During the past couple of years, nothing has dominated the news like ISIS. And in a season of mass shootings, #blacklivesmatter and Donald Trump, that’s saying something.
Just about every day, we read news about another bombing, kidnapping or beheading at the hands of the terrorist group. The topic of ISIS has been a central topic in this election—a general assumption being that perhaps the greatest challenge facing the next president will be how he or she deals with the ISIS threat.
That’s why we were surprised to see this Facebook post last week:
The poster, Jeremy Courtney, is the president of Preemptive Love, a global humanitarian aid and relief organization based in Iraq. For years, Courtney has had a front-row seat for the growth of ISIS—and some of Preemptive Love’s outreaches are partly in response to ISIS.
Obviously, the rise of ISIS is one of the most significant humanitarian crises of our time. So I talked with Courtney to get his take on the potential fall of the terrorist group.
In what ways are you seeing ISIS implode?
One of the metrics you can use to track this is geography. They don’t control nearly as much land as they once did. Even in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen them lose some corridors and are now being forced to wage battles on other fronts that have been static up until now. They’re being flanked and surrounded and not quite as isolated and trenched as they had the ability to be in the months and years leading up to this.
But, ultimately, this is a war of ideas. And that’s a little harder truly to monitor. I mean, ISIS the organization can lose numbers from its official ranks. The number of flags and Twitter hashtags and things like that could see a precipitous decline. But it doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s going on in the minds of those who once acquiesced or collaborated with or gave full-throated support to ISIS itself.
Whether or not we are seeing a significant change in the ideology that drives Jihadism is really a different conversation.
What’s behind their apparent decline in appeal and influence?
I think there’s a couple of things: One we might—as non-ISIS members and ISIS opponents—characterize as a good thing; and one I think we could characterize as a bad thing or a threat.
Some are defecting from ISIS because they feel like they were sold a bill of goods. They got on the inside and they realized what ISIS truly is and it was more brutal, more inhumane, less Islamic and less true in one way or another to what they thought they were going to experience. ISIS has done a phenomenal job of creating slick recruitment videos and a lot of their other propaganda that painted the caliphate as a place of luxury. And to arrive on the battlefield and find out that you’ve just left London or Belgium or any other number of western places, and now you live under the constant surveillance of international powers and under the constant threat of bombing, can be very unsettling to wake up to what you’ve gotten yourself into. Over time, you can want out and actually find a way out.
That would be a positive reason I think that all would say, “It’s good that the mask is being pulled off and they’re seeing it for what it really is.” But there’s another group of defectors, however, who are leaving for reasons that I think should still concern us greatly.
Essentially, they would say something more along the lines of “ISIS is not Islamic enough,” or “The type of Islamic or Sharia vision that we had for the future is not actually enforced to the degree that we thought it was or thought it would be. And these people are not conservative or serious or whatever enough.”
Why I think that should still be concerning is it means that there’s still an ideology in those defectors that may want and seek out future violence. That defector has not rejected jihadism, necessarily. That defector may still harbor a kind of bigotry and hatred toward minorities, toward people of different religious faiths. And you could easily imagine those defectors possibly striking later as lone wolves or lining up with some future manifestation of a jihadist movement.
What ISIS Really Looks Like
You called the battle against ISIS a “war of ideas.” Of course, a ton of people have read the widely cited article, “What ISIS Really Wants.” The main argument there is that the terrorist group is not, contrary to popular assumption, a rag-tag group of anarchists, but a theologically driven organization. You told me you don’t agree fully with that writer. To what extent do you think ISIS is an ideological movement?
I challenge the idea that ISIS is a singular entity that can be easily summed up and described in definite terms about what ISIS is, wants or what their agenda is. ISIS is a fractured, and fracturing, movement of people who are largely driven by various kinds of desires and find themselves variously enticed or trapped in the sociopolitical situation around them. We talk about it like a pyramid.
Bottom of the pyramid.
