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.
Basically every story ends this way.
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" ...
Reminder: They put this image and title together.
At the same time, it's inaccurate to picture them as slavering bands of psychotic crazies, because ...