Why Do They Do It?

Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State BY Ali Soufan. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 384 pages. $27.

The cover of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State

ACROSS THE MIDDLE EAST, the Islamic State is on the run. The caliphate has been crushed in Mosul, uprooted from the desert cities of central Iraq, evicted from the war-torn reaches of northern Libya. Within months, US-backed forces will overrun the ISIS capital, Raqqa. In Turkish cafés, you can find Islamic State defectors smoking narghile and licking their wounds, and across Europe, dejected foreign fighters are returning home. The cost of this defeat has been astounding: thousands, or maybe tens of thousands, dead; whole cities in ruin; polities so fractured they may take a generation to heal. In Iraq and Syria, the immediate question is whether, amid such chaos, the Islamic State’s remnants will congeal into an ISIS 2.0, or if, as with the Khmer Rouge, it was all a horrifying flash in the pan. This suggests deeper, more abiding questions: Where exactly did the Islamic State come from, and how can we ensure we never see it again?

Since 2014, a welter of breathless books have appeared, part of what some analysts have called the “ISIS-hysteria industry.” But a few recent works offer a promising dose of sobriety, restraint, and real insight. We now have memoirs from Syrians living under ISIS control and scholarly dissections of financial and administrative records recovered by US soldiers (the Islamic State is full of punctilious bureaucrats, as was its forerunner Al Qaeda in Iraq). Two recent entries in this trend are Anatomy of Terror by Ali Soufan and The Way of the Strangers by Graeme Wood. Unlike many predecessors, both authors speak Arabic, spent time in the Middle East, and interviewed countless Islamic fundamentalists. They prod us to think beyond the hysteria and strive for genuine understanding, no easy feat in the current political moment. These works are important signposts of ISIS commentary, among the best the field has to offer—and yet they are also deeply flawed. They reflect the profound confusion that, sixteen years into the war on terror, still plagues the West’s thinking about terrorism, Islam, and war.

Together, the two books illustrate a dichotomy running through the genre. For some, ISIS is an essentially Islamic phenomenon, so to make sense of the fighters’ actions we must come to terms with their religious beliefs. For others, ISIS and similar groups have little to do with Islam. Their members are not sincere believers; instead, they garb themselves in the language of the heavens while pursuing more earthly concerns like wealth and power. In its extreme form, this position involves seeing ISIS as some pure, Platonic evil that pursues death and mayhem for their own sake, without any accompanying religious or political ideology. Soufan’s Anatomy of Terror takes this view. Soufan is a former FBI special agent whose achievements included leading the investigation into the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and helping identify the 9/11 hijackers. After retiring in 2005, he rebuked the CIA for not sharing vital intelligence, and he has become an outspoken critic of the agency’s use of torture. (Lawrence Wright, who featured Soufan in his indispensable 2006 book The Looming Tower, wrote in a New Yorker profile that he had been “America’s best chance to stop the attacks of September 11th.”)

In Anatomy of Terror, Soufan picks up where his last book, the best-selling The Black Banners, left off, beginning with the final days of Osama bin Laden. From his walled mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Al Qaeda leader micromanaged his war against the US, directing media efforts, advising on personnel decisions, and even ordering the creation of a research-and-development center—an Al Qaeda think tank. Using press accounts and letters recovered from the Abbottabad raid, Soufan illuminates bin Laden’s private moments, his growing list of infirmities (the terrorist mastermind was nearly blind in one eye), his children’s marital woes, and his longing for his favorite wife, Dr. Khairia Sabar, who was imprisoned in Iran.

Until the end, bin Laden was plotting attacks on the US, including one for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, but Soufan shows how the Arab Spring forced him to reconsider his obsession with fighting the “far enemy.” In addition to endorsing attacks against local despots, he began advocating holding territory and winning hearts and minds through the provision of services essential to daily life, such as education and judicial systems. And this was exactly the scheme adopted by Al Qaeda franchises in Syria and Yemen.

Bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, though, prompted what appeared to be the group’s slow slide into irrelevance. Its leadership is now scattered across the globe; Soufan describes in fascinating detail the peripatetic career of Saif al-Adel, the legendary Al Qaeda tactician. He charts the violent schism between Al Qaeda’s Iraq and Syria chapters, which led to the development of the Islamic State. Al Qaeda is now under the stewardship of Ayman al-Zawahiri, an uninspiring and divisive leader. But Soufan cautions against writing the group off: “When the Islamic State finally crumbles,” he warns, “the spotlight will return to al-Qaeda.” He sees a Hobbesian battle roiling across the Middle East—Sunni v. Shia, Arab v. Persian, Turk v. Kurd, “and on down to the tribal, communal, and even neighborhood level”—within which Al Qaeda, thanks to its emphasis on putting down local roots and meeting people’s needs on the ground, may survive and even thrive. In fact, Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son, is being groomed for the group’s leadership—a charismatic potential replacement for the moribund Zawahiri. Al Qaeda will bide its time, build its base, and, like the Hydra, emerge again.

Soufan tells this story vividly, and his mastery of the granular facts of global jihadism—which operative lived where, who wrote letters to whom—is impressive. But just as coin collecting tells us little about how economics works, amassing facts does not help Soufan attain his stated goal with regard to the jihadi groups, which is to “point the way to a deeper understanding of their worldview, their motivations, and how best to combat the destructive ideology they represent.” Instead, we are offered a cartoonish picture of terrorist villains who appear to fight for no reason other than a love of terror itself. What compels a man like Saif al-Adel, once a studious young reservist in the Egyptian Army, to sever family ties, disappear to Afghanistan, and remake himself as one of the world’s most dangerous jihadists? Is it sudden religious fervor, a sense of political injustice, impudence, ennui, existential angst? A bit of each? The answer is not in these pages.

By stripping away the question of motivation, Soufan’s approach stands within a long tradition in terrorism studies. Before the 1970s, experts understood terrorism as a tactic, one that might be used for political ends by states and nonstate actors alike. When you frame the issue that way, you are forced to consider what grievances or aims might lead someone to resort to such a tactic. Today, however, as the sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky has pointed out, “terrorism” has become a moral category, not a military or a political one, with the implication that understanding the motivations behind it is unnecessary or even impossible. It is now questionable whether terrorism is at all “susceptible to rational analysis,” Stampnitzky writes in Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism” (2013). As the political theorist Anthony Arblaster puts it, the prevailing wisdom now is that terrorists are by definition “psychologically warped, if not actually mentally deranged.” Soufan’s approach is emblematic of this sort of moralizing—for example, he describes Adel as possessing a “demonic intelligence.” The entire interpretation rests on a tautology: Terrorists commit terrorism because they are terrorists. That Adel is morally repugnant is not in doubt. The problem is that this tells us little about how to defeat what he represents.

Nonetheless, Soufan believes he has a solution, which is to improve the mental faculties of Arabs. He argues that centuries of poor education based on rote memorization have produced legions of young men “incapable of critical thought.” The result is “a region not only ill-prepared for modernity but also shockingly removed from it.” As a consequence, “the Arab world displays relatively little intellectual openness to the wider world.” Leaving aside the way in which this erases the region’s rich intellectual and political traditions, Soufan has picked an especially strange moment to levy such a charge—in this era of resurgent nativism, “fake news,” Pizzagate, and Alex Jones. And he writes from a West that has not only given the world diet fads, climate-change denialism, and anti-vaccine activism but also the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and other tools of mass death that could put jihadists to shame. The majority of terrorist attacks in the US are conducted by white, non-Muslim men—shooting up movie theaters, setting fire to black churches—who, presumably, have emerged from the same critically minded Western education system as the rest of us.

Cemetery destroyed by ISIS near Mosul, Iraq, 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikicommons.
Cemetery destroyed by ISIS near Mosul, Iraq, 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikicommons.

