Small Wars Journal

A War With ISIS is a Battle Against Ideologies

Share this Post

A War With ISIS is a Battle Against Ideologies

Chelsea Daymon

Time and time again the concept of being at war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is echoed in print, the media, and talks throughout Washington, D.C. Granted ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they like to call themselves, is a formidable foe on the frontlines however, when contemplating the issues at hand, we are not “at war” with ISIS. We are “at war” with an ideology.

This poses the questions: how can we be at war with an ideology, what is it that attracts its members, and can an ideology really be combated?

Presently, some intellectuals propose that healing the socio-political issues facing the Middle East will eventually help eradicate the scourge of radical ideologies in the region. Nevertheless, we also heard this theory when al-Qaeda (AQ) was brought to our attention in the 1990s.

Additionally, when the Arab Spring broke out in 2010, it emitted a feeling of hope across nations that perhaps this was the catalyst of socio-political change that would spark a new era where brutal ideologies could not flourish. The hope that truly democratic nations would be formed in Middle East and North African (MENA) nations lead some to believe that it could put a cap on the growth of extremist notions such as those of AQ’s. Yet over two decades later since AQ came on the scene and subsequently the Arab Spring fizzled out, we are still faced with violent ideologies. Furthermore, the ideology of ISIS has been described as more radical than its predecessors.    

The concept of healing a country's socio-political woes to eradicate extremists view such as those of AQ and now ISIS, at first seems like a valid notion until contemplating the present, past, and some of the motivations behind these radical outlooks.

Both AQ and ISIS have visions of liberating the Middle East from unjust, un-Islamic, and what they identify as apostate rulers in order to create their versions of “true” Islamic systems. Yet the two groups have different ideas on where the root causes of these unjust governments stem from. AQ focuses on what has been describe as the “far enemy” with the bedrock of Middle East transgressions deriving for the west; in this case the United States and its policies in the Middle East. On the contrary, ISIS views itself as liberating the Middle East from itself, the “near enemy”, by cleansing the region of what it views as apostate regimes and replacing them with its own vision of an Islamic governorate.

One of the things that stands out when comparing ISIS as opposed to AQ, is the desire to hold territory. In order to have an Islamic State, territory must be held. This is a top priority for ISIS. AQ on the other hand, had long-term goals of setting up an Islamic State but holding territory was not one of its immediate objectives unless it was an area for refuge or training camps.

An ideology that plays a key factor in ISIS’s rise to power is this concept of creating an Islamic State and holding territory in its name. By creating a “state”, this accomplishment has provided members with a sense of affinity, status, and a group identity to be associated with. A recent report by Quantum Communications found that out of forty-nine testimonies of ISIS members the majority had joined the group seeking status or identity. 77% of internal fighters, categorized as fighters recruited by jihadist organizations in the same country where they lived, in this case Syria and Iraq, were found to be seeking status. Only 8% of Western external fighters and 15% of Arab external fighters were found to be seeking status. While 63% of Western external fighters sought identity with 25% of internal recruits and 12% of Arab external fighters seeking the same thing. 

The report also highlights that the majority of interviewed western recruits were facing an identity crisis with a need to find meaning in their lives. “The transnational Islamic identity (Ummah) offers them a pre-packaged identity in a context of anti-Western culture” the report stated.

For recruits this “pre-packaged” identity and the idea of making an emigration (hijra) to ISIS’s Islamic State, evokes a recreation of the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina due to an assassination plot against his life. There is no doubt that this semblance adds weight to ISIS’s “state” as being a refuge from a land perceived to be full of disbelievers just as Medina was for the Prophet Muhammad.

A Canadian woman in her early twenties, going by the name Umm Haritha, traveled to Syria to “live a life of honour” under Islamic (sharia) law rather than the laws of the “kuffar,” or unbelievers. In an interview she told Canada’s CBCnews “when I heard that the Islamic State had sharia in some cities in Syria, it became an automatic obligation upon me since I was able to come here.” Her words echo a statement that ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued via audio recording in the summer of 2014. “Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis," he stated. “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory," he declared.      

Another ideological factor that plays heavily into the common narrative of ISIS’s jihad, is the idea of assisting one’s fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in a righteous battle against the “other”. In this case the “other” would be considered the al-Assad regime, Shiites, minority groups, and anyone else ISIS views as misbelievers. In his summer of 2014 message, al-Baghdadi also alluded to this idea: “So listen, O ummah of Islam. Listen and comprehend. Stand up and rise. For the time has come for you to free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny, against the treacherous rulers – the agents of the crusaders and the atheists…”

This notion of aiding the ummah applies to internal recruits, i.e. those from Syria and Iraq, as well as recruits from other MENA and western nations. The concept of helping the Syrian people, which can be viewed in the greater context of aiding the ummah, resonates strongly in the initial radicalization of individuals. Yasmin Qureshi, a British lawmaker told CNN that individuals joining ISIS “erroneously believe they are going out to help people”.

