How ISIS Will End

[This essay was published in The Cairo Review in December 2016.]

Almost daily its beleaguered leaders of the Islamic State group (commonly known by the acronym ISIS) receive bad news. It is rapidly losing territory. After the fall of Fallujah and Ramadi, the city of Mosul is next on the target of government forces in Iraq, and in Syria the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa is increasingly under siege. In the northern part of Syria and Iraq, from Kobani to the strategic town of Sinjar, the region has been liberated by Kurdish forces. The vast territorial reach of ISIS in 2015 that encompassed much of eastern Syria and western Iraq has shrunk to a smaller network of outposts with the intervening landscape under questionable control.

Moreover it is losing support both within and outside its territory of control. Military strikes from the United States military and its coalition, along with Russian efforts, have crippled the movement’s transportation infrastructure and economic power. The numbers of foreign volunteers have dwindled, in part because they have been killed off in military encounters, in suicide attacks, and by missile strikes. Two of their most famous recruits, notorious around the world for beheading ISIS captives, have themselves been killed by targeted strikes. Scores, perhaps hundreds, have been trying to return home, the men weary of being used as cannon fodder, the women desperate from being used as sex slaves.

The terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Paris and Brussels have been meant to contradict this bad publicity, to portray an illusion of power. The acts were intended to bolster the morale of the ISIS stalwarts and to show potential young Muslim volunteers from around the world that it is still capable of making a global impact. Yet ISIS, it appears, is on a downward slide.

How, then, will ISIS end? And what will come in its place? To answer these questions we have to look at what ISIS is—not just one movement but at least three different sorts of groups in an uneasy coalition, each with its own agenda and its own possibilities for long-term continuity even after the fall of ISIS’ territorial claims. ISIS is simultaneously a movement for Sunni Muslim empowerment, a global jihadi movement, and an apocalyptic cult. Each of these groups may be around in one form or another long after the roads from Baghdad to Mosul and from Damascus to Raqqa have been secured.

ISIS as Sunni Empowerment
Though ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere its territorial claims were very specific: the Arab Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Before the leaders of the movement shortened its name to “the Islamic State” (or “Caliphate”) it called itself al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham, an Arabic phrase that can be translated into English as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.” The term al-Sham, or “greater Syria,” includes the present nation states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, the region that the French called “the Levant” which is why its initials in English are sometimes given as ISIL rather than ISIS. It is also called “Da’ish or Daesh,” a word that based on the acronym for the Arabic name for the movement. By coincidence, in Arabic the term daesh also means something like the word for “bullies,” and for that reason ISIS leaders are annoyed by its usage. Probably also for that reason the term persists among those victimized by it.

Though newly empowered in 2014, the origins of the movement date back to the social unrest that developed in Iraq after the invasion and occupation by coalition troops led by the United States military in 2003. At that time the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was greeted by a certain degree of apprehension within al Anbar province and other areas of western Iraq where Arab Sunni Muslim communities dominated. When I spoke with Sunni leaders from al Anbar province in Iraq in 2004, they told me that they did not mourn the loss of Saddam Hussein, but what they feared was the loss of Sunni power. Even though Saddam’s rule was secular it had favored his own minority Sunni community. In the post-Saddam Iraq the Shi’a majority in the rich river valleys stretching from Baghdad to Basra had begun to claim power and marginalize the Sunnis.

For this reason any movement that promised power to Sunnis in the region was appealing. The Sunni shining knight that appeared on the scene in 2004 was a militant jihadi from Jordan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Born into a refugee Palestinian family, the young Zarqawi turned to a life of drugs and petty theft in his youth, but later underwent a conversion into a strict form of Islam influenced by the rigid moral codes of the Wahhabi form of Islam prominent in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, it allowed for beheading as an acceptable punishment for those who threatened the faith.

