Top 10 Things that ISIS Really Wants

Top 10 Things that ISIS Really Wants:  Here’s What They’re After

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) also known as ISIL, and DAESH seemed to appear very suddenly, out of nowhere, in 2014.  By 29 June of that year it had proclaimed a new Worldwide Caliphate with its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Caliph.

ISIS insists on calling itself the Islamic State (to the chagrin of many Muslim countries around the world) but in spite of tales of almost unimaginable horror coming from the lands ISIS now control it has proved almost impossible for the west to understand what motivates ISIS and how to deal with them.  This ignorance is fuelled, in great part, by ISIS themselves.  They either prevent westerners from entering their domains or capture those who do enter, use them as hostages and then torture and kill them in a variety of increasingly gruesome ways while capturing the deaths on camera and disseminating them around the world to underline the power and uncompromising nature of ISIS.

However, while there is much we do not know about ISIS, some key facts have come to light about their motivations and goals.  So here is our top 10 list of things that ISIS really wants.

10. To Be Seen As Separate From And More Islamic Than Al Qaeda

Isis Wants a Separate Identity from Al Qaeda
Isis Wants a Separate Identity from Al Qaeda

ISIS started out in 1999 as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, fighting in the Iraqi insurgency and forming the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006.  It advocated the use of extremely violent methods which led to discontent amongst partner organizations.  By 2014 they had cut all ties with Al Qaeda, Al-Qaeda will not pledge allegiance to the Caliphate and their methods are criticized by ISIS as not being extreme or Islamic enough.

Indeed when ordinary Syrians in the north of their country became fed-up of ISIS control and their brutal imposition of an extreme brand of Islam they rebelled.  Fighting alongside them was the local Syrian Al-Qaeda cell – al Nusra.  While Al-Qaeda and ISIS share many of the same intrinsic core beliefs and are both extreme terrorist groups they operate in fundamentally different manners.  ISIS believes that it is necessary to establish territorial control and promote a Caliphate.  Al-Qaeda  are working towards the end goal of a caliphate but do not necessarily expect it to be established any time soon.

ISIS believe that the declaration of the new Caliphate in 2014 was the first time in 1000 years that true Islam actually existed.  Followers of ISIS believe that it is not possible to be a proper Muslim without pledging allegiance to a Caliph.  The caliphate of the Ottoman Empire is regarded as a sham and all those who fail to pledge support to Al-Baghdadi (including Al-Qaeda) are failing in their duty as proper Muslims.

9. To ‘Liberate’ Istanbul And Raise The Flag Of Allah Over The White House.

Isis Want to Liberate Istanbul.  It looks fine to me. Istanbul skyline.
Isis Want to Liberate Istanbul. It looks fine to me. Istanbul skyline.

ISIS has understood the need to engage with people on modern platforms and as such they are expert operators of Social Media and will engage with select reporters if the collaboration will be of some benefit to them.  In 2014 they worked with Vice News to create a documentary to disseminate their beliefs to the Western World. In this documentary they threatened to attack Istanbul.

Turkey and Syria have been engaged in a long running dispute with Syria and Iraq concerning the building of the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River.  This dam, built in the 1990s has helped regulate the availability of water in South East Turkey but it has, as a result, limited the amount of water reaching Syria and Iraq.  ISIS threatened to ‘liberate’ Istanbul to force the opening of the dam.  In the same video ISIS heckled the US, goading it to send soldiers who could be humiliated.  They threatened to invade the west, capture women and orphan children and prophesied that the Flag of Allah would be raised over the White House.   ISIS has further called on Muslims around the world to work together to kill 10 million Americans in retribution for the Muslims killed by the west.

8. Defeat The Armies Of Rome At Dabiq.

Isis Wants to Fight the Roman Army...  I think they're a bit late
Isis Wants to Fight the Roman Army… I think they’re a bit late

The town of Dabiq in Syria has a symbolic importance to ISIS that goes far beyond its strategic value, so important, that ISIS has used the name of the town as the name for their propaganda magazine.  This importance harks back to a statement in a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed) which claims that the armies of Rome will meet the Armies of Islam at Dabiq where there will be a battle in which Islam will be ultimately victorious.  This battle is part of the final Armageddon, or end of days and the battle of Dabiq will precede the conquest of the world before Jesus will return to lead the armies of Islam.

