ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

The Attraction of ISIS

Why do people want to fight for ISIS? Why do women want to go to the caliphate and participate in a marriage to an ISIS fighter? These questions have been asked by pundits, journalists, and commentators a great deal in 2014 and 2015 without anyone ever providing an acceptable answer. This is partly because ISIS is portrayed in the media as a bunch of irrational nihilistic barbarians bent on destroying the world. Who would want to live in such a world? It is like a post-apocalyptic dystopian movie where no civilization exists. As stated at the beginning, this book does not seek to place judgment. The following is the ISIS narrative and why it attracts followers and fighters.

There are reasons why ISIS inspires others. For one thing, it provides people with a vision of a world in which it believes it wants to live. This vision provides a purpose to young people who are looking for purpose in their lives. As stated in previous chapters, this vision portrays ISIS preparing the world for the end of days, and by so doing, it is also creating the kingdom of God’s people. This is what ISIS invited people to come and join.

This chapter will lay out the manner in which this positive, aspirational message is delivered. It will specifically address the attraction to women. Finally, this chapter explains the financing used to support this vision.


The recruiting process for ISIS is rich and complex yet simple. First, the part that is rich. ISIS uses both specific and general media to encourage participation. There are Web pages, video indoctrination, and chat rooms. The group has individuals designated to recruit who move virtually throughout the chat rooms to pick up people who are interested. In some of the cases where women were specifically recruited, the recruiters were fighters themselves. People are specifically groomed to come to the caliphate through the one-on-one communication. The recruiters take their time and use the tremendous volume of material to portray the cause in its most positive light. They express what the caliphate offers—an opportunity to do something more, to defend Islam, to fight unbelievers and oppressors of the faithful. The messages use Quranic verses, statements from the prophet, and application to what potential recruits are seeing on the news. The desperate plight of Muslim refugees and those who are suffering from despotic leaders further strengthen the message.

The complexity is directly linked to the simplicity in that a lot of the recruiters are not part of the organization through some bureaucratic hierarchy. ISIS does recruiting both collectively and individually. The collective recruitment often comes with the assistance of media broadcasts of the suffering of Muslims in Syria or elsewhere around the world. This is supported with messages that come from conservative mosques and religious leaders. The desire to help may also be enhanced and developed by small groups of like-minded people who may meet with a potential recruit personally or in cyberspace. To call this recruiting is both accurate and inaccurate as nowhere in what is described above is there an ISIS recruiting office or someone wearing a badge that says “ask me about ISIS.” ISIS does have people with the responsibility to recruit and bring in immigrants, but it also uses the mass media and what could be called freelance recruiters—fellow Muslims who simply want people to go to the caliphate, but they are not so inclined themselves. It is similar to what often gets labeled as lone wolf attacks. In this case, they are people who, on their own, recruit and indoctrinate people into what is generally called extremist viewpoints. The fact that not all of these types of recruited people will end up with ISIS further adds to the complexity. They might join another group. The simplicity is that there are voices independent of the organization which are helping build the organization.

Once convinced of the rightness of the need to join the caliphate, the recruits travel to the region where they meet up with facilitation networks in major cities in Turkey, Syria, or elsewhere. These networks then provide the information or the transportation to get the recruits into the caliphate. People who come with little or no previous connection tend to be given menial tasks. They, in general, are not trusted with complicated operations. They may be considered for suicide operations if so inclined. Unless the recruit arrives with demonstrable experience and skills, they will probably not be a frontline fighter or leader. Many of the fighters, who are prominent in the fight, were brought in by networks of acquaintances already in ISIS. This is why there are groups of Chechens or Iraqis or Syrians from specific tribes or villages which fight together.

