Graeme Wood | Understanding ISIS (Episode 613)

Graeme Wood | Understanding ISIS (Episode 613)

Graeme Wood | Understanding ISIS (Episode 613)

Graeme Wood (@gcaw) is a political science lecturer at Yale University, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.

The Cheat Sheet for Understanding ISIS:

  • How does ISIS view itself in the context of the modern world?
  • What is the allure of ISIS to educated, professional, and otherwise “normal” members of society?
  • How does ISIS vet potential candidates, and in what ways has recruitment changed over the past few years?
  • What has ISIS learned from Al-Qaeda’s failures?
  • How does a western reporter like Graeme Wood persuade terrorists and terrorist sympathizers to talk to him?
  • And so much more…


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(Download Transcript Here)

To most of the western world, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) represents the unreasonable, uncompromising culmination of radical Islam against which the War on Terror has been waged since 9/11. It is responsible for sensationalized displays of barbarism that seem to oppose civilization itself — from the destruction of ancient world heritage sites to the public torture and execution of those it deems enemies.

But what exactly is ISIS fighting for, and why are so many otherwise “normal” people from all walks of life drawn to its cult-like allure? The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State author Graeme Wood joins us to share what he’s learned by interviewing insiders from this little-understood world. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

More About This Show

In his book The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, journalist Graeme Wood strives to understand the radicalized Islamic stance of ISIS from a human perspective. What makes its mission to install a theocratic caliphate based on seventh century laws — complete with sex slavery and public executions — so appealing to people who appear otherwise educated and “normal” by modern standards?

“It used to be, with terrorist groups, you could look at their HR departments and look for them to seek particular people,” says Graeme. “So they would look for ideologues, they’d look for gunmen. They’d look for people with different skills. But it would be a fairly select group that they would be casting about for.

“Now with ISIS, they want to create a society. Which means they’re going to look for people who are brutal — people who can be the muscle. And they look for ideologues. But it also means they’re looking for mothers; they’re looking for people who are able to run telecommunications departments for the state. And so you’ve got to expect that they’re going to pull in people from all walks of life. What do they have in common? They all have a kind of belief in the Islamic State as the fulfillment of the religion. Once you get that baseline, there’s really not a single type of person they will reject or accept. As long as you’re willing to sign up for that and give allegiance to the state, they want you.”

Graeme tells us about a conversation he had with Musa Cerantonio, an Australian preacher and ISIS recruiter who was once asked to be the Islamic State’s official English language translator.

“He said, ‘Look, you ever see the movie The Wizard of Oz? The Wicked Witch of the West — we call her The Wicked Witch of the West, but is she really wicked? I think, in fact, she’s the hero of the movie, and Dorothy is the wicked one. Dorothy wants to steal the shoes. She’s stolen the shoes, in fact, of The Wicked Witch of the West’s sister at the beginning of the movie. Those belonged, by all rights of inheritance, to The Wicked Witch of the West. And so Dorothy is the one who’s on this murderous quest to kill someone who’s already a grieving sister!’

“His point was, I think, to say, ‘We have cherished categories of what’s good and evil and we don’t even think about them. But just stop for a second and imagine if the world might be completely inverted. If you’re able to do that with The Wizard of Oz, you might be able to do that with the rest of the universe as well and come to the conclusion that ISIS has everything right.'”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about who is most vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, what makes people from seemingly well-to-do communities journey to war-torn Syria to join ISIS, how Graeme came to know prominent ISIS recruiters (and what he really thinks of them), what ISIS ultimately hopes to achieve, what parents can do if they suspect their child is going through a radicalization process, how the Islamic State compares to North Korea as a territory, how Graeme survives when reporting from areas of conflict, what any of this has to do with the price of pizza in Oslo, and lots more.


If you enjoyed this session with Graeme Wood, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

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