It is not quite certain who ISIS considers to be the modern day ‘Rome’.  The term could refer to Turkey as Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in the time of Mohammed or it could be any western led army or coalition, indeed any grouping that opposes ISIS.

ISIS itself appears  to be almost desperate to entice the armies of the west to Dabiq, In November 2014 the video of the gruesome beheading of Peter Kassig, the American aid worker showed the executioner boasting that his body was to be buried in Dabiq stating they were waiting for the armies to arrive.

7. To Adhere To A Hardline Interpretation Of Islam

Isis Believes they are final word on the Quran
Isis Believes they are final word on the Quran

It has become fashionable for those who condemn ISIS to claim they have nothing to do with Islam this is not factually correct.  Many (indeed most) Muslims do not subscribe to or agree with ISIS’ hardline interpretation of Islam but that does not mean that they are not Islamic or that they are not interpreting the Koran and other Islamic texts for their own ends.  ISIS are Islamic fundamentalists –to fail to understand this is as wrong as failing to understand that extremist Christian groups can be both extreme and Christian.  92% of polled Saudi Arabians agreed, when asked that ISIS conformed to Islamic beliefs.  This might not be surprising coming from Saudi Arabia where people follow a strict Wahhabist form of Islam but it is instructive.  Any religion is open to both moderate and fundamentalist interpretations.   It is more correct to say that the beliefs and practices of ISIS are not in line with modern moderate Muslim belief any more than moderate Christians believe in stoning women for adultery.

If we ascribe modern western or, indeed, modern Muslim, values to ISIS it will only lead to analysts and opponents to make mistakes in understanding what ISIS want.  Indeed, understanding the Islamic beliefs of ISIS is one of the keys to understanding their motivation which is to live life exactly as ordained by the Prophet Mohammed.  ISIS believe it is the duty of all Muslims to do this.  ISIS believes it is at war, surrounded by non-believers (any Muslim who does not subscribe to their strict interpretation is considered an apostate) and hostile neighbors, struggling to establish their religion in exactly the same way as Mohammed all those years ago.

6. Execute All Those Muslims They Believe To Be Apostate.

If you don't like Isis' version of Islam.  Kiss your head goodbye
If you don’t like Isis’ version of Islam. Kiss your head goodbye

Hand in hand with their desire to follow the teachings of Mohammed faithfully, ISIS believes that those Muslims who do not live exactly as they require are apostate, they follow a doctrine of Takfirism which requires all true Muslims to expose those who are apostate.  There is no room for movement – to be a proper Muslim you must follow a hard line, pure, Sunni belief or you can legitimately be called apostate.

While all Muslims are required to honor the Koran and the sayings of Mohammed these are not the only requirements ISIS sets out for ‘Muslim’ life.  According to their interpretation anyone who touches or sells any drugs or alcohol is apostate.  Wearing the wrong type of clothing is forbidden and a beard is mandatory.  Belief in or the following of any evolution from the strict form of Islam promulgated by Mohammed is considered to be anathema as Mohammed was guided by divine wisdom and therefore proposed the perfect religion which has no need of change.

Those who are takfir have to be executed in order to save the world from their sin.  ISIS do not permit their followers to vote in elections – so any Muslim living in any democracy who has voted is apostate as is any Muslim who has run for office (this includes all Muslim heads of state).  ISIS are Sunni Muslims and therefore consider all other types of Muslims to be apostate including all Shiites.  They consider the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Wahhabist leaders of Saudi Arabia to be apostate as none of them practice Islam in its original and therefor perfect form.  The latter is particularly ironic as it is believed that much of the funding for ISIS comes from Saudi Wahhabists and its beliefs are founded on the extreme Wahhabism of the 1930s.

5. Cleanse The Areas They Control Of All Those Who Do Not Subscribe To Their Beliefs.

Isis want you to pray just like this... No not like that.   You in the blue, off with your head!
Isis want you to pray just like this… No not like that. You in the blue, off with your head!