Women in ISIS

Why would a young, educated, middle-class woman from London want to leave her home, her education, family, and friends to go to the caliphate to become a bride to a young fighter from a different country and different culture? This question puzzles many people in the West. Many of the women who travel to ISIS are not stupid; they are not impoverished. They have options. They tend to be educated. Many are from middle-class families in terms of economic prospects and possibilities. They go because they see in ISIS an opportunity to do something that matters: a chance to participate in something bigger than themselves, something that furthers the will and plans of God. These are powerful motivations. It is true that some (we do not have an accurate understanding of the complete numbers who have gone so any statistics are estimates) women return explaining how disillusioned they were and recount the difficulties and lack of freedom in the caliphate. Despite this, women are still going and seeking to become a part of the caliphate.

The Salafist ideology has strict interpretations of what women can and cannot do in society. That said, women do serve as recruiters for ISIS. It recruits both men and women. Women also serve in all the same roles that women do in any other conservative society. For ISIS, the primary role for women is as wives and mothers as the caliphate takes seriously the importance of the next generation. Additionally, many of those who enforce the strict rules of behavior within the caliphate are women. Meaning that it is typically women who enforce dress code standards on other women.

Early on in the ISIS advance some women traveled to Syria to join ISIS with the intent of fighting alongside others. Some women have been suicide bombers. The number of women who have served as fighters is very low. This is not a new role for women in the salafi-jihadi or even the broader nonstate actor communities.

Financing ISIS

How does ISIS survive financially? War is expensive and it is fighting war on every front of its caliphate. ISIS gets money from a variety of sources. The single largest source is the taxation of residents of the caliphate. Taxes are collected from all residents within the territory it controls as well as additional taxes on nonbelievers living under the authority of ISIS. The two most publicized sources of income are oil and the Iraqi government. In addition to these two, which will be explained next, there are other sources such as the sale of antiquities, extortions, kidnapping and ransom, fees and tolls, and other similar means of deriving wealth.

Oil sales probably make up one of the largest portion of income. These are sales both internal and external to the caliphate. ISIS controls the oil rich eastern desert of Syria. It continues to pump oil from the fields located there and other fields in Syria and Iraq. It also has access to preexisting and then later developed refining capacities. Thus it is pumping crude oil, refining it into sellable product, and then distributing this product to buyers. The buyers include people living in the Islamic State and many who could be considered enemies or who are living in land controlled by enemies of the Islamic State. This is simply one oddity of many when discussing this topic. People need fuel to cook, to run their vehicles and machinery, and especially to run generators. Because this is a need, people do not care so much from where they get the resource. So truck drivers will wait for weeks to get their trucks filled with heavy oil for generators. Destruction of the oil infrastructure has moved up the priority list for those opposing ISIS. The problems with doing this include what people will think when the oil is no longer available. Who will they blame? Also, how will the infrastructure be rebuilt if the fighting ever stops?

As stated previously, a lot of the money used to operate the Islamic State came from the Iraqi government. The government in Baghdad continued to pay employees for months after ISIS took over areas. People living in Mosul continued to receive money from Baghdad for more than a year. The government believed that the land would be retaken soon and the leadership did not want its employees to be destitute and in opposition when it returned. Regardless of the reasoning, the reality is that a significant portion of the money used to pay ISIS fighters came from the very entity they were fighting. The irony of this situation is another case of the oddity of this conflict. Most of these payments ended in November and December 2015.

During the early Islamic conquests, there were Quranic protections for those designated as “people of the book.” This phrase has been interpreted to mean those who believed in the Bible and other sacred texts accepted as precursors of the faith by Muslims—Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc. These people were not viewed as opponents of the faith, but as ignorant of the newer revelation received by Mohamed. So long as they agreed to be protected people they would be allowed to remain in Muslim lands as worshipers of their original religion. There were several caveats. One was that they needed to pay a special tax to fund their protection. The Muslims would protect them because they could not have weapons or be trained in their use. ISIS reinstated this tax that is over and above any other taxes levied on all people living within the Islamic State.

Much has been made of the destruction of antiquities. Some of the destruction has been done to communicate the unacceptability of idols, as previously discussed. Many of the antiquities have been sold off as well. This is a much more limited resource, and though it has garnered a great deal of publicity, these sales do not really produce a significant or a continuous amount of wealth for the caliphate. Antiquities sales are sporadic and supportive of the other, more consistent wealth streams.