Journalist explains goals of ISIS at VC Lyceum Lecture Series event
Graeme Wood speaks during Monday night’s lecture on “What ISIS Really Wants” at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

Graeme Wood spent part of his lecture Monday night contrasting the various terrorist groups that associate themselves with Islam and said ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban share one common characteristic.

“The best news in all of this is that these most dangerous groups all hate each other,” Wood said.

Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and political science lecturer at Yale University, spoke before approximately 175 people at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts as part of Victoria College’s 2016-17 Lyceum Lecture Series.

Wood’s March 2016 story in The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” ranks as the most-read article in the magazine’s history. For the story, Wood traveled the world to meet with ISIS recruiters and find out the religious group’s intentions.

During Monday night’s presentation, Wood explained the origin of ISIS and how it rapidly evolved in June 2014 when approximately 1,000 of its fighters seized control of Mosul, a city in Iraq of over two million people.

“Mosul was a well-armed city,” Wood said. “Everybody had guns and everybody knew how to use guns. What this meant was it was a vulnerable place. … The people of Mosul didn’t feel comfortable with Baghdad governing them and they were ready to have someone else.”

A month later, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came out of hiding to declare at the grand mosque in Mosul that he was a successor to Muhammad and a spiritual leader of Islam.

“He basically inaugurated himself as the caliph for Islam,” Wood said. “For jihadists around the world, this was a very big deal.”

Wood said many current ISIS fighters left high-paying jobs and their families to join the group. He estimated the number of active ISIS members worldwide to be around 45,000.

“In 2014, we already had about 15,000 to 20,000 people who had left peaceful lives to join the fight for ISIS,” Wood said. “Compare that to al-Qaeda, which, in September 2001, had about 100 to 200 people fighting for it. There wasn’t this sense of obligation with Muslims to drive their cars and go and fight with al-Qaeda. That is exactly what ISIS provided.”

Wood told of traveling to Australia to speak with ISIS recruiter Musa Cerantonio, who converted from Catholicism to Islam at the age of 18 and believed true Muslims were required to revive violent, medieval forms of their religion.

“He sort of went overboard with it,” Wood said. “He came up with a peculiar meaning of the religion which his own teachers said was crazy. But they found out when fighters for the Islamic State looked for inspiration, he was No. 1.

“I would tell Cerantonio that he seemed like a normal person and then say things that are absolutely nuts. He quoted a Muslim prophet who said, ‘Islam began as something strange and someday it will return to be something strange.’ “

Wood said the evolvement of ISIS is frustrating to the vast majority of Muslims.

“ISIS leaders are reviving doctrine that most Muslims don’t particularly care about,” Wood said. “There are parts of the Bible that Christians don’t pay much attention to, not because they don’t think it is the word of God, but they feel the modern world requires attention to other things.”

Wood said the most unusual conversations he had with ISIS supporters were about their plans to usher in the apocalypse. He said the belief is an antichrist will form a huge worldwide following and create a massive army that will obliterate the Islamic State.

“They will be reduced to 5,000 fighters and be besieged in the city of Jerusalem,” Wood said. “Then at the very lowest moment of their history, they will be saved by the return of Jesus, who is the second-most revered prophet in Islam.”

Wood said the Islamic State believes a great war will ensue, a deadly virus will spread all over the world and the sun will rise from the west to signify the last day.

Wood’s appearance was presented in part by the Jim Lehrer Endowment Honoring Charles Spurlin.

VC’s 2016-17 Lyceum Lecture Series will conclude on Tuesday, April 4 with David J. Peterson, who created the Dothkari language for the HBO series Game of Thrones. Peterson will speak on “The Art of Language Invention” at 12:30 p.m. at the VC Sports Center.


Victoria College 2016-17 Lyceum Lecture Series speaker Graeme Wood answers questions from the audience Monday night.
Published: Wednesday, 19 October 2016

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