Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Pay attention when ISIS members call themselves ‘Strangers’—it is meaningful

Here is an excerpt from a new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, a history of the so-called Islamic State, based on insider accounts and secret communications few outsiders have seen. The Strangers Jihadists, especially foreigners who travel to fight in distant lands, call themselves “strangers.” They ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
mccantscrop
mccantscrop

Here is an excerpt from a new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, a history of the so-called Islamic State, based on insider accounts and secret communications few outsiders have seen.

Here is an excerpt from a new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, a history of the so-called Islamic State, based on insider accounts and secret communications few outsiders have seen.

The Strangers

Jihadists, especially foreigners who travel to fight in distant lands, call themselves “strangers.” They are strange, they claim, because they adhere to the true Islam that most Muslims neglect. They are strange because they have abandoned their countries for foreign lands to fight the final battles against the infidels.

“Islam began as something strange,” the Prophet told his companions, “and it will return to being something strange as it first began, so glad tidings to the strangers.” “Who are the strangers?” someone asked. “Those who break off from their tribes,” the Prophet replied.

For jihadists, leaving their tribes means leaving their homelands and emigrating to fight elsewhere, just as the Prophet’s companions, “the emigrants,” did. In Arabic, the word for “stranger” is gharib. The plural is ghuraba’. The word can also mean “foreigner,” which is apt for the foreign jihadists who volunteer to fight in distant lands. Ghuraba’ is often the name of the camps they set up, and it’s the title of a popular hymn they chant. When Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi left for Afghanistan in the late 1980s, he called himself al-Gharib, “the Stranger.”

Most of the prophecies about the strangers are found in a medieval compendium of the Prophet’s words and deeds. In a section titled The Book of Tribulations, End-Time prophecies intermingle with descriptions of the strangers, giving them an apocalyptic hue.

These prophecies are of a piece with others of a “saved group” of Muslims who will fight the infidels until the Day of Judgment. Jihadists of all stripes, not just Islamic State followers, have been stirred by the promise of fighting in the final battles preceding the Day of Judgment. “If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken,” said a jihadist fighting in Aleppo. “They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised—it is the Grand Battle.” Another fighter in northern Syria believed the same. “We have here mujahideen from Russia, America, the Philippines, China, Germany, Belgium, the Sudan, India and Yemen and other places. They are here because this [is] what the Prophet said and promised; the Grand Battle is happening.” God “chooses the best of people to come” to Sham, asserted Abu Muthanna, a Yemeni from Britain. “You see where the muhajirin are,” he said, using the Arabic term for “emigrants.” “This is the biggest evidence that they are upon the haqq,” or truth.

Many of the emigrants or strangers have flocked to the Islamic State’s banner. A popular gray-bearded Tunisian commander goes by the nom de guerre “Father of the Strangers” (Abu al-Ghuraba’). The Strangers Media Foundation produces propaganda supporting the Islamic State and criticizing its jihadist detractors. A YouTube video titled “Strangers—Islamic State in Iraq and Sham—Pictures from the Land of the Great Battles” depicts fighters from around the world. A Jordanian blogger collects Islamic State propaganda on his website, Strangers of the Lands of Sham. The strangers have found their home in the Islamic State.

(Excerpted with permission from THE ISIS APOCALYPSE: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic Stateby William McCants.)

William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins, and is a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. He has written many articles on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, including the tenth anniversary article on 9/11 for Foreign Affairs. McCants translated a jihadist book on strategy favored by Islamic State adherents and founded Jihadica.com.

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.