In the last two decades, the story of global jihadism has had more plot reversals than a daytime soap. Moribund groups have sputtered to life, former brothers-in-arms have declared one another apostates, and erstwhile hunters of jihadists have joined their ranks. These twists have bewildered governments and analysts, and anyone who claims to have recognized them and their importance as they were happening is probably lying. 

The most important development is contained in two easy-to-remember numbers: 400 and 40,000. On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda commanded an army of 400. A decade and a half later, the Islamic State (or ISIS) had mobilized some 40,000 people to travel to Iraq and Syria, mostly from the Muslim-majority countries but also from Western countries with sizable Muslim communities and even from places with relatively few Muslims, such as Chile and Japan. The challenge for today’s terrorism experts is to explain how 400 grew into more than 40,000, despite the combined counterterrorism efforts of dozens of countries. 

If anything, the figure of 40,000 understates the proliferation of jihad. It does not include the thousands loyal to the Taliban, or the tens of thousands of violent extremists in North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus. Nor does it include people who would have traveled to Iraq or Syria to join ISIS if their home governments hadn’t made such trips illegal or impossible. Meanwhile, the 40,000 figure does include noncombatants—which actually makes it a more impressive indicator of the group’s appeal. Young men can be counted on to show up in large numbers for just about any war, but a violent cause that inspires elderly people and women—including some who are pregnant or caring for young children—must be doing something special.

The latest effort to explain this orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of jihadists is Ali Soufan’s Anatomy of Terror. Soufan had a short but successful career as an FBI counterterrorism agent and interrogator of jihadists. He was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic, which is still the indispensable language of Sunni jihadism (although these days, one can get far with English, French, and perhaps German and Russian). He retired from the bureau in 2005, while still in his 30s, after breaking with the CIA over its torture of detainees. (He had also accused the agency of improperly withholding from the FBI intelligence that might have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks.) Soufan now runs a security firm.

Anatomy of Terror begins with the 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. After a long examination of the wounded remains of the core al Qaeda organization, Soufan ends with ISIS. The book’s most insightful passages follow the life of Saif al-Adel, perhaps the most important al Qaeda operative to have evaded apprehension. (Recent reports place him in Syria, working to coordinate terrorist cells.) In previous eras, he traveled through Afghanistan, his native Egypt, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan, supervising jihad like an Islamist Che Guevara. Soufan notes that Adel has a record of being creative and effective—unlike al Qaeda’s stodgy, possibly cave-bound leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

In ISIS, Soufan sees little that is innovative, and he proposes that this troubling new phenomenon is a manifestation of a familiar one. “For twenty years, the global body politic has been infected with a virulent disease,” he writes. “The name of this malady is Bin Ladenism, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State is merely its most recent symptom.” He downplays the rifts between al Qaeda and ISIS and minimizes the latter’s religious claims by suggesting that it is primarily a political phenomenon—even, to some degree, an outgrowth of the secular Iraqi Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. (A number of former Baathist Iraqi army officers worked for ISIS in its early days.)

Soufan gets many things right. He identifies strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS, including ISIS’ decision to overcome bin Laden’s aversion to state building and declare a “caliphate” in its territory. Bin Laden advised his followers to avoid that step; controlling territory and basing al Qaeda leaders there would create targets for the group’s enemies and demands from local populations for security and other services that al Qaeda could not hope to provide. Instead of creating a state, bin Laden encouraged fragmentation. Soufan likens this strategy to that of McDonald’s, which offers its franchises significant autonomy. Compare that model to that of Starbucks or White Castle, whose every branch is overseen by a corporate mother ship.

Since 2005, ISIS has made religious questions the core of its mission.

Soufan also places deserved emphasis on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of the al Qaeda–linked group that broke away and became ISIS. As Soufan writes, Zarqawi pushed al Qaeda’s brutality to unprecedented levels and followed bin Laden’s sectarianism to its logical conclusion. Bin Laden and Zawahiri agreed with Zarqawi in theory but objected in practice; they pleaded with Zarqawi to restrain himself, for example, in his massacres of Iraqi Shiite civilians. (The older jihadists argued that although many Shiites were wicked, many others were just ignorant, and that, in any case, butchering them on camera did not advance the Sunni cause.)

But an uptick in savagery was not by itself responsible for the changes of the last decade. And the factor that most distinguishes ISIS from its predecessor is precisely the one Soufan overlooks: its emphasis on Islamic theology and law. Soufan assures readers that jihadists are not experts on religion. “Believe me, I have interrogated enough of them to know,” he writes. “Put four in one room and they will state fifty different opinions [and] pronounce twenty fatwas.” 

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an Internet video released in April 2006
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an Internet video released in April 2006.

