This past Saturday, in a daring nighttime raid on a heavily fortified compound near the village of Barisha in Syria’s terrorist-infested Idlib province, American commandos took out the elusive founder and leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Cornered in a dead-end tunnel, with U.S. military dogs in hot pursuit, Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest, murdering himself and three of his children that he’d perversely dragged into the tunnel with him. One of the courageous canines, a Belgian Malinois named Conan, was slightly injured in the raid. Her declassified photo made her an instant celebrity. She visits the White House next week.
Even with the demise of al-Baghdadi and his caliphate, the ideology that birthed ISIS remains strong. It’s bigger than a war fought with troops, bombs, and dogs. This was brought home to me by my friend and Egyptian medical doctor Tawfik Hamid in his book Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works, Why It Should Terrify Us, How to Defeat It. Almost 35 years ago, Tawfik was recruited into one of the forerunners of ISIS. Tawfik had fortunately escaped the group’s ruthless ideology. His epiphany of conscience occurred when he was asked to bury alive an Egyptian policeman. He quickly left the group and began courageously, passionately, and persuasively denouncing radical Islamic ideology anyway he could.
In his book, Tawfik breaks down the indoctrination process by which susceptible persons like himself become so radicalized that they view fellow humans as sacrificial targets of religious observance. I remember talking to Tawfik about the psychological dynamic that leads a person to this diabolical place. I assumed it must be rooted in some twisted desire for self-empowerment, belonging, and recognition. He said, “Jeff, you’ve got it all wrong.” It was, instead, born of the repeated dulling of conscience through a twisted form of strict religious observance.
Tawfik identified the genesis of the problem as “Petro-Islam.” The world's insatiable demand for oil had funded a narrow violent sect within Islam called Wahhabism. His book deconstructed the darker strains of this fundamentalist denomination, explaining how violence in the name of God had for Wahhabis become a form of worship.
The key to radical Islam’s success is its use of antiquated theological exposition to win over vulnerable hearts and minds, rich and poor alike. Its simplified dualisms provide a pathological end-times urgency to those yearning for transcendent meaning in a material world increasingly devoid of it. In today’s online echo chambers, terrorist cults hyper-target their stark communications to those most receptive to the promise of Heaven and fear of Hell––in exchange for performing vile acts of barbarity (rape, beheading, torture). Without the mitigating effects of advanced social structure rooted in family, community, and the sanctity of life, these jeremiads get through largely unchecked. Even as I write, I suspect there is an ISIS 2.0, perhaps rebranded by another name, already attracting new adherents.
The Yazidis and Christians of Northern Iraq have been the most visible victims of ISIS genocide. Less well known is that innocent Muslims have suffered in even greater numbers. My Security Resolution for Northern Iraq (H. Res 259) helps create the conditions on the ground for Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim minority communities to safely return to their ancestral homelands. As ISIS well knows, religious pluralism is one of the best antidotes to the spread of their invasive terrorist monoculture.
Tawfik’s life’s work is to revive a narrative of thought within Islam that rejects violent religious extremism. This richer narrative looks to a theology of harmony and peace rooted in a nuanced, holistic reading of the Quran. That means no longer reading verses literally or in isolation but connecting them with other verses to form a more complete interpretation. Tawfik understands that all the money and advanced weaponry in the world cannot prevent the birth of ISIS 2.0. Thank you to courageous people like Tawfik, who animate the call of most human hearts for respect, solidarity, and dignity.