AP shows that ISIS recruits know little about Islam; but what about top ISIS leaders?

Do you remember the controversial Atlantic cover story by Graeme Wood -- "What ISIS Really Wants" -- that caused waves of online clicks and almost as many heated arguments in major newsrooms and on university campuses?

Here is that link again, in case you've lost it. It's clear that this essay remains highly relevant, especially in light of that recent Associated Press "Big Story" piece about the degree to which many ISIS recruits do, or do not, understand the basic tenets of Islam.

In an earlier GetReligion post about that Wood essay, I argued that he wanted to show that the leaders of the Islamic State were wrong when they claimed that their radical version of Islam is the true faith and that all Muslims must embrace it or be declared heretics. At the same time, he insisted that President Barack Obama was wrong when he stated that "ISIL is not Islamic."

Thus, here is Wood's thesis: 

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

Note that Wood separates the leaders of ISIS from the "psychopaths and adventure seekers" drawn to its flame. Wood is interested in the religious views of ISIS leaders -- the imams and the teams creating all of those online videos. For the leaders, this is a religious crusade.

This recent AP piece, on the other hand, focuses on the faith, or lack thereof, of the recruits themselves -- with an emphasis on the testimonies of those who fled ISIS. For many recruits, religion had little to do with their decision to join the cause.

You could argue that the information in these two pieces is actually compatible. Here is a crucial piece of summary material early on:

At the height of Islamic State's drive for foot soldiers in 2013 and 2014, typical recruits included the group of Frenchmen who went bar-hopping with their recruiter back home, the recent European convert who now hesitantly describes himself as gay, and two Britons who ordered "The Koran for Dummies" and "Islam for Dummies" from Amazon to prepare for jihad abroad. Their intake process complete, they were grouped in safe houses as a stream of Islamic State imams came in to indoctrinate them, according to court testimony and interviews by The Associated Press. ...
The European, whose boyish demeanor makes him appear far younger than his age, went to Syria in 2014. He said new recruits were shown IS propaganda videos on Islam, and the visiting imams repeatedly praised martyrdom. Far from home, unschooled in religion, having severed family ties and turned over electronic devices, most were in little position to judge.

Working with leaked Islamic State documents about recruits, the AP team noted that only 5 percent of the new ISIS foot soldiers were considered "advanced" students of Islam, in terms of their knowledge of the Quran and principles of Sharia law. On the other side of the spectrum, 70 percent were said to have a "basic" -- the lowest ranking -- level of understanding.

So why were these men turning to ISIS? For adventure? For the thrill of killing infidels, especially those defending a heretical ruling regime in Syria?

The findings address one of the most troubling questions about IS recruitment in the United States and Europe: Are disaffected people who understand Shariah more prone to radicalization? Or are those with little knowledge of Islam more susceptible to the group's radical ideas that promote violence?
The documents suggest the latter. The group preys on this religious ignorance, allowing extremists to impose a brand of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway.

I understand that the whole point of the AP piece is to argue that this hellish drama is not about religion, and Islam in particular. Still, I was left wondering if some of the wild, highly secular Muslim men who turned to ISIS were seeking some kind of quick, sure-thing redemption. Sinners have been known to look for a quick fix.

Still, let me stress that there are some fascinating anecdotes in the AP piece. It's clear that many ISIS recruits choose to flee and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, there are many anecdotes such as this, is the leaked surveys. Read carefully:

Among the documents were forms for nine of 10 young men from the eastern French city of Strasbourg, all recruited by a man named Mourad Fares. One of them, Karim Mohammad-Aggad, described barhopping in Germany with Fares. He told investigators that IS recruiters used "smooth talk" to persuade him.
He'd traveled with his younger brother and friends to Syria in late 2013. Two died in Syria, and within a few months, seven returned to France and were arrested. Mohammad-Aggad's brother, 23-year-old Foued, returned to Paris and was one of the three men who stormed the Bataclan in a night of attacks Nov. 13 that killed 130 people.
"My religious beliefs had nothing to do with my departure," Karim Mohammad-Aggad told the court, before being sentenced to nine years in prison. "Islam was used to trap me like a wolf," he said.
IS data shows Karim and his brother Foued were among eight in the Strasbourg group listed as having "basic" knowledge of Sharia.
Expressing a common sentiment shared by many Europeans of North African descent, Mohammed-Aggad told the court he felt like an immigrant in Algeria and "a dirty Arab" in France. After just a few months in Syria, he said he left IS because he was treated by the extremists as an "apostate" -- someone who had renounced his religion.

In other words, Mohammed-Aggad fled because he refused to adopt the radicalized beliefs and practices demanded by the ISIS leadership? That's one way to read that passage.

The AP piece also claims that some ISIS leaders have little training in traditional forms of Islam and that recruits who truly understood their faith were less likely to choose the "martyrdom" ticket, becoming suicide bombers. That's important material, but it does little to undercut Wood's main thesis, which claimed that -- at the top of the ISIS power structure -- there were (and are) leaders who had adopted a radical vision of Islam and learned how to sell it to many of their followers.

Read both of these important pieces. This is one of the most tragic religion-news stories of our time. There's no way to leave the religion angle out, if the goal is to understand what is happening.

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