The 'ultra-violent death cult' at the heart of ISIS

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George Packer: We apply rational analysis, we try to connect means to ends and tactics to strategy to overall goals, and ISIS keeps defying that.


Marco Werman: That’s George Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker. He says the barbaric behavior of ISIS cannot be understood using conventional political analysis.


Packer: I think it satisfies the more apocalyptic longing that ISIS and its members have, which is to purify the world of non-believers and apostates, and to galvanize and lift the hearts of the believers. That’s what the message they sent out with the video of the Jordanian being burned alive said, it was to gladden the hearts of the believers and that, to me, makes more sense than to try to understand it as a way to tempt Jordan into a war that Jordan can’t win or something more conventionally political like that.


Werman: You’re saying that these executions by ISIS is just spectacle?


Packer: It’s partly spectacle in the sense that a sacrifice unites the group and also galvanizes recruits because while most of us think that such barbaric acts are repellent, people who leave their comfortable lives to join ISIS might actually find the ultraviolence of ISIS exciting and somehow fulfilling, and it might almost prove to them that ISIS is serious, ISIS means what it says. ISIS has created a rudimentary government where other groups simply talked about the future of government under Islamic. So, in a way, ISIS is proving itself.


Werman: What about their military strategy on the way to galvanizing this caliphate? Let’s look at Kobane on the Turkey-Syria border--ISIS sacrificed more than 1,000 of their fighters there, reduced it to post-apocalyptic rubble and yet Kobane has zero strategic importance. Why bother?


Packer: It’s the same question: can we see a clear military strategy? I think no, and it was seen as a test of will and of ISIS’ ability to impose its will on a Kurdish city. Seeking a confrontation with an enemy that doesn’t have a clear military goal is more the way a group like ISIS that I associate more with the Khmer Rouge than with, say, the north Vietnamese; more with a group that has a kind of death cult at its heart and it needs bodies in order to prove itself, in order to show its seriousness and its greatness. To me, as I look at it, that’s what’s driving it. I might be wrong, it’s hard to understand, we’re not on the inside of it, but looking at these actions, they seem driven more by those kinds of mystical forces than by reason.


Werman: You mentioned the Khmer Rouge--there was a point in your New Yorker piece where I felt like I could just interchange ISIS for Nazis and it works--a propaganda machine to just keep making the death machine operate. Is the comparison apt?


Packer: Well, the comparisons are always flawed. The Nazis has a major modern industrial power as their nation state. But in the sense that Hitler was mad to attack the Soviet Union while he still had enemies in the west and was mad to throw all of his armies at Stalingrad when the Russians were making a last stand there, in that sense there are these comparisons, that it’s hard to see a clever military strategy in everything Hitler did, especially in the last years of the war and it’s more an appeal to blood and to a kind of fervor that comes when this mechanism for total control and a vision of absolute purified virtue--I think purification is key to these groups, “We have to rid the world of these contaminants,” whether it’s the Jews, whether it’s the Christians, whether it’s the Slavs, whether it’s the seculars, whether it’s the intellectual Cambodians. If you want to understand the mechanism at work, it seems closer to that than to a conventional acquisition of territory or power.


Werman: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ISIS predecessor, was conquered in large part through the surge during the US occupation. Can the same be done in a variant way with ISIS?


Packer: I think it’s going to be really difficult because although it sounds as if they ought to be iminently beatable given what seem like the tactical and strategic mistakes they’ve been making, they have a lot going for them. They have a divided Middle East, they have an alienated Sunni population in Iraq and Syria, and that’s very fertile ground for them to recruit and to impose their rule on. Really, it’s very difficult to defeat them from the air--in fact, it’s impossible--and it’s very difficult to do it from the ground as well because they’re in cities and they’re in heavily populated areas. So, I think ISIS is going to be haunting us for a very long time.


Werman: Is stopping ISIS from the outside possible or will they burn out on their own?


Packer: We expect groups like this to burn out on their own because they don’t make any sense to us and they seem driven by a mad vision. But they can be very powerful and can last a very long time. It can keep surprising us. I think, for me, the lesson of ISIS is surprise and how one should never think that it’s over or that we’ve seen the worst. There will be worse. I don’t think they can be stopped simply from the outside. It’s going to take a huge effort at a political reconciliation in Iraq as well as a newly trained and equipped and motivated Iraqi army. And in Syria, who has the answer? As long as those countries and the whole region are in such a state of turmoil, ISIS has found the best place to establish the Islamic State.


Werman: George Packer, staff writer with the New Yorker. Always good to hear your thoughts, thank you.


Packer: Thank  you Marco.