ISIS truly believes that their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation.  This why they are able to justify their desire to execute all Muslims they declare apostate (see 6 above).  They use the threat of death or torture to compel other Muslims to pledge allegiance to their strict interpretation of Islam, even other Sunni Muslims are in danger.  ISIS see this practice as having a double benefit – not only does it promote their version of Islam but also helps to spread terror within their areas of control and prevents any objectors with moderate beliefs from speaking out.

ISIS is responsible for ethnic cleansing on a huge scale in its regions of control targeting, in particular, all non-Arab and non-Sunni communities, including Assyrians, Shia, Yazidis, Mandeans and many others.  Christian communities are relatively lucky, as ‘people of the book’ they have three options, they are permitted to convert to Islam, paying a religious tax to allow them to remain in their homes or they can choose to die.  Churches are shut down and converted to Islamic Centers, their religious symbols removed or defaced.  The UN has condemned many of the violent actions taken by ISIS as war crimes.

4. Use Sexual Terror And Slavery As A Means To Control Populations

Isis uses slavery and terror to control. They must be stopped
Isis uses slavery and terror to control. They must be stopped

ISIS see nothing wrong with the subjugation of women and the use of sexual violence to control both women and the men who care for them in the territories they control.  Those who fight for ISIS are given free rein to rape and abuse any non-Muslim captives.  Women in the zone of control are required to cover themselves completely and they may not leave their homes.  Even if they stay inside they are liable to be seized and raped leading to the shame and dishonor of both the woman and her family.  Many subsequently commit suicide.

ISIS subscribe to the practice of  allowing fighter to enter into a ‘jihad marriage’ where true Muslim women should be happy and indeed honored to provide sexual services to warriors of the faith,  While a jihad marriage should be entered into willingly, women who refuse have been murdered.   As ISIS expand into new areas they use the women of that region as a commodity, selling the older ones as slaves and using the younger ones for sex.  ISIS have regularly justified their treatment of women in their Dabiq magazine claiming that a hadith indicated that slavery would be revived at the beginning of the end of the world.  It is a holy requirement to enslave the families of the infidels and take concubines from among them.  To refuse to do this is seen by ISIS as to mock the Koran and to make the person doing this apostate.

The Yazidi community in Iraq has been particularly singled out by ISIS for this type of sexual brutality.  Despite their belief in a single god ISIS considers them to be polytheists and denies them the protections that they give to Christians (who are allowed to buy a small level of safety through the payment of a special tax).  For this reason Yazidi women are considered ideal for enslavement with four fifths of all captured Yazidi women and children being the property of the fighters who capture them and one fifth being paid to ISIS as a tithe.

3. The Strict Imposition Of Sharia Law

Isis want the imposition of Sharia Law for all.  Seems reasonable enough.  Stoning for jaywalking... Has anyone actual read this thing?
Isis want the imposition of Sharia Law for all. Seems reasonable enough. Stoning for jaywalking… Has anyone actual read this thing?

ISIS not only want to control land they want to impose order there – and it works!  In cities run by ISIS food reaches the shelves, the electricity and water work (to a certain extent) there is order and sometimes less corruption than before the war that allowed ISIS to seize control.  ISIS runs bureaucratic institutions as diverse as post offices, soup kitchens and adoption centers.

ISIS does not maintain the original legal and governmental systems of Syria and Iraq, instead these have been replaced by the hardline application of Sharia Law.  Schools in ISIS run cities teach a sharia curriculum where children are not permitted to study art, music, natural history, literature or any religion other than Islam.  Children are segregated into boys’ classes and girls’ classes and may only be taught by teachers of the same sex.  Many parents extremely concerned about the ‘brainwashing’ their children will receive in these schools and frightened that they will be indoctrinated by ISIS keep their children at home. They are unable to protest without risking retribution.

ISIS has reintroduced cruel mediaeval punishments for transgression of the penal code which is taken from a literal interpretation of the penalties outlined in Islamic Scripture.  Blasphemy will incur a death sentence as will sodomy.  Those who are found to have drunk alcohol will be given 80 lashes while those who commit adultery will be stoned to death if they are married or given 100 lashes and exiled if they were not.  Spying attracts the death penalty while terrorizing people results in exile.

