The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State
By Graeme Wood
Random House, 2016, 352 pp.
The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory
By Brian Fishman
Yale University Press, 2017, 376 pp.
These two books afford readers a look into the soul of violent jihadism. Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a gifted storyteller who tracks down jihadist interlocutors around the world. Fishman, a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, is a diligent analyst and chronicler of the Islamic State (or ISIS). He presents the players and the events in impressive detail, without always offering quite enough guidance on what to think about them. Both authors have much to teach readers. They agree that ISIS and its sympathizers are not heretical zealots; their devotion is not a form of false consciousness. Their practice and understanding of Islam, although extreme and rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, nonetheless qualify as a form of Islamic orthodoxy. Both writers identify the practice of takfir—the act of declaring whole swaths of Muslims (frequently Shiites) to be apostates—as perhaps the most important feature of ISIS’ brutal version of jihad.
Wood plunges into the thickets of extremist theology, giving it voice through an eclectic sampling of its most committed practitioners. They expound on the caliphate, slavery, corporal punishment, the end of days, and the coming of the Messiah. Wood’s account is unrivaled in the breadth and depth of its exposition. Fishman usefully stresses the seminal role played by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the jihadist who laid the foundation for ISIS in the wake of the American-led invasion of Iraq, before he was snuffed out by a U.S. air strike in 2006. He is often portrayed as a coarse thug, but Fishman reveals him to be much more than that. According to Fishman, Zarqawi served as the inspiration for the influential Egyptian jihadist strategist Saif al-Adel’s seven-stage “master plan” for the triumph of Islam. However, as Fishman points out, the master plan anticipates the unification of all Muslims, and yet the practice of takfir assumes that most Muslims are beyond salvation.