[Comment] Know Thy Enemy


Displays of solidarity in Paris (image from BBC News)

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, articles about ISIS are appearing at a remarkable rate. These articles are highly variable in quality (and in the relevant expertise of the authors) but commonly contain commentaries on how ‘we’ can defeat ISIS and their ‘true’ causes and motivations.

For ideologues on the right, this typically means emphasising the danger posed by refugees and Muslims in general, alongside exhortations to bomb ISIS into the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, their ideological counterparts on the left are busy reframing the issue as not really being about ISIS but rather how everything is the inevitable result of illegitimate Western wars and profit driven expansionist foreign policies. Their preferred solution is to withdraw all Western forces from Syria and welcome more refugees.

I find little of merit in ideological pieces. Their content is predetermined and rarely changes to reflect any potential insights from a new event. Instead, events just become grist for the mill of their preferred narrative and are reframed accordingly, regardless of any leaps in logic required. This doesn’t mean that the ideologues are never correct; leftist ideologues, for instance, are right when they emphasize how the West’s bigoted treatment of Syrian refugees and demonising of all Muslims is counterproductive and harmful. But occasionally advocating sensible positions is not evidence of good critical thinking, or valuing reliable research, instead it just demonstrates that ideologies occasionally line up with evidence supported positions. Like vaccines and autism, the error lies in mistaking such correlations as an illustration of any fundamental connection between the two.

To offer something other than just frustrated complaints about the state of current coverage, I thought I would point to a few articles/resources that avoid bipartisan posturing and offer strong, frequently horrifying, analysis:

  1. What ISIS Really Wants? (The Atlantic) by Graeme Wood: A justly famous extended article based on the journalist Graeme Wood’s interviews with ISIS supporters based in the West. The importance of the groups millennial religious ideology and how it is too readily dismissed as non-Islamic by well intentioned liberal analysts is also discussed. There are a number of follow ups to this piece that are also worth reading, including Wood’s recent discussion of whether the Paris attacks were actually masterminded by ISIS or whether it just sought credit.
  2. 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS’s Magazine (Cracked) by Robert Evans: This isn’t a long or deeply analytical piece, instead it offers a very straightforward summary of the major recurrent themes in ISIS internal propaganda magazine Dabiq. Several of the points identified unfortunately seem to be popularly unknown, such as ISIS ongoing conflict with Al Qaida and their hatred for Iran. If you are a glutton for punishment the actual magazines are available online via the Clarion Project.
  3. What I discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners (The Nation) by Lydia Wilson: This is a fascinating ‘on the ground’ account by a researcher working with Scott Atran and interviewing captured ISIS fighters. It provides nice, rich ethnographic description that is typically excised from academic papers and hence also serves as an important reminder of how academic research on terrorism is not as infallible as it is often portrayed.
  4. The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS (NY Times) by Olivier Roy: A useful article that summarises the differing interests amongst the various groups active in Syria. The main take-away point is that any portrayal of the conflict as a simplistic ‘West’ vs. ‘ISIS/the Rest’ is completely misleading.
  5. ISIS: The State of Terror (by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger): This is a book I read some time ago to help get a better understanding of ISIS. It provides a good summary of the origins of ISIS and its leader al-Baghdadi’s murky history. It is strongest in the chapters that deal with ISIS’ propaganda and online tactics and how these represent a fundamental departure from Al-Qaeda and other previous terrorist groups.
  6. ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (NY Times) by Rukmini Callichi: A long, depressing article by a very well informed journalist, which details the horrific and systematic sexual abuse of minorities endorsed and promoted by ISIS. This article alone should serve as a clear rejoinder to those who argue for a moral equivalence between ISIS and Western nations. Callichi was also interviewed on the Reply All podcast about her twitter interactions with ISIS supporters and fighters. It’s short and worth a listen.
  7. Can ‘Islamic State’ Be Defeated? (BBC World News- The Inquiry): A short radio/podcast episode interviewing experts with differing opinions on how to defeat ISIS, and whether this is even a feasible. It is short and succinct and I felt that all of the experts provide well informed opinions.
  8. The Islamic State (VICE News): A 5 part documentary series that you can now watch as one full length documentary. The series was made some time back but the level of access that the VICE journalist managed to achieve remains unsurpassed. The depictions of life under ISIS are deeply depressing, especially in regards the indoctrination of the kids filmed, but they also highlight how they ISIS are capitalising on the persecution felt by many Sunni Muslims living in Iraq and Syria.

There are certainly other good sources out there and I’m making no claim to the above being a comprehensive list. If anyone has any other resources to recommend, please let me know in the comments section. I’m always interested to discover new (good) writing and analysis.


  1. I knew if I looked long enough I’d probably find a connection …

    “Western”, “Western”, and “Western” 🙂

    ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the *Western* World’, McGilchrist 2009 (emphasis added)

    … (the subtitle *is* a bit grandiose) which I’m currently reading(bits at a time). You haven’t read it have you? Or have any thoughts having read about it?

    Beyond that:

    Excellent and timely(unfortunately) – sadly can’t disagree, in fact, agree with most, if not all, of your assessment Chris. I’ve no pretense to knowing much of the situation(s) beyond what I absorb from headlines and secondary media exposure – just don’t have the time(saved as a resource just in case though).

    Which, in turn, sometimes causes me to wonder if Rebecca Costa(‘The Watchman’s Rattle’) isn’t right in at least that, just as we have physical limitations, so do we have cognitive limitations. How could it be otherwise? I don’t know.

    Thanks – Mark


  2. Hey Mark,

    If you mean the above sources have a certain Western media bias, I’d agree. I’d also say there is a rather clear liberal bias since I am an unrepentant liberal. I just think the ‘left’ and liberals in general are also prone to fall for bad logic and ideological bias, see responses to GMOs for instance. Anyhow, I’m always interested in hearing about good alternative sources, if you have any to recommend? Unfortunately that often just leads to people promoting things like Russia Today or infowars…

    Oh and I looked up the book, hadn’t heard of it and to be honest, I thought a lot of claims surrounding lateralisation had been discredited by more recent research that suggested greater plasticity and networked distribution in the brain. But looking at some reviews it seems that might be an overly simplistic/dismissive take on my part. The part that I remain very skeptical of not having read the book, is that Western society is based on an overreliance on a specific hemisphere. Maybe that’s an unfair summary of McGilchrist’s argument but that seems like a fairly large leap to make. Can’t really judge without seeing the arguments properly though… maybe when I have some time.

    On the second point, certainly we all have cognitive limitations and they are unavoidable, but it helps when we recognise that situation. I also think that although it seems at times like our world is going to hell in a hand-basket, that is a rather familiar narrative throughout history. Buddhists, for instance, have been extolling that we are living through the age of decline (Mappo) for centuries and yet we are still here… I’m not saying the doom and gloom predictions aren’t accurate, about the pending environmental disasters for example, but just that on the timescale of the human species I’m not convinced we have reached the end of that scale yet.


  3. No, I wasn’t thinking of bias, just picking up on the word. McGilchrist is confusing to read. Sometimes I think he’s using the left and right hemispheres figuratively or something. Other times it’s left hemisphere this or right hemisphere that, (but they really both work together) to do X.

    And as I read along(just into chptr 3) it sounds more and more like he’s talking about conscious and nonconscious cognitive processes. That, though, may be my bias.

    I forgot half of Costa’s proposal that “increasing complexity” + cognitive limits leads to the dowfall of civilizations. I was (maybe overly) impressed with the basic concept at the time.

    I’ll keep reading – thanks for your thoughts!


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