We think of the base of the pyramid as primarily being people who are going along to get along. They are Sunni Arabs, by and large, who have seen significant brutality and oppression from Shia forces around them and when ISIS comes to town two years ago and promises liberation and promises to pull the Shia boot off their throats, then it is like, “Well it can’t be much worse than it was before, let’s let this ISIS group have a try.” And pretty soon thereafter they find out that ISIS breaks their word and starts instituting draconian policies and ends up being every bit as bad as the Shia overlords they had before. So should these people be called ISIS? Should they be called the vanquished and the conquered? I don’t know. I think in many cases they are just trying not to get swept up in any further violence.
Lower-middle of the pyramid.
Going further up the pyramid a little bit, you get something like a collaborator. These may be people who are actively participating with ISIS in some way or another. So in the case of Mosel, when you heard about Christian homes being marked for expropriation or extermination, these might have been the Sunni Arabs who stood on the street and pointed at their neighbor’s houses and said, “My neighbor he’s a Christian, go get his house or his family instead.”
I don’t necessarily read all of those guys pointing as evil ideologues with a theological agenda. I think in many cases those are dads, uncles and brothers just trying to save the lives of their own kids, moms and dads. They’re collaborating but they’re not ideologically driven and they’re not necessarily perpetrating any crimes of their own.
Upper-middle of the pyramid.
Up the pyramid from there, you have the criminals. You have people who take up swords and guns and enact vandalism and things like that. But even those people, I don’t think, are necessarily ideologically driven. I think in some cases that is still socioeconomics. It’s still sectarian violence. It’s not necessarily apocalyptic in nature—they don’t necessarily have a theological worldview as much as they have a communal need to belong to something. And ISIS is a gang to which they can belong and in which they can find their meaning.
Tip of the pyramid.
The tip of the pyramid, the smallest group of people I think, are the puppet-master ideologues. I just don’t think the rank-and-file throughout the whole organization have a robust theological or apocalyptic agenda—or even the capacity to think in that way.
When ISIS Falls, Then What?
It seems to me that when ISIS crumbles—which it eventually will, regardless of the timeline—you will have a whole group of people who are looking for something else to believe. They’ll have lost their sense of purpose and they’ll probably be disillusioned. Is that an opportunity for Christians?
I think it’s both an opportunity and a threat, actually. I’ve lived [in Iraq] for so long and I’ve experienced so many things across this greater region—not just Iraq but Syria and Turkey and our work from Iran to Libya and beyond—I do not see Christianity as this pure, singular, good force in the world in this conversation. I think to see a mass defection, for example, of Muslims straight to Christianity would not in my book be a clean win.
It very much matters to me what kind of alternative, what kind of Christianity, let’s say, these Muslims would find. If these Muslims were welcomed into communities that continued to perpetuate the narrative that Islam is inherently satanic and evil and the biggest bane on the existence of the world today, then what kind of Christians will these former Muslims become?
I think we collectively, as the Christian community, run the risk of co-opting the past, co-opting their experience with ISIS and in spinning a certain kind of tale that then aims or serves to threaten the future Muslim community that they would be engaging with as former Muslims. These would be the former Muslims that would stand on stages, get book deals and become mini Christian celebrities who would spin a certain yarn about their time in ISIS or their experiences surrounding that and it’s not that it would necessarily be untrue, it just wouldn’t tell the whole truth about all Muslims and all Islam everywhere and then I think it actually feeds into a cyclical dynamic where we Christians become agents of more violence, more separation and discrimination toward Muslims, which of course, is part of how we got into this in the first place.
Do I want these former ISIS friends, these defectors, these agents to find a way to learn to love their enemies? Yes. Do I want them to know and fully imbibe the Jesus story, whereby there is no greater love than laying down your life for another? Yes, absolutely. But I’m afraid that some of them will find ways to get swept up in a different kind of Christianity altogether and that actually scares me.
Is ISIS on the ropes?
It’s going to be a long decline, I suspect. I don’t want to give the impression that ISIS is somehow definitively on the ropes and it’s just a matter of some extremely shortened timeline now. I think the battle for ideas will continue to be significant.
I think the battle for Fallujah, which is upon us right now as I speak, could be swift—but it could also be extremely entrenched. Next after Fallujah is Mosul. Next after is Mosul, we’ve still got huge problems in Syria.
Is ISIS on the ropes? Yeah, probably in some sense they are. But they’re far from being defeated.