SOUFAN PRESENTS ARABS AS UNTHINKING VESSELS ready to be filled with the poisonous spirit of jihadism and lobbed at civilian populations. In The Way of the Strangers, Graeme Wood—who takes the other common view of the Islamic State, seeing it as a primarily religious phenomenon—provides a welcome contrast. He decries what he calls the “brainless-jihadi cliché” that plagues much ISIS coverage. In a series of erudite, nuanced portraits, he demonstrates that many Islamic State admirers are sophisticated thinkers, steeped in well-established textual traditions of Islam. He seeks to understand ISIS on its own terms, and that means delving into theology and reaching back to the religion’s early days.

Wood traces the Islamic State’s roots to Salafism, the fundamentalist doctrine that declares the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions to be the only legitimate sources of religious authority. This sets the stage for a globe-trotting tour during which we meet various Salafis who applaud ISIS: an Egyptian who struggles to convert Wood; a former Catholic in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, who commands a following of Islamic State fanboys on social media; a Texas-born, Ron Paul–supporting magic-mushroom aficionado turned ISIS fighter; and Anjem Choudary, a notorious British preacher and blowhard who appears regularly as a foil for the pundits on Fox News. Wood describes the subtle but important differences in their fundamentalism—the Australian Musa Cerantonio, for example, adheres to an obscure school of jurisprudence known as Dhahirism, which reads the holy texts so literally that even other Salafis find its dogmatism absurd. Yet all share the dream of living under a theocracy. Even before the genesis of the Islamic State, Cerantonio had traveled to the Philippines in a bid to find a suitable caliph. With the rise of ISIS, these Salafis perceive the fulfillment of a divine mandate, which must culminate in an apocalyptic battle led by a savior known as the Mahdi, working hand in hand with Jesus, to rid the world of evildoers.

Through the eyes of these believers, we see how one could in theory justify committing amputation, rape, enslavement, and genocide by referencing sources, like the Qur’an, that all observant Muslims find legitimate. Yet Wood also shows how, when you look past the bluster, each ISIS follower’s vision of a caliphate is “refracted through the lens of his original culture.” Thus we have one of Anjem Choudary’s British followers, who believes the Islamic State’s greatest virtue is free health care. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?” Wood asks. “Not really,” the man replies. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) For ISIS supporter Hassan Ko Nakata, the ideal caliphate would respect the distinction between public and private space found in his native Japan, and so he is able to imagine an Islamic state that would be “secular, anti-totalitarian, and pluralistic.”

Wood has a talent for bringing his subjects to life. They are dangerous yet pitiful, well read yet single-minded; in other words, contradictory and all too human. He has also produced what might be the funniest book on international jihad. (The ISIS magazine Dabiq, he writes, “publishes unflattering photographs of Zawahiri, which make him look decrepit, as if waiting for a bowl of Jell-O at a jihadist retirement home.”) Wood’s ambitions, though, are greater, and this is where he fails. Through his study of ancient texts, he seeks to show that ISIS supporters are in fact authentically Islamic—and that mainstream Muslims are simply wrong when they say ISIS has no place within their faith. He even argues that members of ISIS have a more accurate reading of certain Islamic tenets (the acceptability of slavery, for example) than do mainstream Muslims. “Muslims can—and do—deny on sophisticated grounds that slavery is permissible today,” he writes, “but as a matter of history, the Salafis have a point. It is the interpretation of that history, not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”

Invoking historical fact is an odd move for a nonbeliever attempting to adjudicate a dispute between believers. Debates over religious truth are not like, say, disagreements over whether British impressment of US sailors or American expansionism was a bigger cause of the War of 1812. Claims to religious truth are normative and constitutive: They tell people how to act, and they are the bases upon which a community of believers organizes itself. For this reason, it is nonsensical for a nonbeliever to declare who or what is authentic Islam (just as it is nonsensical, though harmless, for a nonbeliever to say, “Islam is a religion of peace”). It is up to Muslims to decide what is an accurate expression of their faith. The best a non-believer can do is report that ISIS members believe themselves to be true Muslims, and that the vast majority of Muslims disagree.

