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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 ...

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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 covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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