The author of the groundbreaking Atlantic cover story What ISIS Really Wants, a piece which combined excellent research skills with superb journalism and transformed the debate over Islamic State, has now written arguably the best ever account of the strategy, psychology, and theology driving the Islamic State. Graeme Wood is one of the world’s most intellectually gifted journalists. Tens of thousands of men and women have left comfortable, privileged lives to join the Islamic State and kill for it. To them, its violence is beautiful and holy, and the caliphate a fulfillment of prophecy and the only place on earth where they can live and die as Muslims. The Way of the Strangers is an intimate journey into the minds of the Islamic State’s true believers. From the streets of Cairo to the mosques of London to the cafes of Melbourne, Graeme Wood interviews supporters, recruiters, and sympathisers of the group to produce this beautifully written, must-read book.
We meet an Egyptian tailor who once made bespoke suits for Paul Newman and now wants to live, finally, under Shariah; a Japanese convert who believes that the eradication of borders—one of the Islamic State’s proudest achievements—is a religious imperative; and a charming, garrulous Australian preacher who translates the group’s sermons and threats into English and is accused of recruiting for the organization. We also learn about a prodigy of Islamic rhetoric, now stripped of the citizenship of the nation of his birth and determined to see it drenched in blood. Wood speaks with non–Islamic State Muslim scholars and jihadists, and explores the group’s idiosyncratic, coherent approach to Islam.
The Islamic State is bent on murder and apocalypse, but its followers find meaning and fellowship in its utopian dream. Its first caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has declared that he is the sole legitimate authority for Muslims worldwide. The theology, law, and emotional appeal of the Islamic State are key to understanding it—and predicting what its followers will do next.
Through character study and analysis, Wood provides a clear-eyed look at a movement that has inspired so many people to abandon or uproot their families. Many seek death—and they will be the terror threat of the next decade, as they strike back against the countries fighting their caliphate. Just as Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower informed our understanding of Al Qaida, Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers will shape how we see a new generation of terrorists.
Praise for The Way of the Strangers
“Readers are taken on a global journey to meet the frothing fans of ISIS. . . . Wood wants to know these people, to get in their skin, to understand how they see the world. Unlike most journalists writing about Islam today, there is no partisan axe to grind here, no hidden agenda to subtly advance.”—New Republic
“The best way to defeat the Islamic State is to understand it. And to do that, the best place to start is [The Way of the Strangers]. . . . A series of gripping, fascinating portraits. . . . Wood has the talented journalist’s skill for interview and observation. He’s an astute psychologist and a good writer to boot. . . . It’s a great read. But more importantly, Wood’s book reveals truths about ISIS that are hiding in plain sight—but that our leaders make themselves willfully ignorant of. They ought to read his book, too.”—The Week
“Indispensable and gripping . . . Graeme Wood’s quest to understand the Islamic State is a round-the-world journey to the end of the night. As individuals, the men he encounters are misfits, even losers. But their millenarian Islamist ideology makes them the most dangerous people on the planet.”—Niall Ferguson, senior fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, author of The War of the World
The Islamic State’s war for the end of the world began for me the same way it has for many others: with a lesson in etiquette.
In October 2011, two and a half years before the declaration of the caliphate of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, I came to Cairo, the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world. That Cairo is also the most ill-mannered city in the Arab world is not in doubt; whether one loves it or reviles it for its discourtesy is a matter of taste. Short term visitors are cheated by cab drivers or browbeaten by tourist guides, and they board their flights home denouncing Cairo as a city of rogues. But Cairo’s disobedience often breeds cleverness—artistic, social, literary—of a productive and admirable sort. Nine months before, it had made Cairo a crucible of political renewal, when the Tahrir Square revolution ousted Hosni Mubarak and put in his place a provisional government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore far friendlier to religious politics. Now the country faced an uncertain fate, and all factions were plotting, with varying competence, to press their advantages.
At twilight, after the sun is down and before the shop lights and street lamps switch on, Cairo becomes a city lit by headlights, and the dust and grit from the day’s traffic hang visibly in the air. One such evening, at a political rally near Tahrir Square, I met Hesham Elashry, then in his early fifties, and accepted his invitation to a meal and a stroll. Hesham was a politically engaged Muslim. At the time, there was not yet an Islamic State to support, but he associated with other people and groups with clear jihadist leanings. He did not conceal his motive in talking to me: he wanted me to become a Muslim.
We were downtown, in an area near several government ministries and offices. Traffic interrupted our dialogue now and then. But occasionally we’d pass close to a sensitive building, and security checkpoints would stop most cars from entering, so that we’d have a few minutes of pedestrian peace. Hesham led the silences. His instruction began with bearing, poise, and dress. I had been hopping around to avoid tripping on chasms in the broken pavement. Hesham approved of my pace and noted that the Prophet Muhammad walked quickly as well. “ The Prophet walked fast,” he said, “as if he was jogging.” He corrected me, politely, with literally every step. When the cars came back, they passed close, their slipstream tickling the hairs on my forearm and dusting us with carbon. “Walk this way,” he said, taking my left arm with his right arm and putting himself, chivalrously, between me and the traffic. “The Prophet said to touch other people with your right hand, to keep what is good on your right.” He explained the virtue of elegant footsteps, particularly for women; of hair kept short on certain parts of the face and body and allowed to grow jungly elsewhere; of gentle language, for both men and women, and abstention from guttersnipe dialects of Arabic in favor of the baroque and complex language of classical Arabic and the Koran.
I felt myself straightening my back and tongue under his tutelage. He could be kind and insulting in the same sentence. “With Islam, there is a way for everything,” he told me—a way to pick one’s teeth (with a miswak, a gingery-tasting stick), a way to dress (in loose trousers that stop mid-calf, exposing the ankles), a way to eat and drink. “Without Islam, you are like an animal,” just making decisions based on instinct, and ruled by base pleasures. (“Worse than an animal,” another jihadist later told me. “An animal has to obey Allah. It has no soul, no will. You can disobey. You can be worse.”)