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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

The peace koan

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — turning the wheel ]

When Erik Schelzig tweeted:

Kevin Kruse responded

— and that’s about as neat and sweet a statement of the peace paradox as any I’ve seen.


War and Peace: yang and yin?


John 14.27:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

I don’t believe there’s any promise of the cessation of war here — the peace offered here is a peace that’s operative in times of both war and peace.

It must be peace from the warness of war, peace even in fighting, no?

To my mind this is the koan all peace-lovers, peace-keepers, and peace-makers must grapple with: stillness within?

I’ll be returning to this — “the dance at the still point of the turning wheel..”

Official policy targeting weddings?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — as if in brutal proof that “the bed waiting inside belongs to death” — that bridal and burial veils are one ]

Does the Coalition have an official policy targeting weddings?

Sorry to be so blunt about this, but I get déjà vu these days when I read about Coalition attacks on wedding parties.


Today, for instance, WaPo has this headline:


I believe that headline is only in white on a black background because that’s the “style” for WaPo’s “video channel” pages — but it’s suitable, really, eh? Funereal?

Lest we forget, let’s see, now, Wikipedia has entries for:

  • Deh Bala wedding party airstrike of July 6, 2008
  • Wech Baghtu wedding party airstrike of November 3, 2008
  • **

    Then there’s December 12, 2013, reported by the admirable Greg Johnsen:

    Greg Johnsen

    If I’m not mistaken, that was also the occasion of these two headlines from Conor Friedsdorf:

    Friedsdorf 02

    Friedsdorf 01

    Stunning, those headlines. Of course there may have been other funereal weddings that I’ve missed.


    Oh, and there’s always the money to consider:

    more than $1 million


    Headline sources:

  • Air strike on Yemen wedding kills
  • Sorry our drones hit your wedding party
  • If a drone strike hit an American wedding
  • The Wedding That a U.S. Drone Strike Turned Into a Funeral
  • Yemeni victims of U.S. military drone strike
  • Gregory Johnsen’s piece is beautifully written as always. Conor Friedsdorf’s title alone — The Wedding That a U.S. Drone Strike Turned Into a Funeral — deserves high praise.


    Déjà vu? If these things keep on happening, I’ll have to call them flashbacks.

    New Book: Relentless Strike by Sean Naylor

    Thursday, September 24th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command by Sean Naylor

    I just received a courtesy review copy of Relentless Strike from John at St. Martin’s Press

    Increasingly viewed as a “must read” book in the defense community, Relentless Strike is also extremely controversial among its target audience because Naylor’s dissection of the rise of JSOC reveals operational details, TTP and names to a degree that many current and former “operators” view as too granular while others welcome the confirmation and credit of JSOC triumphs that would normally be shrouded in secrecy. David Axe of War is Boring opines that Naylor, an award winning journalist and author, “ …may know more about commandos than any other reporter on the planet” while Jack Murphy of SOFREP has a full interview of Sean Naylor here.

    Flipping open to a page at random, I find discussion of a special operator attacked in Lebanon while under unofficial cover during circumstances that remain classified. Foiling an attempt to kidnap him, despite suffering a gunshot wound, the operator covered his tracks, eluded further detection and crossed several international borders before receiving medical care. This gives you some indication of the kind of book that is Relentless Strike.

    Full review when I finish reading, but I suspect many readers of ZP will pick up a copy on their own.

    The Freikorps Revival

    Monday, September 14th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

    One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable feudal armies into harmless personal bodyguards and ceremonial companies, it was enforced in earnest after the Napoleonic wars by now bureaucratic nation-states. To the sovereign power of the state jealously guarding its monopoly on the legal use of force, in the late 19th century were added the weight of international law.

    While once it was commonplace for heavily armed “Free Companies” to roam Europe’s battlefields, hiring themselves out or pillaging on their own, neither the Lieber Code nor the Hague Convention took an indulgent view of the professional mercenary or the provincial partisan, proscribing their historic role in warfare and condemning them along with spies and saboteurs to death. By the time of the First World War with the exception of Tsarist Russia, which still had vestiges of pre-modern feudalism in their Cossack hosts that supplemented the Russian Army, all of the great and middle powers entered WWI with national armies based upon mass conscription, run by a professional officer corps. Even America saw its long established military tradition of locally raised volunteer units of the States abolished by President Wilson, who instituted a draft. Wilson it seems, feared the political effects of an aging Teddy Roosevelt leading a new band of Rough Riders on the Western Front.

    This situation shifted dramatically in the aftermath of the Great War. Communist revolution and civil war in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria spawned a rebirth of private militarism; right-wing and nationalist “white” paramilitaries composed of ex-soldiers  battled anarchist and Bolshevik “Red guards” made up of factory workers and party militants. In defeated Germany, a vigorous and heavily armed “Freikorps” movement of embittered veterans led by charismatic officers arose and fought engagements in the Baltic states, in Polish and Czech borderlands, in the Ruhr and in Bavaria, where they crushed a short-lived Soviet republic.

    Partially suppressed by the weak Weimar state, partially covertly subsidized and organized by the leadership of the German Army which saw the Friekorps as a “Black Reichswehr” strategic reserve against French attack, the Freikorps degenerated, pillaged, mutated into terrorist  organizations and gradually merged with and militarized Germany’s extreme nationalist and volkisch (racialist) political factions, including the nascent National Socialist German Workers Party. Ex-Freikorps fighters became the backbone of the Nazi SA and nationalist Stahlhelm armies of brawlers, thugs and hooligans. They even had their own newspapers, sports clubs, artists and writers, among whom Ernst Junger was a favorite of that generation.

    The reason for this long historical prologue is that it is happening again. The fascinating article below from VICE gives evidence of what should be called a Freikorps Revival. Note the connection to the French Foreign Legion veterans with the Azov Regiment; the Legion once welcomed almost as many German Freikorps men as did the Nazi Party.

    Meet the European Fighters Who Have Gone to War in Ukraine

    ….”I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me,” said Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.

    Garrett had just returned to Kiev after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and taking shelter from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.

    For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: “One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, ‘We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?’ So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn’t stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country—get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there.”

    ….Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine’s relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came “to help Ukraine against Russia” and wears a “Fuck U Putin” bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: “Azov,” he said, propagated a political agenda that “was closer to my idea.” 

    Azov’s politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; “If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come,” one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson—a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses—said: “I think almost 100 percent of foreigners—it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners—are not Nazis. They are here to fight.”

    Read the rest here.

    This may be a meta-trend. Everywhere, rootless young (and some not so young) men are turning their backs on civilized existence and seeking out answers to life or a quick death in lawless conflict zones. Third generation European Muslims who leave families and communities to join ISIS in Syria while American and Dutch motorcycle gang members show up to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Russian outlaw bikers by contrast are Putin’s Cossacks in the Crimea and Donbass while in Pakistan the ISI has made funneling angry young men into terrorist groups and militias something of a cottage industry

    Some of these men will never return, but most will. If the lessons of history are to be reckoned, this bodes poorly for the future. They will bring a Darwinian outlook and a politics of the gun.

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