The mind of the Islamic State
7 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user plaisanter~.

‘We have finally reached the gates of Hell.’—Robert Manne’s final sentence in The Mind of the Islamic State.

Australia has been at war with Islamic State since ISIS took Mosul in June, 2014.

As Iraq’s second city fell, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was about to meet US President, Barrack Obama, in the White House. Instead of the expected argument about climate change, the talks became an alliance hug-moment.

Mosul’s fall had blindsided Washington as Iraq plunged towards chaos. Abbott later recalled: ‘I said in meeting with Obama and with [Secretary of State] Kerry, “if you propose to do anything about this you can count on Australia’s strong support, to the limits of our ability. We will certainly do everything we can to support you”’.

In the war against ISIS, the Australian Defence Force has 780 personnel in the Middle East: 400 in an Air task group; 80 for Special Operations; and 300 helping train Iraqi troops at the Taji Military Complex.

The fight for Mosul, David Kilcullen notes, is shaping up as the largest, most challenging urban battle anywhere this century. Retaking Mosul will end the conventional phase of the present conflict in Iraq, reducing ISIS, ‘to a primarily rural (though still very powerful) guerrilla force, rather than the state-like army.’

ISIS will lose the territory of its state and the city from which it proclaimed the caliphate. Yet the threat won’t be defeated when Mosul falls. What will remain is a set of ideas and the modern tools to sell those ideas.

ISIS has adapted the old tactics of terror to the new rules of the social media age, as The Atlantic observed:

‘The ISIS propaganda machine is equal parts frightening and surreal: Prisoners who are about to be beheaded are fitted with lavalier microphones; synchronized murders are set to booming chorales; brutal clips of death and martyrdom are stitched together with Final Cut Pro. Just how did a throwback death cult with a seventh-century worldview come to dominate 21st-century social media so swiftly and completely?’

The way ISIS weaponised social media helps explain the grim reality that its thoughts matter in Australia’s suburbs. How to gage that influence? As usual, Jacinta Carroll offers practical answers, pointing to passport cancellations as ‘one of the few tangible and public measures of how Australia’s going in the fight against terrorism.’

  • 62 Australian passports were cancelled in 2015–16 to prevent Australians from travelling overseas to engage in terrorism
  • 93 passports were cancelled in 2014–15, coinciding with the rise of ISIS
  • 45 passports were cancelled in 2013–14

Before that, the number of cancellations was down near single figures: 18 in 2012–13, 7 in 2011–12, 7 in 2010–11, and 8 in 2009–10.

The threat (and financing) of radicalisation and recruitment—and the conundrums of de-radicalisation—are slowly making their way through the Oz court system. Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker give an account of the transformation of the mindset of a Melbourne teenager arrested last year for planning to make bombs for a suicide attack. Now, the youth told the court, he’s embarrassed and ashamed of his plans: ‘I reject IS. They don’t represent the religion, they don’t represent my faith or me or anyone else. I think that they’re very brutal and they have no value … for human life.’

What the thoughts of Islamic State add up to, and how they evolved, are examined in The Mind of the Islamic State Robert Manne’s new book. His conclusion: ‘We have finally reached the gates of Hell,’ could describe the destruction now confronting Mosul. But it’s Manne’s summation of the apocalyptic place that ISIS ideology has reached.

What to call this ideology? Manne summarises the debate:

‘After a series of false starts—Islamism (too broad), radical Islamism (too vague), fundamentalist Islam (too Christian), Islamo-Fascism (too polemical)—eventually both Western scholars and members of the revolutionary movement itself settled on a name for the movement and the ideology: Salafi jihadism. This term accurately reflected both its inner content and its hybrid Egyptian–Saudi origins.’

The progressive brutalisation of Salafi jihadist ideology is tracked by the expanding categories of people ISIS wants to kill—not just Western crusaders and Jews, but all Muslims who are judged to be apostates.

Manne traces the intellectual journey from the 1960s prison writings of Sayyid Qutb all the way to ISIS’s quarterly online magazine of genocidal horror, Dabiq. His study of this worldview starts from the basis that nothing is more dangerous in human affairs than an idea capable of convincing followers ‘of the nobility of mass murder.’

Manne equates ISIS with the murderous regimes of the 20th Century, with one profound difference: unlike Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, ISIS doesn’t exterminate in secret. The executions are proclaimed, the beheadings are broadcast, the propaganda department boasts of the mass killings. ‘The fate of the Islamic State’s victims is meant to instil paralysing fear into the hearts of its enemies…The killing fields are on proud display.’

Australia’s fight against the ideas of Islamic State must be aided by the way IS proclaims the actions flowing from those ideas. ‘Among even the most heinous regimes or movements of recent history,’ Manne writes, ‘it is only the Islamic State that regarded what the world came to judge as their darkest deeds not with shame but with pride.’ That epitaph for Islamic State will be proclaimed anew in Mosul’s agony.