ISIS: The Cliff Notes Memoir (7 Things to Know)


My guess is that acronym has come to represent to you what the phrase “al-Qaeda” represented to folks 10 to 15 years ago. Fear and confusion over who they are and what they want seem to dominate foreign policy conversations. The truth of the matter is that ISIS wants you to fear them. They record HD videos of beheadings and burning people alive. They taunt the West with threats and claims against our people and cities. They have cleaned out large swaths of Christians and “apostate” Muslims from Syria and sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe, America and elsewhere.

Admittedly, the below represents a VERY limited overview of who ISIS is. I tried to keep it simple, so the reader could glean the basics, but keeping a description of this labyrinthine organization narrowed down to a “Cliff Notes” description of who they are is a challenge indeed! So below you will find 7 of the more obvious points that should help you understand this highly complex topic.

1. What does “ISIS” mean?

Ever wondered why President Obama calls them “ISIL”? ISIL is one way of referring to them, but most people are familiar with the most commonly used term “ISIS”. The disagreement exists in the translation of the Arabic name for ISIS into English. The original name “Dawlah islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa Bilaad al-Shaam” tells us they are simply the Islamic State in Syria, however the word “Shaam” could mean a couple of things. It could reference either Syria the political entity run by Bashar al-Assad and his gang of ruffians or it could refer to “Greater Syria” which encompasses a large geographical range encompassing the region east of the Mediterranean from Egypt all the way to Turkey. This region has been referred to since at least the 15th century as the Levant.

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Thus, if you prefer the S to mean Syria, you get ISIS. If you lean to the S meaning the Levant, you are in the ISIL camp. Obama chooses to call them ISIL in an effort to show who they want to be, not just who they are. For now, they are just ISIS in actuality, conquering land largely within Syria and some areas in Iraq for now.

2. ISIS is medieval in nature and in practice

ISIS quickly rose to fame last year by posting alarmingly graphic videos and pictures of westerners and others being decapitated with small knives and burning victims alive in metal cages. Some may say this is done to add shock and awe to the brutality they espouse, but this may be too simple of an explanation. A quick glance through the Koran describes the messy and violent conquests of Muhammad in the 7th Century in great detail. Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings were the order de jure and the ISIS fighters believe these elements are just as needed today as they were in medieval times in order to eliminate (or subjugate) anyone not professing to believe their particular brand of Islam.

Emulation of the Prophet Muhammed’s words and actions are a strict part of their fealty to their religion. To be sure, they will not allow sympathy or any belief of modern methods of justice to stop their bloody run through Syria or anywhere else. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani shared his thoughts: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.” 

A man full of joyous charisma indeed…

3. The Caliphate…oh yes, the Caliphate

The Caliphate is a political entity where the governance of the believers is brought into one single entity. It is one singular unit that governs the religious, military, and civil systems for all Islam. The most recent recognized caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, which was broken up and divided by the conquering European powers after WWI. This has since established a variety of Muslim controlled governments across the Middle East that are considered apostate and abhorrent to ISIS. The leaders and governments in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq etc…all are considered targets of death as they are not complying with the sacred order that should exist within the Caliphate.

It is believed among ISIS followers that the establishment of a Caliphate will restore order and set the way for the end of time, a time highlighted by the subjugation of all the world to the demands and systems ordered by the CaliphScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 10.12.02 AMate. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive ISIS leader, has helped to hasten this anticipated eventuality by declaring himself the Caliph, leader and protector of the new Caliphate. Said he in one of his recent epistles, “This is a duty (seeking to establish the Caliphate) upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries…Muslims sin by losing it (the Caliphate), and they must always seek to establish it.”

Not surprisingly, they have resurrected old forms of punishment for certain “offenses” that are mandated by the Caliphate to be used if the rules are violated. For example:

  • Blasphemy against Allah: Death.
  • Blasphemy against the Prophet Mohamed: Death—even if the accuser repents.
  • Blasphemy against Islam: Death.
  • Adultery: Stoning until death if the adulterer was married and 100 lashes and exile if he or she were unmarried.
  • Sodomy (homosexuality): Death for the person committing the act, as well as for the one receiving it.
  • Theft: Cutting off the hand.
  • Drinking alcohol: 80 lashes.
  • Stealing: Cutting off the right hand and the left leg.

4. They are Apocalyptic

Apocalyptic beliefs are central to understanding the motives behind ISIS. Islamic beliefs sound somewhat similar to anyone who has read even the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts. In summary, there will be one great battle between the armies of “Rome” (the West) and the armies of Islam in northern Syria at the city of Daqib. Here the armies of Rome will be devastatingly defeated. From there, the warriors of Islam will retake Istanbul and begin their worldly conquest. However, one final showdown will truly test the resolve of the Caliphate. An anti-Messiah known as Dajjal, will come and destroy a vast majority of the Caliphate’s fighters until 5,000 warriors remain, battered and ensconced in holy Jerusalem. Just as they are about to meet their ultimate demise, the second holiest prophet in Islam, Jesus Christ, will return to earth. He will spear Dajjal and lead the Muslims to final victory.

Whether or not the fighters of ISIS are those foretold to partake in these final conflicts is unknown, but it doesn’t matter to ISIS. They believe their current actions, and any setbacks associated with it, including death, are foretold and acceptable since they pre curse the great end of days prophecies and beliefs they hold.

