ISIS 101 (read to the end for some fun maths?)

I’m trying something a little different with this one. Rather than lists of articles on a range of topics, this will show you a range of viewpoints on a single topic – in this case Isis/Isil/Daesh – so you can be the best informed one of your friends next time you talk about it. Annoyingly, I couldn’t find anything that addresses the confusion about naming it that I liked enough to include, so for now you’ll have to content yourself with the fact that different people call it different things.

I have deliberately avoided anything that looks directly at the Paris attacks for two reasons, one is that I believe the internet too quick to react to huge events like this and the race to find a new angle or rebut the most recent one ultimately leaves us all more confused and unable to judge the ‘true’ significance until much later. The other reason is that we’ve all seen a lot of horrible videos, news reports and photos and I don’t want to add to that.

What Isis really wants

This controversial article was published near the start of this year, and attempts to explain Isis from a religious standpoint, as a kind of death-cult attempting to bring about the fulfilment of a prophecy about the end of the world. It was controversial because some felt it relied too heavily on one source – professor Bernard Haykel of Princeton – and only really talks about Islam through how Isis interprets it, which does not a balanced interpretation make.

What I found interesting was the idea some beliefs held by Isis were leading it towards actions that were ill-advised militarily, such as its interest in the city of Dabiq:

‘The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.’

Next is a look at the shortcomings of Graeme Wood’s piece, and a good primer on the problems with castigating Muslims for not condemning Isis (an argument, by the way, which somehow persists despite frequent and vehement condemnations of Isis from Muslim leaders around the world).

The Phony Islam of ISIS

‘When extremist groups like ISIS commit an atrocity or make the news, politicians and commentators inevitably lament how Muslims are not doing enough to “speak out” against the crimes carried out in their name. But when Muslims do “speak out” and “condemn,” as they always have, this seems to only reinforce the tendency to blame Muslims collectively. And if one relies on Wood and Haykel, and believes that the horrors perpetrated by ISIS are “plainly” in Islam’s sacred texts and that it is “preposterous” to argue that these texts are being distorted, then the notion that a faithful Muslim could be critiquing ISIS in a moral and rational fashion is discarded. He can only be a sympathizer, a hypocrite, or a dupe who is ignorant of the requirements of his own faith.’

More interesting in many ways than the ideological driving forces are the economic ones. As mentioned in Wood’s article, the group controls an area larger than the UK (or did, at time of publishing) and is one of, if not the, best funded terrorist groups in history. The fact it has managed to pull this off is mind-boggling, and to understand how you need to look at where the money comes from.

The first article is behind the FT paywall, but you should be able to read it if you register for free (I forget exactly how the subscription model works). Otherwise the second article is from Bloomberg and gives a good account, but is free to read.

Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists, or, if you don’t have a subscription to the FT… Why ISIS Has All the Money It Needs

Despite all this, Isis is not actually the deadliest terrorist group in the world. That title belongs to Boko Haram, who you may have heard of after they kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria.

The World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization

Boko Haram have killed more people than Isis, but receives less coverage in Western media. This argument over the amount of coverage different attacks receive is a point of contention at the moment, especially after the Beirut attacks received markedly less than the Paris attacks. For my money the best article on this is from Vox, and is important in explaining the discrepancies in coverage through the lenses of true narratives vs true facts. I would also add money is an important factor, journalism is expensive, and if you’re getting your news for free bear in mind it’s easier to report on events in France than Lebanon or Nigeria. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though.

‘The scale of Boko Haram’s bloodlust may come as a surprise to those who are more used to hearing about Mosul than Maiduguri, but the Obama administration is well aware of the threat posed by the group. The U.S. government has been providing training, equipment, and funding to countries menaced by Boko Haram, though it has notably declined to sell weapons to the Nigerian government.’

Well, wasn’t that terrifying? If it makes you feel better, the hacker group Anonymous this week declared war on Isis, and have duly begun taking down social media accounts and websites associated with the group. Less famous, but apparently more effective are Ghost Security Group, another hacker group made up of ‘counterintelligence officials and computer specialists‘. I have included a link to a short article about them but haven’t been able to find anything covering the various cyber wars being waged against Isis in as much detail as I would like.

To finish, here’s something to cheer you up: a Japanese mathematician published work that he claimed solved a decades-old problem called the ABC conjecture, except it was so complicated nobody could tell whether he really did or not. This is maths-heavy in places, but I just think the story itself is beautiful and funny in a weird way.

The biggest mystery in mathematics: Shinichi Mochizuki and the impenetrable proof


21/09: Bombings, drug dealing, and nothing at all about David Cameron and *that* pig

Here’s the second bunch of these. This week, I bring you a terrifying conspiracy involving Vladimir Putin, the effect of the internet on the drug trade and that bloke who played War Machine in the first Iron Man film.

Click the titles to read the full articles

None Dare Call It a Conspiracy

This story examines a series of apartment bombings that took place in Russia beginning in 1999, the decisive response to which did serious favours for Vladimir Putin’s public support (remember what your facebook feed looked like after the London riots? Scared people love a bit of conspicuous strength).  I won’t give anything away, but needless to say people investigating the bombings had a habit of meeting sticky ends. Most notable of these was Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radiation poisoning in 2006.

“In the hours just before the Guryanova Street bombing, the FSB had released a composite sketch of a suspect based on information provided by a building manager. But soon after and with no explanation, that sketch had been withdrawn and replaced with that of a completely different man.”

