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Author delves into what motivates ISIS supporters

March 11, 2017 at 1:05 PM EDT
In “The Way of Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State,” author Graeme Wood tells the story of Islamic State supporters around the world, including an American who is said to be among the group’s leaders. Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, sat down with the NewsHour Weekend’s Phil Hirschkorn.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Americans since 9/11 have really grappled with this question: “Why do they hate us?” From your discussions with ISIS supporters around the world, was it A, that they don’t like our liberal social mores relative to theirs? Or B, they don’t like our foreign policy, our military deployments in some Muslim-dominated countries? Or would you say it was something else?

I think when we look at the reasons that Osama Bin Laden gave for fighting against the United States, they were very clear. They were often very political. So Israel would be mentioned. Autocracies in the Middle East. When I spoke to people who were associated with ISIS, it was a very different type of hatred. They would emphasize this concept of loyalty and disavowal. Loyalty to all Muslims, disavowal and hatred of non-Muslims. So for them, it was an inherent obligation of their religion to hate me. And they would even say after the most friendly interactions, “Oh, by the way, we still hate you.”

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: In your view, is one of the key factors that separates ISIS from Al Qaeda, the fact that the group declared a caliphate, territory?

GRAEME WOOD: One is that they had territory. They had a state that they called people to come to join by migration to the state. Whereas Al Qaeda was sending people out to attack from their bases. I see ISIS as, in a way, being two separate entities. One is the territorial entity in Iraq and Syria that’s subject to the local dynamics of Syrian and Iraqi politics. And the other is this kind of global caliphate idea that’s energizing people in many different countries, and that will probably survive the extinction of the territory of that first caliphate.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: As you interviewed some of these ISIS supporters and followers, influencers, did you feel they were trying to convince you of their righteousness, their rightness, or even to recruit you?

GRAEME WOOD: Yes. In many cases, they were speaking to me because I think they thought that I might join their movement. And they would explicitly phrase it like this. They’d say, “We’re giving you an invitation. We like you,” they would say. “We don’t want you to burn forever. We want you to be on our side and share in your part of paradise.” I was able to have interactions with them that were, enjoyable, that were social. That were things like playing soccer, like hanging out in cafes, like having long discussions about what matters to us in life. I really actually treasured those discussions, and look back at them fondly, even though the content of them was, in many cases, genocidal.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: So your book title, The Way of the Strangers, seems to refer to another thing that a lot of the ISIS supporters you met have in common. That they don’t really feel at home, even in their home countries. Can you explain that?

GRAEME WOOD: They would often quote a saying of the Prophet that Islam began as a strange thing, and it will return to being a strange thing as it was in the beginning. So, “blessed be the strangers.” And they would often associate themselves with that. They really felt that their views were strange even to them. They were coming from places like the United States, like the U.K., like Australia. And to them, too, it was strange that they felt drawn to a caliphate in the Middle East, a country, in countries where that they had in many cases, never been to at all, had no association with. They felt like they were not any longer at home in their own country. They were also strangers in the sense that they were intending to immigrate.

The focus of Wood’s book excerpt in the Atlantic magazine this month is an ISIS member known as “Yahya the American.” His real name is John Georgelas, the son of career a military officer who for a time lived in the Dallas suburb where Wood grew up. Brought up in the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition, Georgelas was a loner, drug user, and junior college dropout who drifted to a new faith.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: He decides to convert to Islam two months after 9/11. How did that come about as far as you know?

GRAEME WOOD: In a moment of having left his home, first year of college kind of rebellion, he stepped into a mosque on the first day of Ramadan, first Ramadan after September 11th, and he converted. And from there, the path was greased toward jihad. I think he was really trying to rebel, and to do that in the most pronounced way possible. And that, for him, meant converting, moving to Damascus, and memorizing this textbook, dictionary of Arabic, and learning the language to such a degree that when I show his writings now in Arabic to native speakers of the language, they can’t tell that this was done by a community college dropout from Texas. And so for him to master the language is really the first step in his becoming a cleric, as he eventually has become within the Islamic State.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: How were his writings disseminated? Was it over social media? How did he build an audience?

GRAEME WOOD: By going online, discovering that there were people out there who were curious about this And he did have a website that consisted of writings in Arabic and English. Later on, once he had formally joined the Islamic State, once he actually got there, he was disseminating his writings in the principle magazines and channels of the Islamic State, and namely the magazine Dabiq.

GRAEME WOOD: Dabiq is a reference to a location that’s really the place where the sort of the coin toss that begins the end of the world will happen. And from there, armies will collide, cities will fall, empires will collapse. And eventually when things get really interesting, the Antichrist will appear and Jesus, from Christianity, will come back as a Muslim and fight on the side of the Islamic State.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: They believe this?

GRAEME WOOD: They certainly do. This is something that has been, from the very start, a centerpiece of their propaganda.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Wood reports, In 2013, Georgelas became one of at least 65 Americans known to have joined ISIS overseas. He moved to the group’s de facto capital Raqqa, Syria, bringing his pregnant wife and their three young children, but his wife didn’t stay for long.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: She comes back to America, comes back to Texas, moves in with his parents for a time, and then she decides to divorce her husband. Where do things stand now?

GRAEME WOOD: Yahya’s family took in the grandkids, and I think they really thought of their son as lost. He had joined ISIS at this point. There was a very low chance that he was ever coming back. And so they decided to trade him for a bunch of nice grandkids, who they can raise to not follow the path that their son had actually taken. That’s where it stands right now, as far as I know, is that the kids are being raised in a Christian household, in Texas, and are doing fine, and certainly better than they would be doing if they were in Raqqa. I think no parent really wants to face up to the fact that their son has gone down the path that John Georgelas has. And especially knowing that it’s not even something that could really have been prevented. They’re not bad parents. They haven’t done anything to push him down that path. But he’s brought embarrassment to the family.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: Wood reports that Georgelas, or Yahya the American, is close to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and that before al-Baghdadi proclaimed the ISIS caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014, Georgelas had advocated that very move.

If you look at John Georgelas’ writings before the declaration of the caliphate, they were constantly saying that one of the requirements of the religion is the appointment of a single person, an imam, a caliph, to lead the Muslims. So in the months before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually did that in Mosul, John Georgelas went to different emirs of ISIS and said, look, you’re in sin if you don’t do this.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: For the Americans who get caught up in jihadist ideology, why do you think the draw for them still is to go to Syria or to go to Iraq, even if that means fighting against American soldiers?

GRAEME WOOD: First, it must be said that the flow has pretty much stopped. The number of people who are traveling is somewhere between zero and one on average per month, which is down from 10 to 12 a year ago. That’s a big change. But for these people that they are told from the start, as soon as they are interested in ISIS propaganda, that they have an obligation to live in Muslim lands, that as a Muslim, they can never fully realize their religion as long as they are being ruled in a secular Christian society. So that’s a very strong impulse. If they’re being made to feel unwelcome at home through other political developments, especially, then that’s gonna be a push for them to go find a home elsewhere.

PHIL HIRSCHKORN: What would you say is the biggest misconception about ISIS, based on your travels?

GRAEME WOOD: I think there is a kind of folk misconception, a folk belief about what brings people to ISIS that involves their having no opportunities at home, that involves their not having a job. In fact, many people I spoke to who are sympathetic to ISIS are certainly smart enough to hold down a job, they have opportunities at home. People are going to ISIS, not because they have a nihilistic desire to just kill, kill, kill, but because they have an idealistic view of what they have waiting for them. They have an opportunity to be part of something big, and they see it in that positive way.