5. ISIS v. Al-Qaeda, who runs the show?

ISIS has risen to become arguably the more powerful and certainly the more visible of the two terrorist organizations. Even just a year ago this would have been considered unfathomable given what Al-Qaeda has represented to Americans, the West, and the world for the last decade and a half. But with the death of bin Laden and the success Arab and Western governments have had largely contained Al-Qaeda led violence, the immediate threat of Al-Qaeda has seemed to dissipate (whether that’s actually true or not). With their conquest of land, videos of murder, usage of social media, and attacks like the one in Paris, many Americans are beginning to fear this new group more than the old one.

ISIS venerates bin Laden. They trace their origins to him. They refer to him as “Sheik Osama” which is a title of honor reserved for highly respected figures within the religion. Bin Laden shared the same view ISIS does relative to the eventual setting up of the Holy Caliphate, but didn’t believe it would occur in his lifetime (on this point he proved prophetic, thanks to Seal Team Six). ISIS views their actions as carrying on the work of fulfilling this vision.

While Al Qaeda styled itself a terrorist organization with a brand, ISIS is more concerned with the theocratic realities believers adhere to. Bin Laden was always seen wearing military camouflage and touting an AK-47, Baghdadi wears traditional religious garb and speaks from the porches of mosques. He proclaimed himself Caliph, the Prince of the Believers. ISIS does not see itself as an organization concerned with terror in the form that we saw with Bin Laden. For ISIS, they are building a society. A REAL society. With military and civic leaders, utility programs and service, religious governance, and established legal systems in the form of Sharia.

6. They are smart and young

If Al-Qaeda is the old men’s club of terrorism, then ISIS is the millennial start-up that knows how to leverage its marketing acumen in a way never before seen in the realm of international terror. There are thousands and thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts linked to ISIS, all being used as recruiting and marketing propaganda outlets to both instill fear among those they seek to eradicate (you and me) and bring in fresh recruits from all over the globe.

They even have a monthly periodical called “Dabiq” with full-color commentaries on the most recent news from the battlefront. They highlight their warriors (both dead and alive) with a public editorial of the adventures and exploits of these brave young heroes. Daqib has the feel of your common grocery store tabloid filled with pictures, themes, and updates on the latest news. While we read “People” and “US Weekly” (to ensure we are up to date on wardrobes and gossip), they announce victory and jihad with wide grins in glossy editorials.

Most glaringly, they have redefined how violence and murder is shared with the world. These guys absolutely know how to use social media and technology to deliver messages about their cause in a way that traditional jihadist groups were unable to leverage.

Most alarming of all is that their target age demographic is getting younger and younger. According to the Threat Knowledge Group:

“Of the 82 people who have been apprehended by law enforcement, 52 (or 63%) are between the ages of 15 and 25 years old; the remaining 30 are between the ages of 26 and 47 years old. And 7 have been under the age of eighteen…ISIS is deliberately targeting youth from the earliest ages.”

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7. They are here…right now

This is evidenced in two ways: 1. Their recruiting success of luring in Americans to support the battle here on American soil and the amount of active operatives identified and/or under monitor or having been arrested. TKG again:

“Between March 2014 and November 2015, 82 individuals in the United States affiliating with ISIS have been interdicted by law enforcement, whether traveling to fight, recruiting, fundraising, planning to travel, promoting ISIS, or initiating or carrying out attacks. This is an average of 4.1 ISIS arrests per month on American soil. In comparison, in the ten years following 9/11, an estimated 176 Americans were indicted, arrested or identified as terrorists or terrorist supporters affiliated with Al Qaeda….That is an average of 1.5 Al Qaeda recruits per month.

Plainly put, we are interdicting 300% more ISIS recruits than Al Qaeda terrorists.”

That is not fun stuff to consider. As you already know, the most recent mass shooting and killing of 14 people on December 2 of 2015 was perpetrated by two non-sensical ISIS sympathizers, one American, one Pakistani. A husband and wife team committed to jihad of the ISIS brand not too far from where you are reading this article.

In sum, ISIS is the real deal. They are more advanced, successful, and brutal than most (if not all) of the preceding groups waving the saber of Radical Islam. Trying to engage them politically or diplomatically is outright suicide. But so is sitting back and hoping they don’t succeed. Here’s hoping that we do not make the mistake of allowing political correctness, ignorance, or a weak and non-extant strategy for confronting the realities of ISIS.

To read more on any and all the above, please consider these sources: herehere and here.




Brett Nielsen is the current VP of Business Development for Skyrocket Media. Brett holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University and a Masters degree in International Relations from Kings College London. He is a former adjunct faculty of Political Science at Utah Valley University and served as the deputy to the National Finance Co-Chair during the Romney for President campaign in 2012.

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  • Eric says:

    So it’s known that Christ will come back, even to the Muslims? Sounds like someone that doesn’t want to commit to one way of thinking. “Sure, I think our team will win the game. But I also think they’ll lose. That way, I’m always right.”

  • mm Chase Sagum says:

    I have never had someone breakdown the Caliphate “apocalyptic beliefs” to me like this before. This is great stuff Brett! Too many people don’t know these facts about radical islam. I’ve been following this stuff for years and never knew this until you published it. Good work my friend! Thanks for the info.

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