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


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