There have been numerous events throughout recent history which have fed into this desire to help the ummah. Afghanistan, Palestine, and Bosnia presented strong cases. Currently Syria provides the perfect catalyst with the brutal atrocities inflicted on the Syrian people by the hands of its own government. A Twitter message posted by Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, a twenty-five-year-old from Portsmouth, U.K. stated that his reason for traveling to Syria was because he was "called by God to help Muslims being killed by President Bashar al-Assad". Rahman was killed fighting for ISIS in the summer of 2014 during a firefight with forces loyal to the al-Assad regime. His family received news of his death via text message.

On another degree, the desire for survival in an unstable region fuels many to join ISIS. Survival on many levels both basic and arbitrary can be a practical and seductive reason to align with a group. In Syria a country rocked by mass-destruction and violence and Iraq, a country on the verge of potentially greater bloodshed than seen in the past, the basic concept of survival and aligning one’s self with a discerned winner can be a strong factor in recruitment. As human nature shows us, many people will find a way to survive no matter what the costs.

ISIS offers an enticing package to recruits looking for a livelihood. According to Aqsa Mahmood, a young woman who left her family home in Glasgow, Scotland to join ISIS in 2013, who has been a strong supporter of the Islamic State, and a recruiter of young women over social media; the ISIS rewards package includes "a house with free electricity and water provided to you due to the Khilafah (the caliphate or state) and no rent included". When the ideology of survival factors in, the thought of a paid roof over one’s head is an appealing attraction especially to individuals seeking status and identity.      

Some Syrian refugees driven by desperation have offered an oath of allegiance (bay’ah/baya’ah) to ISIS. Accounts of refugees who fled to the Turkish border town of Akcakale, flanking the Syrian town of Tel Abyad which has become a border crossing into the Islamic State, are entering back into Syria to live under ISIS rule. Scarcity of work, low wages, and a desire to return home are driving some refugees to take their chances with ISIS.

Mohammed, a former leader of the FSA's Omar bin Khatib brigade and a refugee stated in an interview that, “If you see us on the side of ISIS you should not blame us”. Pointing to a fellow ex-soldier with an injured foot that needed attention, Mohammed expressed that the FSA let them down and that “If you are injured then no one cares for you. I would rather live in an ISIS area. In 15 days I will go back and give them baya'ah."

Likewise, twenty-two-year-old Abu Hussein, complained that, “There are no jobs here, I have no money”. Hussein, fought against ISIS in Tel Abyad before escaping to Akcakale. Considering his desperate situation and ISIS’s decrees on atonement, he said, “They have declared that anyone who wants to repent can come. They have some negative sides and some positives ones. Tel Abyad is very safe now because people are afraid of them - before it was chaotic. But I have not seen with my own eyes yet how they are applying Shariah (Islamic law)."                 

Taking all of this into consideration, can an ideology really be combated? The only feasible answer is no. There are no measures to completely eradicate a mind-set, particularly one that is complex on many levels, both personal and socio-political. Currently we are witnessing an ideological war that is being set for generations to come.

Prevention is the only way to reduce the growth of what we are observing with ISIS. Many of today’s generation can be described as a disenfranchised group that saw powerful authorities sitting by while innocent people were harmed by either their own governments or what they viewed as influential players who lacked action. Consequently, anger grew towards harsh regimes such as al-Assad’s as well as powerful Western governments like the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Due to this idea, there is a conviction that there was a lack of actions and policies that have helped the innocent, in this case the Ummah, on the part of these governments. For some, this indignation has morphed into radical ideologies that ISIS now thrives on. AQ also fostered this ideology but, in recent times the organization has come across as frozen to those seeking a group to belong to. ISIS, on the other hand, is viewed by many as taking action. ISIS, just as AQ has fought the al-Assad regime but, ISIS now holds territory, and they have created a caliphate which provides its members with a sense of status and a belief of being on the side of a winning team.

As stated above, prevention is the only means of cutting back on the amount of individuals drawn to radical ideologies such as those of ISIS. There are a number of prevention methods available, from utilizing law enforcement, community elements, outreach, and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs. Law enforcement can be good at intercepting individuals from traveling to Syria to join ISIS and potentially inhibiting attacks on their home countries but, it is not built to thwart radical ideologies. Community programs in at-risk neighborhoods that apply interactive and interpersonal group activities that foster real discussions on grievances, personal experiences, and interpretations on how individuals perceive ISIS with the reality of life under ISIS, are valid methods to potentially sway individuals from glorifying the ideologies of the group. Outreach initiatives to counter these views through youth programs, school workshops, online interaction methods, and campaigns such as Extreme Dialogue, all add to reducing and bringing awareness to radical views and the motives that form them. Lastly, CVE programs that take a hands-on approach to the root-causes of violent extremism are important entities in the battle, although many are new and have yet to be proven effective. Still, these programs need to be implemented, worked on, and perfected because, tomorrow’s radical generation are the children of today’s ISIS recruits.

About the Author(s)

Chelsea Daymon is an independent researcher living in Washington D.C. She holds an M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern studies from University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and B.A. in Oriental Studies from Cambridge University (UK).


CW4 ret H North

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 8:55pm

In reply to by Bill C.


Thank you for your courteous reply. You are correct about the "practicing" folks. While there have been different "practicing" groups throughout history that have been problematic, today's main issue is Jihad, exponentially more than any and all of the other groups you listed combined.

