ISIS' expansion in Iraq and Syria is pretty worrying — the so-called caliphate is a threat both to regional security and everyone inside and around ISIS-controlled borders. It's clear, moreover, that ISIS wants to expand those borders. But that's not always threatening: some of ISIS's ambitions are laughably ludicrous. In fact, announcing insane plans is something ISIS does pretty commonly. Understanding the root of the group's delusions is absolutely critical to understanding how ISIS works.
Here's a by-no-means complete list of some of the crazier threats:
• Take over the White House. Abu Mosa, an ISIS spokesman, told Vice that "we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House."
• Conquer most of Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Iraq. An ISIS map shows the group controlling an implausibly large chunk of the Middle East.
• Ally with Russia to get Iranian nuclear secrets. A plan allegedly written by Abdullah Ahmed al-Meshedani, an ISIS leader with responsibility for foreign fighters, involves ISIS giving Russia access to Syrian natural gas to persuade Moscow to turn against Iran and Syria, as well as to help ISIS get nuclear weapons.
• Conquer Rome and then the world. In an address, ISIS chief Omar al-Baghdadi told his followers that "you will conquer Rome and own the world." Rome.
• Destroy Iran using cheap Afghan carpets to undercut the Persian market. Also from the Meshedani document, this plan involves waging economic war on Iran by lowering prices in the rug market. The document also lays out designs on the Iranian caviar industry.
Obviously, none of this is going to happen. So why should we care?
Because seeing these threats as the ridiculous delusions that they are is a good way to put the ISIS threat in some perspective. Americans tend to assume that ISIS is led by Bond villain-level evil geniuses. ISIS' recent gains have come from a combination of tactical acumen on the battlefield and good political luck. That doesn't make them strategic masterminds.
"There is, obviously, a difference between ISIS' aspirations and what is feasible," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes via email. That ISIS would believe it could carry out its bizarre Afghan rug plan, for example, "certainly seems plausible... it's no crazier than many of the things that ISIS thinks and plans about."
There is a certain assumption of ISIS' brilliance common in the US, which underlies America's great national freakout about ISIS. American public discourse dramatically overestimates the threat from ISIS, partly because we assume the group's gains in Syria and Iraq prove ISIS to be near-invincible. Their ridiculous global ambitions are well and truly ridiculous — and should be treated as such.
That said, ISIS isn't full of dunces. They're a rational, strategic, and brutally effective organization. It's just that being good at taking territory in Syria and Iraq doesn't translate into an epochal threat to American security.
It's best, then, to think of ISIS as what it is: a mix of people, some of them competent tactical officers, some ultraviolent fanatics, some wild-eyed dreamers, and a lot of people who are some combination.
That often makes it hard to figure out what, exactly, ISIS' real goals are — and calls into question some of its more strategically wild-eyed plans.
"The guy in charge of foreign fighters is drafting foreign policy proposals?", Will McCants, the director of the Brookings Institution's Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, asked rhetorically about the document detailing the nefarious plot against Persian rugs. "Sounds bananas."
"Then again," McCants writes, "some of these jihadis aren't the sharpest scimitar in the scabbard. From time to time a dull blade makes a proposal that is laughed at by his superiors but gets picked up by hostile security forces and used against the group."
So it's best, then, to understand ISIS as a peculiar brew of cold rationality and bonkers delusions of grandeur. They want impossible things, and their grandiose ambitions shouldn't be taken seriously. Yet, in the short run, they're quite competent — and a real danger to the people who live near their domain.
"I spend lots of time explaining how some of these guys are really smart," McCants writes. "But the dumb ones make it an uphill climb."