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The real ideology driving ISIS isn't Islam or caliphate revivalism: it's ultraviolence

Still image from an ISIS YouTube video
Still image from an ISIS YouTube video

So much has been written about ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Where it comes from, what it wants, what drives its extremist ideology, why it has overtaken so much of the Middle East, what the world and the United States can and cannot do stop it. These are all complex and important topics worthy of intensive examination.

But when ISIS released its third beheading video on Friday, of the British aid worker Alan Henning, and threatening the same for American aid worker Peter Kassig, it was a reminder of what may be the most important, most core truth of ISIS. While ISIS as an organization behaves strategically and rationally, it is ultimately just the collection of its thousands of members, and those individual members have shown again and again to be motivated not by strategic calculus or religious devotion or historical nostalgia for an imagined Caliphate of old but by a simple, sadistic desire to commit murder and to do it gruesomely.

The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins expressed this realization perfectly in September, after ISIS beheaded the American journalist Steven Sotloff:

It's hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff's last moments and not conclude something similar: the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people. For the guys who signed up for ISIS-including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife-killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. "Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking," an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party.

You see these stories over and over, following ISIS's advance like a plague, of horrific violence that could serve no possible purpose but violence itself. You see it in the stories of ISIS recruits like the Egyptian citizen Islam Yaken, a young man so secular and apolitical that disgusted Egyptians call him the "hipster jihadi," and who has by all appearances embraced killing far more than he has embraced Islamist extremism or any concrete ISIS objective. The ideology calling them to Syria and Iraqi may not primarily be Islam or caliphate revivalism, but ultraviolence.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, after years of fighting in Syria that brought dozens or hundreds of deaths every single day, many of them brazen murders at the hands of Syrian government forces, that the war would come to resemble less a war than a pointless slaughter, and that it would give rise to a group for which slaughter is the point. To be clear, at the top level, yes, ISIS is guided and driven and organized by complex jihadist ideology, including Salafist Islamism and a revisionist nostalgia for the Caliphate golden age of Islam. Still, at the grassroots level, there is something much more base driving it all, and that's an essential truth for understanding ISIS and any effort to contain, counter, or defeat it.

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