. We Don’t Really Understand How ISIS Sees The World
My main takeaway from 700-odd pages of ISIS propaganda is how fucking little reading the news and listening to American politicians had educated me about what ISIS really is, and what it wants. For example, did you know ISIS is fighting a war on drugs too? Yep: And they celebrate seized caches of drugs as happily as they celebrate military victories:
Because now they’re the ones that get to sell it.
And did you know that ISIS and Ron Paul actually have some economic attitudes in common? The Islamic State is all about the gold standard …
The issue after announcing that, they actually made poor John Cantlie write a column about gold that wouldn’t have looked out of place anywhere on the Internet Libertarians are known to tread (“Economic meltdown is approaching fast, and the world needs a stable currency it can rely on”).
But the thing that most surprised me was how little I understood their worldview. I didn’t realize they hated Iran until I learned the word “rafidah,” which kept showing up before “ayatollah.” It means “rejector,” as in they reject the proper interpretation of scripture. ISIS considers the Iranian regime heretics and lumps them in with the U.S. and Russia as enemies. They even insinuate that former Iranian President Ahmadinejad is a puppet of Israel.
You won’t believe the Rule 34 they made of this for the ISIS DeviantArt account.
Also fighting against ISIS, with Iran’s backing? The Taliban. Yes, ISIS hates the Taliban too.
The caption at the bottom says, “The Taliban walk hand-in-hand with the tawaghit.” That last word is an old Islamic term for, essentially, someone who becomes a false idol. A person who becomes “worshiped” in a manner fit only for Allah. Other tawaghit include Al-Qaida. That’s right — ISIS hates the guys who did 9/11. Check this out:
There is a caption on that photo sarcastically calling a British drone a “symbol of hope” for Al-Qaida, who recently pissed off ISIS by calling them too extreme. In fact, General David Petraeus recently suggested the U.S. use Al-Qaida fighters against ISIS. If all this seems surprising or counterintuitive to you, that’s a sign of how little anyone including the U.S. government understands ISIS. There’s a reason every prediction we’ve made about them has fallen flat. Up until very recently, the official word was that ISIS had just 35,000 active fighters. But now it looks like the CIA got that one wrong, and ISIS may have as many as 200,000 jihadis in their ranks.
But the most surprising thing I learned about ISIS during my reading is that the primary target of their hatred is not the United States. It’s not France or Russia, either. The one “enemy” they devote more time to ranting against than anyone else is the “apostate Muslim.” The vast majority of people ISIS kills are Muslims. They use one slur in particular — “Safawi” — to refer to Shiite Muslims. That word is a play on the name of the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Persia in the 15-17th centuries and which you almost certainly haven’t heard of even though soldiers for the most notoriously evil organization in the world use it as a curse every day.
Jeez, it’s almost like the scope of the problem ISIS represents is far too complex to boil down to a Facebook status. Go figure.