That may have been true in 2005. Since then, ISIS has made religious questions the core of its mission. It enforces orthodoxy on topics such as who qualifies as a Muslim, whether Muslims may live in non-Muslim lands, how an Islamic state should administer itself, and when Muslims should overthrow their leaders. Al Qaeda was political first, religious second; it was conspiratorial—an exclusive club of operatives—and practical. ISIS is religious first and political second; it is public, nonexclusive, and religiously uncompromising. No explanation of the past decade’s jihadist Great Awakening makes sense without taking into account that contrast.

In preferring to see continuities between al Qaeda and ISIS, Soufan joins numerous other terrorism analysts who were caught flatfooted when ISIS went global in 2013 and 2014. He is somewhat rarer in maintaining that view three years later. Back then, those who saw ISIS as just another al Qaeda franchise tended not to worry much about its novelty and ambition as a terrorist organization. Unlike al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, ISIS didn’t have a known wing devoted to spectacular attacks, such as airline bombings. Unlike the Taliban, it didn’t seem determined to march on a national capital. Instead, it appeared content to putter in the desert, pathetic and mostly harmless. It controlled nothing of value. It threatened no interests of the United States. In early 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama famously referred to the group as the “JV team” of jihad. It is strange to say this now, but at the time, it seemed that the best strategy for defeating ISIS was to let it do its thing and eventually wither.

But what looked like the runt of the al Qaeda litter was in fact another species altogether. ISIS asked its followers to join not because it was fighting U.S. troops—an orthodox bin Ladenist goal—but because it had established the world’s only Islamic state, with no law but God’s, and with a purity of purpose that even the Taliban had not envisioned. Tens of thousands of people did not cross continents and seas to fight for a third-string al Qaeda franchise. They came to fight for a kingdom of heaven on earth


Unlike Soufan’s previous book, The Black Banners, which relied on firsthand accounts and primary sources, his new one draws almost exclusively on secondary sources, chiefly the work of journalists, academics, and other analysts. The lack of primary sources is curious, because such sources, once scarce, are now easily accessible on the Internet—and sometimes in real life, as well. Al Qaeda documents seldom became public. ISIS and its followers, by contrast, have flooded the Internet with official and unofficial statements, transcripts of recruitment interactions, and exhortations to operatives outside ISIS territory. Anyone with an Internet connection and language skills can read them. 

This glut of material has turned the field of jihadism studies on its head. Once, experts waited for scraps of data—a rare glimpse of a document, for example. But even though they had too little information, they thought they knew how to analyze what they had. Now they have truckloads of data, and it is the analysis that needs an upgrade. Soufan’s book suffers from this fault to an uncommon degree.

In letters that U.S. forces captured during the raid on bin Laden’s compound, one finds few signs of original religious thinking. But religious matters pervade the conversations and correspondence of ISIS leaders. The few non-ISIS scholars of Islam who deign to read such texts tend to come away appalled by the conclusions but sometimes grudgingly impressed by the erudition on display.

Of course, ISIS foot soldiers lack the scholarly sophistication of the leaders. But even they drench themselves in religion. Two sociologists from the University of Waterloo who conducted online interviews of ISIS foreign fighters last year reported that faith was “a primary motivator” and “the dominant frame” through which the fighters saw their entire existence. 

Jihadism has democratized and has ceased to be solely a project for elite militants such as bin Laden and Zawahiri.

Soufan, however, passes over almost all discussion of religion and tends to pathologize religious sentiment in glib tones. While Zarqawi was fleeing U.S. forces in Iraq, Soufan writes, his “behavior became increasingly neurotic.” As signs of this neurosis, Soufan cites Zarqawi’s habit of quoting Islamic Scripture and imitating the Prophet Muhammad, “down to cleaning his teeth with a twig, scenting his body with musk, and keeping to what he believed were the [Prophet’s] waking and sleeping hours.” It’s not clear why Soufan sees these as signs of a mental disorder rather than as manifestations of intense religious zeal. Zarqawi evolved from a petty thug into a master terrorist only after he grew devout. The devotion seems to have changed his life, as it did for most of his followers.

Soufan points to the worldly transgressions of individual terrorists to cast doubt on the sincerity of their religious devotion. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the lead planner of the 9/11 attacks, visited prostitutes in the Philippines, Soufan reports; Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 pilots, “pounded shots of vodka before boarding American Airlines Flight 11.” To Soufan, such sins nullify not only the men’s professions of faith but even their faith-based explanations for actions they took—such as flying airplanes into buildings—that made little sense except in the context of their religious beliefs.

This is an analytic blunder common to secular people. Devout Christians sometimes commit adultery; observant Jews sometimes break the Sabbath. Those more intimately acquainted with the nature of religious belief know the role of human frailty. They recognize that sin is not a nullifier of belief but a fortifier: sinners, not saints, require redemption—or, as the Gospel of Luke puts it, “They that are whole need not a physician.” ISIS promises absolution; those who feel no need for absolution show up in smaller numbers. 