The safe, user-friendly way to be a little drug lord: economic secrets of the dark web

People who are trendier than me will probably know an awful lot more about the logistics of buying drugs online, but this is an interesting article anyway. is home to some of the best business journalism on the internet right now (after the FT, of course) and if you’re curious about how Breaking Bad-style operations work in real life, this is a good place to start.

“A drop address needs to be created, cultivated even. A quick run through on how I pick some of my drops:


  • I pick a house with no one living in it (but not bank owned)

  • Make it look lived in, including mow the lawn, weed the garden, maybe throw a kids toy out there.

  • Stop by every day or two for at least a week, preferably two or three. You want the neighbors to have a vague notion of someone living there without being able to pick out your face.

  • Get the mail man used to mail coming here, send junk mail to this address (This is where you pick the delivery name) cheap packages, whatever. Be mindful that Amazon mails through UPS and the USPS man won’t know if you’ve had packages delivered. *I stop by every day and put the mail on the counter inside the house, waiting a few days before opening just to allow LEOs [law-enforcement officers] to jump the gun on me.”

Terrence Howard’s Dangerous Mind

This one surprised me a bit. Terence Howard has always been a bit of a you-know-that-guy-from-that-thing kind of an actor, but as it turns out he’s a bit of a wacky character. Reading the story, it’s not hard to see why he seems a little unhinged (having your dad murder someone in front of you as a child will do that). There’s too much crazy in this story to go into here, so just read it. Also, if you’d like additional Hollywood-related crazy, there’s this about Will Smith’s son and daughter.

“He had a theory. It might seem crazy, it may even be crazy, but a long time ago he’d gotten hold of this notion that one times one doesn’t equal one, but two. He began writing down his logic, in a language of his own devising that he calls Terryology. He wrote forward and backward, with both his right and left hands, sometimes using symbols he made up that look foreign, if not alien, to keep his ideas secret until they could be patented.”

“Terryology”, honestly.

Introducing Miscellany

There aren’t enough outlets in the UK for longform non-fiction. This is a shame, because it’s one of the best mediums for finding reliably great writing. There are two reasons you will enjoy reading something: it deals with an interesting topic or the writing gives a new perspective. Great writing will do both.

Due to the fact that longform tends to be written by people who have to convince magazine editors to publish their work, there’s a strong pressure to make sure at least one of the two ingredients is there in a big way.

It’s something the USA gets very right. The best in the world are the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, but great non-fiction comes from all over the country. For proof look at, a website dedicated to promoting the best writing for free.

My plan is to begin publishing original longform from new writers on here (email if you’d like to be involved), but in the meantime I’ll be posting collections of links to the best writing on the web every week.

To kick off this blog, here are three of my favourite articles. Please let me know what you think and come back next week for the next lot. If you’d like to hear about new posts via email, enter your details here.

Click the titles to read the full articles

‘There’s No Real Fight Against Drugs’

The man known as ‘El Chapo’, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, is the biggest drug lord of all time. He has featured more than once on Forbes’ list of the most powerful people in the world and, according to some sources, he is worth roughly $1bn dollars. Two months ago, he escaped from prison. Again.

(In a ridiculous side note, shortly after escaping from prison El Chapo took to Twitter to criticise Donald Trump for his comments about Mexican immigrants. The story is here.)

This story is a little frustrating in that the sources who form the backbone are anonymous, and much of what is said is pure speculation, but under the circumstances this is hardly surprising. What it does well is illustrate the seeming impossibility of the war on drugs to effectively curtail the trafficking of drugs and the near-mythic status of some of the top crime bosses.

‘A few days earlier, Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had escaped again from one of that country’s maximum-security prisons. No one in this deeply sourced group was surprised. Nor were they particularly interested in the logistical details of the escape, although they clearly didn’t believe the version they’d heard from the Mexican government.’

50 Cent is my life coach

In the UK, GQ is primarily a fashion/lifestyle magazine, but in the US it is the home of some of the best writers in the business. I could name dozens of examples (and will, in coming weeks), but the best place to start is with Zach Baron’s profile of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

The angle, as the title suggests, is 50 Cent to imparting his wisdom on life, love and business. What ends up happening is he shows a subtle self-awareness entirely unexpected from the man who came into the public eye after being shot and a song called “In da club”.

‘That first morning, I’d arrived at his office wearing jeans and sneakers, and, in time, I asked him what he thought about the outfit. He looked me up and down. “Look, GQ may send you to interview 50 Cent because you come dressed casual,” he said diplomatically. Around him and his friends, I blended right in. “But they would send the guy in the suit to go fucking interview George Clooney in a heartbeat.”‘

What Can a Pregnant Photojournalist Cover? Everything

This is, clearly, a little different from 50 Cent talking about vision boards, but it’s brilliant for a whole other set of reasons. Lynsey Addario is a very successful photojournalist and the author of a book called “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War”. This article was adapted from the book for the New York Times Magazine.

The life of a journalist covering combat zones sounds, frankly, fucking terrifying. The thought of continuing working as one while pregnant, therefore, is absolutely incomprehensible to me (not least because I don’t have a womb). It does make for bloody good reading though.

‘All the men around me momentarily paused. They looked at my face and then down at my stomach, and the seas parted. Spontaneously, they made a human gate around me, cocooning me from the crowd. And I continued shooting with my new bodyguards keeping watch over my unborn son and me.’