What does ISIS really want?

Updated 10:49 AM EST, Fri December 11, 2015

Story highlights

ISIS' rise in Iraq was so sudden that many were caught off guard

The group's ultimate ambition is a global caliphate won through a worldwide war

There can only be one victor in this struggle, according to ISIS' millenarian views

CNN —  

How to stop ISIS – it’s the question the leaders of the free world are struggling to answer.

The debate is frequently about tactics: How to gain a battlefield advantage, how to stop its propaganda machine, how to block its sources of revenue.

But less frequently is there discussion of the group’s aims – what it ultimately wants to achieve and the steps for reaching that goal.

The group’s rise in Iraq – and its capture of thousands of square miles of land – was so sudden and shocking that it left many analysts and officials flatfooted. A year ago, the New York Times published confidential comments about ISIS’ ideology by Major General Michael K. Nagata, then U.S. Special Operations commander in the Middle East.

“We have not defeated the idea,” he is reported to have said. “We do not even understand the idea.”

ISIS makes no secret of its ultimate ambition: A global caliphate secured through a global war. To that end it speaks of “remaining and expanding” its existing hold over much of Iraq and Syria. It aims to replace existing, man-made borders, to overcome what it sees as the Shiite “crescent” that has emerged across the Middle East, to take its war – Islam’s war – to Europe and America, and ultimately to lead Muslims toward an apocalyptic battle against the “disbelievers.”

Its propaganda relies on a very distinct interpretation of the Quran and other religious texts to promote these goals – and most importantly to show its supporters that they are achievable.

A global caliphate

ISIS frequently uses its online magazine Dabiq to set out its vision. The title of the magazine is no accident – Dabiq is a town in northern Syria currently held by ISIS where, according to Islamic prophecy, the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam.

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Prophecy is critical to ISIS, which accepts the word of the Prophet and the hadith, or sayings, attributed to him literally and without question. Prophecy provides ISIS with the glue of theological certainty. And according to those prophecies, the Islamic armies will ultimately conquer Jerusalem and Rome.

ISIS ideologues constantly cite the Quran in shaping the group’s vision. Hundreds of the group’s statements, audio and video messages, carry copious references to the words of the Prophet. No matter that the majority of Muslims – even many jihadists - see ISIS’ interpretations of the Quran and the hadith as manipulations or distortions.

The revival of the caliphate is the launching pad for a global battlefield. No caliph can govern without pursuing offensive jihad, and that jihad will continue, as Dabiq put it, until “the shade of the blessed flag will expand until it covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth.”

That jihad has already begun – and in the process ISIS supporters point to the prophecy that declares: “There will come a time when three armies of Islam shall simultaneously rise, one in the Levant, one in Yemen and one in Iraq.”

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It is powerful motivation to ISIS supporters, and it’s also a message to Muslims: The end of times is at hand, and if you want to be a true Muslim, on the right side of history, you had better join us.

Above all, ISIS seeks the fulfillment of prophecy, and even accepts it will come close to extinction in the process. Its followers celebrate these words of the Prophet: “A victorious band of warriors from my followers shall continue to fight for the truth, despite being deserted and abandoned, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem and its surroundings, and they will be at the gates of Damascus and its surroundings.”

But first, the Caliphate must prepare the ground for this final showdown.

Remaining and expanding

In his sermon delivered in Mosul in the summer of 2014 – the only time he has appeared in public as ISIS leader – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said it was an obligation to establish the caliphate and therefore to recognize him as caliph.

“This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it,” Baghdadi declared.

A caliphate can only exist if it holds territory: ISIS’ raison d’etre is to sustain and expand. As Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic: “Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: Take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.”

One of ISIS’ leading ideologues, a young Bahraini by the name of Turki al-Binali, accepted this as a necessary precondition.

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“Doubtless,” al-Binali wrote in 2013, “the caliphate requires some measure of power, might, and political capability, and this is present in the Islamic State.”

So ISIS’ first goal is to consolidate control over its holdings in Iraq and Syria, to demonstrate it can run a state with large towns and cities – not just occupy desert or mountain holdouts. But at the same time it is probing elsewhere in the region for more real estate.

Baghdadi chose Syria as ISIS’ next target after unrest erupted there in the spring of 2011. He sent a group of fighters to Syria later that year.

ISIS followers – and Dabiq – are fond of quoting the words of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the “spiritual” father of the movement and leader of al Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed in 2006.

“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq,” Zarqawi said in 2004.

ISIS has been, if nothing else, transparent about this strategy. Every edition of the online magazine Dabiq has carried the banner “Remaining and Expanding.”

Libya is the only other country where ISIS holds territory – the coastal town of Sirte and other patches along the Mediterranean. ISIS has invested heavily in Libya, with senior aides of Baghdadi dispatched to supervise its operations there and several hundred fighters deployed there from Syria. Libya’s lack of central government and functioning army, its vast desert spaces and competing militia, make it ideal territory for ISIS. Libyan territory can also be (and has been) the platform for launching terror attacks in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

But ISIS’ ambitions run much further – it has established a presence in Yemen, Afghanistan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Graeme Wood identifies three concentric rings: “the Interior Ring in the Levant, the Near Abroad in the wider Middle East and North Africa, and the Far Abroad in Europe, Asia, and the United States.”

Smashing borders

ISIS does not recognize the borders of nation states that make up the modern world nor the idea of a democratic state or citizenship. It sees these as man-made creations at odds with the notion of a caliphate. So it frequently celebrates its ability to defy the “Sykes-Picot line,” the colonial-era border that divides Iraq and Syria.

It even produced a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot” in which a voice-over declared: “This is not the first border we will break. Inshallah, we break other borders also, but we start with this one.”

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ISIS has created provinces – wilayat – that bear no resemblance to existing states. Baghdadi himself has put the destruction of borders front and center of ISIS’ goals. “The Islamic State does not recognize synthetic borders, nor any citizenship besides Islam,” he declared in 2012.