Unfortunately, A more holistic viewing of Islam and Jihad does not in any way diminish its threat to western civilization. Differences and similarities cannot be compared via the people, but must be done by comparing ideologies. Americans must understand that Sharia Law is diametrically opposed to the US Constitution, and that Sharia MANDATES that ALL Muslims wage Jihad until the ENTIRE planet is under Sharia Law.

Bill C.

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 1:28pm

In reply to by CW4 ret H North


It does seem to be that the "practicing" folks are the one's that can get into trouble and/or cause problems. Thus,

a. "Practicing" Muslims, who feel compelled to not pay lip service to the dictates of the Koran but to, for example, advance Sharia law -- at home and in foreign lands?

b. "Practicing" Christians, who feel compelled to not pay lip service to the dictates of the Bible but to, for example, spread the Gospel -- both at home and, indeed, in foreign lands? And

c. "Practicing" Communists, "Practicing" Capitalists, etc.

Those who, for varying reasons, cannot "practice" their "religion;" these folks, it would seem, often feel compelled to support -- overtly and/or covertly -- via money and/or via other means -- those adherents who often have (1) sacrificed so much (even their lives) so as to (2) actually fulfill the dictates of their beliefs and, thus, (3) advance their belief's cause.

These folks, who actually DO adhere to the dictates of their religion/ideology, are often viewed:

a. As heroes by those that cannot and/or simply do not thus adhere and

b. As the arch enemy of those who are adversely effected/those holding contrary/fundamentally different beliefs.


By viewing these things in this more-holistic manner; does this not allow us to better understand -- not only the significant differences between "us" and "them" -- but also the significant similarities?

This such understanding also helping us to understand exactly what it might take -- exactly what we may be required to do -- to actually prevail over/prevent the clashes, the extreme events, and/or the adverse consequences, that can -- and often do -- flow from such things as (1) the ardent "to-the-letter"/"no holds barred" "practicing" of (2) one's religion, one's ideology, etc.?

CW4 ret H North

Sun, 08/02/2015 - 9:58pm

I laud Ms. Daymon's knowledge and ability to identify, grasp and understand that we are fighting an ideology. This level of understanding is light years ahead of practically every other decision-maker inside the beltway, and for this she deserves recognition. Ms. Daymon understands Islamic ideology sufficiently to grasp that the Islamic State (i.e. NOT "ISIL", as our leaders wrongly attempt to identify it--doctrine dictates that an enemy be properly labeled as it self-identifies, as an enemy that is not properly identified cannot be defeated. This is one of many reasons why we will fail to defeat the IS, but that is another deeper discussion.) is driven by the fundamental understanding and proper implementation of Sharia on the foundation of a new caliphate, replacing the one that was disbanded in the 1920s and had existed for over 1,400 years. This is the yearning desire of all practicing Muslims, and will always remain so, as Ijtihad prevents the modification of Sharia doctrine.

However, I find that Ms. Daymon's recommendations of prevention methods of doubling down on the same old failing strategies of "utilizing law enforcement, community elements, outreach, and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs" to be disappointing. Ms. Daymon's bio identifies her education as coming from English Universities, yet if one looks at what is happening today with Jihad in England, we find that nation, which is using these same strategies, losing rapidly, being overwhelmed, and quickly approaching implosion. If we continue to fail to properly recognize and counter Jihad in America, we will look like England does today in about 10-15 years.

The DHS program of CVE focuses largely on "domestic threats" which it identifies as coming almost exclusively from "Christian extremist" groups, most recently identifying such innocuous activities as storing food as a potential indicator of "violent extremism". CVE treads very lightly and carefully over Islamic Jihad, almost as an afterthought, focusing heavily on avoiding insulting sensitive Muslim sensibilities, almost as if the DHS is taking its strategic advice from covert Muslim Brotherhood terrorist infiltration groups like HAMAS-DBA-CAIR--oh, wait--IT IS. At least the FBI finally had enough sense to go against DHS and issue policy forbidding contact with this infiltration group. That is at least ONE step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the methods that MUST be employed to properly rid our nation of the Jihad threat are too politically incorrect to ever be implemented. Such methods should/would require:

- the arrest and prosecution of all Muslim Brotherhood (MB) operatives in the US. Many of these individuals and organizations have already been identified in the US v. Holy Land Foundation case that the Justice Department refuses to prosecute further.
- the shutting down and confiscation of all mosques supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and all its subordinate covert organizations in the US, such as CAIR, IIIT, NAIT, etc., also already identified in the case above.
- swearing an oath to recognize the supremacy of the US Constitution over Sharia Law in the United States, and the deportation of anyone who refuses to accept such--if the person were a US citizen, it would require a revocation of citizenship.
- the refusal of entry into the US of anyone who does not recognize the US Constitution as the law of our land, as specified in Article 6.

As such, it may take another 9-11 type event of an equal or greater magnitude of destruction and loss of life to snap Washington out of its slumber and implement sound doctrine. We can only hope that such an event doesn't cripple our nation beyond its capacity to continue to function and respond accordingly.