But even if Wood had avoided this debate and limited himself to the Islamic State’s self-professed religiosity, he would still have run into trouble. Although he meets many ISIS devotees, his book, subtitled Encounters with the Islamic State, does not actually contain a single interview with a bona fide member of the group. (Wood profiles the Texan mushroom fan via other sources, but never actually communicates with him.) The people he does speak to have mastered the ins and outs of early Islamic history far better than most lay Muslims. They can quote Ibn Taymiyyah, the hard-line medieval scholar preferred by Salafis, chapter and verse. Yet each finds an excuse not to immigrate to Syria and join the Islamic State. If Wood’s intricate discussion of theology and eschatology can’t explain these men’s actions, then what good is it? In the end, it’s what people do, not what they say, that matters.

This brings us back to the core dilemma of the field: Are ISIS and its ilk genuinely religious, or do they have base motives—are we simply looking at a death-loving cult or a ploy for wealth and power? What Soufan and Wood both miss is the political nature of jihadism. I do not mean to suggest that ISIS is using religion for political purposes in the way that, say, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton “rediscovered” their Christianity shortly before running for president. ISIS’s piety is not an act. Instead, the group seeks to provide religious solutions for political problems. Salafi jihadism did not emerge just to answer doctrinal disputes, which have been a feature of Islam (and all faiths) since the beginning. Rather, it appeared in a specific time and place: in Arab countries in the ’60s and ’70s, when secular politics was in crISIS. The two main forces of political change—Communism and Arab nationalism—were being crushed or co-opted. All over the Middle East, despots were oppressing their citizens in the name of secular values, often with the support of the US. A fringe movement saw this state of affairs and rejected secular society in toto. What’s more, they found promising ways to battle tyranny and imperialism in the ideas of scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah, who faced similar problems in his own time when the Mongols invaded and destroyed his hometown.

Interpreting ISIS in this way still requires us to take its otherworldly beliefs seriously, but with the aim of understanding how those beliefs purport to answer the political problems of this world—dictatorship, war, occupation, state collapse, social fragmentation. We should ask not simply “What does ISIS believe?” but also “What conditions make those beliefs appear reasonable?” A proper study of ISIS would involve what anthropologists call a “thick description,” a context-rich investigation that can render an individual’s behavior meaningful to an outsider. It would chart how microhistories—the social networks people are embedded in, the texts they read, the cultural milieux of their villages—intersect with grand histories, like that of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule or the American occupation of Iraq.

As it happens, the solutions Salafi jihadists propose are terrible—the treatment is as bad as the disease. But with so few credible political alternatives on offer, reactionary forces like ISIS can have multiple lives. The task of re-creating viable alternatives belongs to those living in the Middle East, though there are ways the West can help. Curtailing America’s habit of propping up Middle Eastern dictatorships—and occasionally invading them—would be a good start. On a more modest level, journalists and analysts have a responsibility, too. In a letter to one of his lieutenants, uncovered after the Abbottabad raid, Osama bin Laden wrote, “America will not dream of security until security becomes a reality in Palestine.” He proceeded to note that smoking kills 400,000 Americans a year to hardly any protest, but a single failed attack by the “underwear bomber” in 2009 caused widespread panic. Bin Laden appeared to grasp what many commentators on terrorism do not: that American fear-mongering and hysteria over jihadism are themselves sources of strength for the movement. As Soufan notes, jihadi terrorism requires the “oxygen of publicity.” At a time when Americans face far greater threats—such as the prospect of millions losing their health care—the ISIS-hysteria industry plays a key role in keeping ISIS breathing. Soufan’s and Wood’s books are important correctives, but they also illustrate just how much further we have to go.

Anand Gopal is the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).