The movement he created in Iraq was based on these teachings and on the longing of Sunnis in the western region of the country to be free of both American military occupation and Shi’a political domination. He named his movement al Qaeda in Iraq, hoping to receive support from the international organization headed by Osama bin Laden and Aymen al Zawahiri, at that time hiding out in Pakistan after the U.S,. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Relations between Zarqarwi and bin Laden were never good, however, since Zarqawi insisted on his own priorities and his own leadership style. The al Qaeda leaders were uncomfortable with Zaraqawi’s extreme anti-Shi’a stance, and his easy adoption of beheading as an intimidating tactic, which bin Laden and Zawahiri thought would alienate the population.

The al Qaeda leaders were right, and though al Qaeda in Iraq flourished for a time with support from young radical Arab Sunnis especially after the U.S. destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, the Sunni tribal elders were increasingly wary of Zarqawi’s authoritarian leadership and his rigid Islamic policies. In 2006 Zarqawi was killed by U.S. military forces. The new head of al Qaeda in Iraq was an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who kept the name of al Qaeda but announced that the organization would be creating an Islamic state in the region, headed by an Iraqi Caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al Masri and al Baghdadi were killed by a U.S. military strike in 2010 and their movement turned to another Iraqi as leader; he took the name of the fallen al Baghdadi, naming himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is this Baghdadi who later proclaimed himself the Caliph of the Islamic State.

For a time, however, the predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, was defeated. In 2007 under the leadership of U.S. General David Petraeus, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the Sunni regions of western Iraq and local tribal militias were empowered to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually restored the region to traditional tribal and religious leadership control. The operation was dubbed the “Awakening.”

This solution worked well while the U.S. was still the occupying force in Iraq, but when the U.S. military withrew its troops in 2011, the responsibility for maintaining the support of the Sunni tribal leaders fell on the shoulders of al Maliki and the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad. Alas, al Maliki abandoned the Arab Sunni leaders, choosing to shore up his political support largely from his own Shi’a base by using government funding and positions as payouts to his political supporters. Once again, the Arab Sunnis regarded themselves as marginal and disenfranchised.

This is where al Baghdadi and his Islamic State came back into the picture. The uprising in neighboring Syria that began in 2011 gave him a nearby base of operations as his cadres infiltrated the resistence fighters and built their own jihad army, eventually controlling large sections of Sunni Arab dominated sections of eastern Syria. Their main competition in that battle weary country was another movement affiliated with al Qaeda, the al Nusra Front, with which the al Qaeda leader, Zawahiri, urged al Baghdadi to collaborate. Al Baghdadi was determined to go his own way, however, rejecting al Nusra and the name “al Qaeda,” and proclaiming an Islamic State. In 2014 the movement roared over the borders between Syria and Iraq, and even conquering Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which it plundered for its wealth and military armament.

The complicity of the Sunni Arab population in the ISIS administration in Syria and Iraq has been largely opportunistic, not ideological. When I interviewed villagers in 2015 in Iraq’s Kurdisan who had fled ISIS control they told me that the only people in their villages who supported ISIS did so for opportunistic political and economic reasons. These Sunnis and their tribal leaders could as easily turn against ISIS as they have supported it, if they were given other options for participation in public life. This is what happened during the Awakening movement, and al Baghdadi remembers how fickle the Sunni followers were in abandoning al Qaeda in Iraq at that time. For this reason he has instituted a reign of terror in ISIS controlled areas to intimidate the Sunni populace into compliance.

It’s fair to describe ISIS as a terrorist regime, since it uses extreme acts of violence to intimidate both its enemies and its own population. The savage beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers that were posted on the Internet were matched by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beheadings of recalcitrant Sunnis under ISIS’ control who refused to go along with its demands or who dared to be identified as Christians, Yazidis and other minorities—or even as modern people who liked to dress in a Western style. For ISIS, terror has been an instrument of governance.

