The ISIS 19-ton truck to Paradise

You’ve pored over the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Der Spiegel online, now dip into the monthly ISIS publication on the dark web. 

What do you get when you stir Cosmopolitan, GQ, You, Joy Magazine and Popular Mechanics into a boiling vat of blood? Rumiyah, the monthly magazine put out by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The publication title is aspirational: its named after Rome, a city on the target bucket list of many ISIS supporters. As new editions of Rumiyah appear, theyre dredged up from the deep web and posted by the Clarion Project, a non-profit organisation focused on revealing the activities of radical Islamists.

Like its predecessor publication Dabiq, Rumiyah isnt just an appalling read that leaves you feeling sullied and scared. Its also enlightening.

You get straight-talk from the mujahideen, or at least from their marketing people. The central message is unequivocal – as one article sassily puts it, “The Kafir’s blood is Halal for you, so shed it”. There is plenty of practical advice. Blades are the classic weapon, given their place in holy scripture (“When you encounter those who disbelieve, then strike their necks until when you have massacred them”).

The second issue of Rumiyah, from October 2016, suggests getting a knife with a guard “to prevent one’s hand from sliding forward on to the blade when plunging it into a victim”. Then find a target, such as “a drunken kafir on a quiet road returning home from a night out… or someone by himself in an alley close to a night club or another place of debauchery, or even someone out for a walk in a quiet neighbourhood”. On meeting the target, “A swift slice across the face should quickly subdue them, as very few people will continue to fight once the smell, feel, and sight of blood becomes apparent”.

The author suggests striking the victim’s head with a baseball bat, then slitting his throat.

Heavy-duty vehicles are recommended too, with a special mention for the man who “plowed his 19-ton load-bearing truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice”. The effects of a high-speed truck on heads, torso and limbs are described with relish.

Emphasising the blood-lust are many bright photos. Some are eerie or menacing: ISIS children wielding weapons, American soldiers weeping, dazed medics at scenes of terror. Other photos embrace the horror: a homosexual about to be thrown off a building, a man being shot point-blank, a line of heads placed on the backs of the dead, a man being decapitated, head hitting the ground, before a crowd. One surprising realisation is that the cartoonish images of beheading in medieval illustrations are not unrealistic – the neat separation of head from body turns out, once you’ve seen a picture of the actual thing, to be just how it looks. It seems those monks knew what they were illustrating.

Human nature being what it is, you can only feel pity for a while for the people in these pictures before wondering how you would handle such a situation if you were in it. Would you argue, as Socrates did, that it is better to be the victim of evil than to be the perpetrator, conducting yourself so calmly and bravely that even your killer would be moved to tears? Or would you plunge into the crowd, zigzagging through the stunned group until a sympathetic fruit-seller pushed you towards an alley that led on to a hidden… No and no. You aren’t Socrates or Indiana Jones. That neck waiting on the stump for the chop, as pasty and drained of blood as a terrified body can be before it really is drained of blood, could have been yours if you’d lived under ISIS.

Where there is brutality, sentimentality is not far behind. Among the gory pages is a picture of a mujahid fondling a kitten. Three smiling young men, relaxing before their suicide mission, hold hands as they stroll in the soft light. ISIS fighters in the field look sweetly at the camera, raising a finger to indicate the oneness of God. And those who kill themselves receive admiring obituaries – for instance, one obit praises a young man who refused to get married, join his father’s garment business in Bengal and accept his old man’s offer to buy him a car, instead, choosing “the eternal gardens of the Hereafter over the petty pleasures of this worldly life”.

Let no one tell ISIS that Islam is a religion of peace. Under a photo of Muslims with posters saying “Terrorism is not Islam” and “Terrorism has no religion” is the caption “Slogans of apostasy”. ISIS makes sure to impart the lesson early: an ad for a mobile app to teach children the alphabet includes a “choose your target”, function that depicts a cute little rocket flying towards landmarks including Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.

Why such loathing? A wholly direct piece, in issue 15 of Dabiq (July 2016), headed “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You” – unusually, addressed to foes rather than supporters – lists several reasons. For one thing, “We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted”. For another, “We hate you for your crimes against the Muslims; your drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world, and your puppets in the usurped lands of the Muslims oppress, torture, and wage war against anyone who calls to the truth.”

But here’s the bottom line: even in the absence of violence against Muslims, “we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam”.

The hostility may not be surprising. What might be more so is the volume of theology. Amidst the calls to arms and the infographics about downed Abrams tanks and Humvees are long articles establishing ISIS theology, such as the extended religious justification for enslaving Yazidi women and children in issue 4 of Dabiq (October 2014). Articles like these sometimes identify opponents: those who dare to call themselves Muslims but are, in fact, “The worst creatures under the sky, deserving to be killed”. Reading such pieces is like being stuck in a lecture by a cantankerous theology lecturer who, in his frustration at their obduracy (Is there not someone to restrain them, or to cut off their noses?), occasionally murders members of the class.

It is refreshing to have scholarship taken so seriously. Instead of simply saying “Those who can’t do, teach,” the ISIS operatives rail vigorously against “barking dogs from the scholars of deviance”. True, sometimes the mujahideen lose patience. “By Allah, the time has come for these skulls to be split, for these souls to be smothered, and for these tongues to be cut off!” But more often, they write page after page of religious argument. After all, someone has to get a grip on the helm, or there’ll be anarchy: “When the sailor is absent, and the ship is tossed by winds, the frogs take over”.

One sign that these peevish wrangles really matter to the ISIS editors is that they don’t seem good for mass propaganda. Who has the interest to go through all that stuff, except for fanatical theologians? Surely many readers will just skip to the pics and the advice for sticking in the knife?

These rants feel less like a canny marketing move than a labour of obsession. Of course, their density alone might serve to impress readers, but that’s not the whole purpose. The writers of these sermons are endlessly compelled to be right. And by their own theological lights, one has to say, it seems they do enjoy ample supportive sacred material.

Well, are they completely wrong? Maybe – conceivably – there is a supreme intelligence, alive to all the goings-on in the world, with detailed desires for human behaviour. The universe, after all, keeps turning out to be stranger than it looks. And since similar phenomena sometimes appear at very different levels, perhaps mental life is to be found not only in little creatures like us, but also on some vastly majestic scale. Still, given the many contradictory human gropings in this realm, it seems prudent to be cautious about reports of a supreme being’s judgements on humanity, especially if the alleged commands are not simply to help one another thrive – a practice to be recommended on independent grounds – but to slice throats.

Rumiyah and Dabiq have an incomparably oppressive atmosphere, and it is a wonder to emerge and realise that one is allowed to read something else. One might pick up, say, Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams, an elegant and acute collection of his journalistic pieces on climbing, mostly in impossibly harsh conditions.

What a contrast with ISIS: absurd and frightening goals and methods, yes, but in the service of individual freedom and the pursuit of one’s own eccentric passions. The book is a thrill, a breath of fresh air. And it is a steadying experience to read the work of climbers, because there’s an essential knowledge that they have in their bones: once you let go of your grip on solid rock and abandon yourself to the ether, the empty air won’t hold you, and it may be a very long way down.

See the Editorial in this issue.

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