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Ever since ISIS/Islamic State began rapping at the doors of Baghdad and its beheadings first blackened the pages of Western print, media commentators have inevitably been searching for a way to describe the organisation to the common, apolitical everyman. It now seems they have settled on the following unconvincing and unpoetic summary:
“Like al-Qaeda, but worse.”
While faintly accurate, this really doesn’t get at the truth about ISIS. Nor (for that matter) does my own article ‘ISIS: al-Qaeda on Steroids’. The comparison with Bin Laden’s organisation I now believe to be generally misleading.
ISIS is something altogether new and its methods and aims almost unprecedented. Perhaps the only way to describe it appropriately is to use the well-worn example of the Nazis.
I would posit that the Nazi Wehrmacht – the Germany army under Nazi command – is roughly analogous to al-Qaeda, whilst ISIS is closer in spirit and practice to the Schutzstaffel or SS.
There are many reasons for this but one in particular. Put simply, al-Qaeda – like the Wehrmacht – fought for conventional, semi-rational goals. al-Qaeda sought to expel Western militaries from the Muslim world. The Wehrmacht fought to defend and enlarge the Nazi empire. Neither of these objectives are beyond comprehension to the outside observer and neither give any hint of madness in those who formulated them.
The SS meanwhile was a completely different beast. Himmler transformed the SS from an unremarkable bodyguard division into a secretive spiritual order charged with a unique, historic destiny. It became an elite racial cult, replete with rituals, codes and quirks of initiation. The SS considered themselves the appointed and rightful rulers of the European meta-race and the last hope it had against the ‘Asiatic hordes’ of Russia.
These objectives are plainly not reasonable or rooted in a rational interpretation of the world.
As with the SS, so it is with ISIS. The fighters of Islamic State believe themselves to be divinely ordained agents of the apocalypse. Their flag – the Black Banner – plays a central role in the eschatological drama of the Islamic end-times.
The Hadith most quoted in relation to the Black Banner (or ‘Black Standard’) is the following:
“Our Prophet (saas) told; “Black banners of Ibn Abbas appear from the East.” That is to say, among the Arabs those with black banners appear. After they proceed for a while, again this time a smaller group with black banners appear from the East (the Middle East). They fight against a man from the descend of Abu Sufyan and come under the obedience of Hazrat Mahdi (note: the promised saviour of Islam).”
The ‘Black Flags’ prophecy is the primary motivation of the ISIS leadership. The activities they endorse (unlike those of al-Qaeda) have nothing to do with removing the House of Saud from power or punishing America for its acts of imperialism. They are telescopically aimed at bringing on the end of the world and the mystical victory of Islam over rival religions and sects.
The Jihadis with Black flags believe they possess a divine mandate to cause chaos across the world – the bloodier and more random the better- in order to bring on the final Day of Judgement.
Irrational beliefs pave the way for acts of astonishing cruelty. The SS shot men, women and children into ditches without a moment’s reflection. Today it was reported that a phone seized from a dead ISIS fighter had photos of a beheaded baby. I’ll repeat that: a beheaded baby.
The historians have mourned for decades that we (the allied nations) did not have the knowledge of what was occurring in the Eastern territories. Had we known all the details at the time, the consensus claims, we could have (and perhaps would have) taken out the machinery of the Holocaust from the sky.
We have no such excuses today, as bearded Einsatzgruppen stalk their way through Kurdish villages and towns.