“Perhaps Zarqawi, [Khalid Sheik Mohammed], and the 9/11 hijackers would not go so far as to say that God is a stupid idea,” Soufan concedes. But what, he asks, “motivates people like [them], if not religious fervor?” His answers: “nationalism, tribalism, sectarianism.” Sectarianism can, of course, be a form of religious fervor. Soufan’s other two hypotheses are baffling. On behalf of what nations or tribes do today’s multinational, multiethnic jihadist groups fight?

An ISIS flag hangs in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, January 2016.
Ali Hashisho / Reuters


If there is one country lurking behind ISIS, Soufan believes it is Saddam’s Iraq. He suggests, following the lead of several others, that ISIS is a crypto-Baathist organization rather than a religious one that incorporated former Baathists for specific purposes—and after they had repented. The argument begins by noting that ISIS has used the tactics of terror and population management and that “former officers in Saddam Hussein’s sprawling security establishment” joined ISIS and put their talents to use. These included Haji Bakr and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who served as top strategists in ISIS’ early years. Soufan stresses Bakr in particular and relies on an oft-cited cache of captured documents, first reported by Der Spiegel, that revealed Bakr’s plan to declare a caliphate and spread it across Syria with a combination of religious missionary work and Stasi-like population control. Soufan claims that the members of the caliphate’s executive council are “predominantly former servants of Saddam” and that ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is surrounded and controlled by “Baathist minders.” 

But as Craig Whiteside of the U.S. Naval War College recently showed, the ex-Baathists were recruited and used mostly to fill military roles during ISIS’ embryonic stage, with the stipulation that they be “Salafi first, former military officers second, and then former Baathists.” Their levels of religious commitment were indistinguishable from those of other ISIS leaders. Those who joined or allied with ISIS but retained aspects of their Baathist identity were sidelined or purged. For every former Baathist running ISIS, there were multiple other veteran jihadists untainted by any association with Saddam. By the time Baghdadi established the caliphate in mid-2014, most of the former Baathists who had joined ISIS were dead or would be soon. Soufan and other analysts maintain that ISIS cynically uses religion for political ends. That might be precisely backward: the secular Baathist politicians were used for religious ends.


In June, the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati published a moving multimedia piece that reconstructed the lives of a few ISIS fighters whose corpses had been found, rotting and picked over by dogs, on the shore of the Tigris River near Mosul, Iraq. The photographs on the mobile phone of one of the fighters revealed details of their training and their personal lives. They were barely men. Their beards were wispy, and their recreations adolescent. They smiled and joked with friends. The religious side of their existence was evident: they followed their imam; they memorized Scripture; they aspired to die in the path of God.

Jihadism has democratized and has ceased to be solely a project for elite militants such as bin Laden and Zawahiri. One consequence for counterterrorism is that mapping organizational charts and command structures is less critical than understanding the stories of young men such as the ones whose bodies were found near Mosul. Once, one could follow the words and deeds of bin Laden, Zawahiri, Adel, and perhaps a dozen others and obtain a highly accurate picture of global jihad. Now, the puppet masters matter less and the interior lives of the fighters matter more. That means studying how they understand and practice their religion, and how they develop camaraderie and purpose. There is a perverse joy in jihad, a feeling of belonging and brotherhood, of happiness and fulfillment. (Soufan declares that in ISIS territory, “practically anything remotely enjoyable—including a picnic in the park—is banned.” In fact, ISIS features picnics in its propaganda, and the citizens look like they enjoy life in the caliphate; that is the point of the propaganda.) If even a counterterrorism expert of Soufan’s caliber can omit this part of ISIS’ appeal, the group will remain mysterious and difficult to counter.

Indeed, Soufan’s policy prescriptions are vague. He urges officials to understand jihadist ideology better and identify the currents of Salafism that have fed it. This is strange advice given his lack of interest in religion elsewhere in the book. Needless to say, understanding Salafism won’t help much if ISIS is secretly Baathist. Alas, it is not.

The suggestion that policymakers try to understand ISIS’ ideology better is nonetheless a sound one. One of the key developments in the group’s rise is the way it has leveraged local political conflicts—Sunni grievances against Shiite-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria—to create religious confrontation. The group is now in a shambles compared with two years ago—but it is strong compared with just four years ago, when it could still be mistaken for a JV team. Its loss of territory has not been accompanied by a proportional loss in its ability to inspire. The land may be gone, but the dream will remain, and there will continue to be dreamers in dozens of countries, ready to die for the cause. There is still time to learn more about what the dream is and who is dreaming it.

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