Women are required to be covered from head to toe and can be punished if their veil is too thin.  They should stay indoors as much as possible and may not leave the house unless they are with a male guardian at all times.  These laws are strictly enforced by women’s’ battalions.  Alcohol is, of course, banned but other pastimes such as playing music in public or the smoking of hookahs’ or cigarettes are also illegal.  Punishment is swift and seemingly blind to status – a member of the ISIS elite was executed for smoking.

2. The Allegiance Of All Muslims – Worldwide!

Isis is seeking world domination and they don't mind setting a few fires.
Isis is seeking world domination and they don’t mind setting a few fires.

With the declaration of the caliphate ISIS became the Islamic State.  ISIS views the caliph as the direct successor of the authority of Mohammed and therefore has authority to govern all Muslims, no matter where they are in the world.

Most Muslim clerics, even those who espouse other extremist positions, are unhappy about the declaration of the caliphate.  ISIS not only requires all true Muslims to pledge allegiance to the caliph but to make every effort they can to move to the Islamic State so that they can support the expansion of Islam.  This means that the goals of these other groups (Hamas or the Mujahidin for example) are now subservient to the need to pledge allegiance to and support ISIS in the pursuit of their goals.  Hardline Sunni groups around the world have started to pledge allegiance to Al-Baghdadi as caliph giving ISIS a presence in at least 60 countries as diverse as Uzbekistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.

All Muslims are required, if at all possible, to move to the Islamic State so that they can assist in its expansion. The wife of one of the Paris gunmen moved to Syria shortly after the event in January 2015 and said ‘I am at ease now that I have carried out this obligation.’.  The self-styled caliph has particularly requested highly skilled professional Muslims such as doctors, judges, military and engineers make the effort to move citing immigration to the Islamic State as a duty.

1. Maintain A Constant State Of Territorial Expansion And Jihad.

Isis wants endless Jihad
Isis wants endless Jihad

Once ISIS claimed to be the legitimate leaders of all Muslims worldwide by declaring the caliphate they tied their own hands.  They are now required to do more than just fight infidels and apostates.  In order to be a caliphate, ISIS has not only to have control of territory but also must be in a state of constant jihad and expansion.  A strict interpretation of Islam maintains that it is a duty of the caliph to engage in a constant war of expansion.  Peace treaties are permitted but only for a period of up to 10 years and not against all enemies at any one time.  The caliph must engage in jihad once a year as a minimum and may not accept any international borders.  The caliph may not even engage with the UN and negotiate as this would be considered, in a hardline interpretation of Islam as accepting an authority other than that given by God.

ISIS is certainly doing its best to expand.  In October 2014 Derna in Libya declared itself to be part of the Islamic State and I 2015 expanded its territory to cover more cities.  ISIS troops have been fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen and in Afghanistan since January 2015.  ISIS even claims to be sending jihadis to infiltrate European countries.

While ISIS wants ultimately to invade Istanbul and Washington DC (see 9 above) they want first to eliminate apostasy in their back yard.  The self-titled caliph has exhorted his followers to deal with the Shiites and Sunnis who are not extreme enough for ISIS before moving on to deal with others.


There is no denying that ISIS is frightening, a many headed hydra, hardline organization with adherents worldwide that came from nowhere to dominate our newsfeeds in just a few months.  A never-ending stream if increasingly brutal videos showing the horrendous executions of  those who do not agree with them, both local residents and foreign aid workers keep ISIS to the forefront of our consciousness.

Should we be worried about ISIS?  Of course.  Are they unstoppable?  Almost certainly not.  At the present time a coalition of more than 60 countries are engaged in fighting ISIS either through airstrikes or through the provision of hardware to countries engaged on the ground or humanitarian aid to those dispossessed by ISIS.  ISIS’ own extreme beliefs, including its practice of Takfirism will ensure that their aims will be opposed even by relatively hardline Muslim nations as it is in the interest of all those ISIS consider to be apostate(they call them secular Muslims as ISIS believe they have been contaminated with secular values) to oppose them.

ISIS’ beliefs and their desire to return to a mediaeval way of life in a modern era are so different, so alien to our way of thinking that it can be difficult for us to understand what they want and what their motivation is.  We hope that this article has helped to explain it to you.