But even terror can go only so far in controlling people against their will. So when cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah are liberated, most of the population is relieved to see ISIS go. They are not, however, necessarily pleased to see a Shi’a based government take charge, or to subject themselves to marauding bands of Shi’a militia. Hence the long-range future of eastern Syria and western Iraq is open to question. I see three possibilities for resolving the dilemma of Sunni empowerment:

Integration: Return to Syria and Iraq.
The governments of Syria and Iraq could exert massive control over the region after the fall of ISIS and forcefully reintegrate eastern Syria into Syria and western Iraq into Iraq. The degree to which the Sunni population will be acquiescent to this reintegration depends on two things: whether the governments in Damascus and Baghdad will be able to force their control on the region, and whether they will be willing and able to change their Shi’a – dominant power structure and allow full Sunni participation in public life. Ideally they would have the wisdom to open up their government to more Sunni involvement which would lessen the resentment of Sunnis about being left out of the governments in both countries.

There is some indication that the Iraq government recognizes that it has to include Sunnis in leadership roles, especially in those areas of western Iraq that are Sunni majority. The invasion strategy undertaken by the Iraq government in Ramadi and Fallujah recognized the problem of Sunni resentment, and in both places the forces that were the vanguard in liberating the inner cities were Sunni tribal militia. In the case of Ramadi, the Sunni tribal leaders were involved in reconstructing the political infrastructure of the city, and although they have quarreled with one another, they have at least provided the impression of Sunni leadership rather than Shi’a occupation of their city. Whether this support for Sunni leadership will continue in ISIS-liberated areas remains to be seen.

Alas, however, both the Iraqi and Syrian governments seem to have resisted any suggestion of change or power-sharing, even as the Sunni resistance has mounted. When early in 2016, Haider al Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, suggested that constitutional reforms should be considered to allow for greater Sunni participation, the government’s headquarters in Baghdad’s Green Zone were invaded by Shi’a militia loyal to the firebrand anti-Sunni cleric, Muqtada al Sadr, where Muqtada’s supporters staged a protest in the Iraq parliament, temporarily shutting it down. As the riots by Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia show, there is huge Shi’a pressure against any attempt to restructure the government to be more open to Sunnis.

In Syria, Bashar al Assad has been similarly intransigent, ignoring the plans presented by United Nations envoys for power-sharing governmental change that might have prevented much of the ethnic strife within his country. Instead he has doubled down on the resistance against what he regards as simply terrorism. Iran could play a key role, however, in changing the minds of leaders in both Damascus and Baghdad. So could Russia, in the case of Syria; the US still has some influence in Iraq. Whether these global powers will be exert their influence to try to find a long-range solution to the integration of Sunnis within Syrian and Iraqi political society remains to be scene. Without a solution, insurgent movements such as ISIS will continue to find a safe haven in the region.

Separation: The Emergence of Sunnistan.
A more radical solution would be the creation of a separate state. The contiguous areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq currently controlled by ISIS do indeed demarcate a cohesive ethnic region which had some autonomy in the Ottoman period and could again be a separate political entity. Since Kurdistan in northern Iraq is already de facto a separate state, there is already a move towards the disintegration of Iraq. When I arrived at the airport in Erbil in 2015, for instance, I saw large banners that said “Welcome to Kurdistan” with no mention of Iraq; while I was there I had dinner with a member of the Kurdistan “foreign ministry,” as they called it, although it is officially the office of external affairs of the regional government of Iraq. So in a similar way, Fallujah could become the gateway to Sunnistan.

It is conceivable, however, that a Shi’a government in Baghdad would be relieved to be free from the headaches of western Iraq, especially if there were security guarantees and financial incentives for doing so. It is also possible to see Assad being pressured into shuffling off the eastern region of Syria that has caused such headaches for him as long as he could reassert control over the rich and populous western region. At the same time, elites within the countries want to maintain united control, and there is also pressure from outside against any fragmentation of the two countries. This pressure comes in part from the United States and neighboring states in the Middle East that fear the possible devolution of power if separation ensues. So it’s not clear whether this scenario would get official sanction from either Damascus or Bahgdad.

Dissolution: Sunni Control in the Failed States.
But a kind of unravelling may occur whether it is officially sanctioned or not. Both Syria and Iraq exhibit some aspect of failed states—an inability to maintain control much beyond their capitals and centers of support. If they are able to uproot ISIS and not dramatically change the politics of the Sunni regions and gain their voluntary support—or if neither Damascus nor Baghdad maintains sufficient strength to force compliance—then de facto control will revert to Sunni tribal leadership. This is the most likely scenario, the result of doing nothing. In the Sunni heartland of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

ISIS as a Global Jihadi Movement
But ISIS is more than territory, and more than a Sunni Arab enterprise. Al Baghdadi’s strategy of recruiting young people from around the world to participate in a glorious struggle has succeeded perhaps far beyond his expectations. The ISIS-related attackers in San Bernardino were from Saudi Arabia; the Paris nightclub and Brussels airport bombers were Belgian of Moroccan descent; the Orlando shooter was an American of Afghan descent; the attackers at the Istanbul airport in June 2016 were from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Dagestan. None were Syrian or Iraqi, the areas where ISIS has its territorial base, yet in those areas foreigners from around the world have come to join the Caliphate’s army. “They are all foreigners,” one refugee told me in describing the ISIS soldiers who captured his village in northern Iraq.

This far flung network is maintained through Internet communication, through Twitter and closed websites, and through glossy online magazines such as Dabiq that amounts to something of a Cyber Caliphate. The young people who were lured to this network and who maintain it came with a variety of motives. Perhaps the strongest was the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allowed them to play out all of their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor and gore. But some also came out of a sense of history and piety, a conviction that they were laying their lives on the line for something of transcendent importance for Islamic civilization.

Some of the young volunteers from around the world were attracted to the dramatic vision of apocalyptic cosmic war that animated the inner circle of the movement; others also joined the movement to gain a sense of identity and to be a part of a community. For young people of Middle Eastern parentage who were living in the UK, Europe, and the United States, their experience of being alienated and marginalized immigrant youth was overcome by the acceptance offered by ISIS. Initially their main form of participation was through online chat rooms and Twitter feeds.

My own student research assistants have monitored these Twitter accounts and found that the conversation was dominated by a sense of the importance of the cause, and the sharp we-they distinction between members of the movement’s community and all outsiders, whether or not they were Muslim. A Canadian research scholar, Amarnath Amarsingam, who has interacted with many young Canadian volunteers on Twitter, concurs that community is a dominant part of the appeal. Many of the Twitter called themselves members of the Baqiyah family, using the Arabic term for “enduring” that ISIS employed as one of hallmarks.

“Trust me, I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged anywhere until I met the brothers and sisters on line,” one young volunteer told Amarsingam. “The Internet keeps us connected, keeps us a family,” he added. Then Amarsingam asked the young man to say more about the sense of belonging he felt in the Baqiyah family, and he responded saying that he felt more authentic as a person within the Internet community: “sometimes it’s like the person on line is the real you.” Another Canadian research scholar, Marc-André Argentino, who has also been monitoring ISIS-related Twitter accounts, agrees with Charlie Winter’s analysis of the “Virtual Caliphate” that the category of “belonging” is one of the most important themes. “Regularly,” Argentino reports, “images and video are published depicting brothers praying together and eating together, listening to sermons online, of brothers in arms hugging each other after combat operations, or huddled together hands in the middle (an image reminiscent of a sports team).” The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq have been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’ territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS controlled cities of Raqqa and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

Indeed, the passion of belonging to the ISIS cyber community might even intensify in the period after the fall of territorial control. Perhaps nothing brings together a community as the sense of being under siege and needing to band together for strength. The Twitter feeds in mid-2016, for instance, were buzzing with the assaults on Fallujah, Raqqa and Mosul, with rallying cries to defend the Caliphate.

One of the strategies employed by ISIS was to use terrorist attacks against the far enemies of the movement—the countries of the United States, France, Turkey and elsewhere that it regarded as being in league with those local forces that were trying to defeat the Islamic State. For this reason, messages went out early in 2016 for young followers around the world to undertake terrorist actions on their own wherever they were. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, urged followers around the world to make the month of Ramadan in 2016 “a month of calamity everywhere.” Individuals were told that they did not need to check with ISIS headquarters in Raqqa but attack unbelievers in the name of ISIS wherever they were.

The attacks by ISIS sympathizers in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul certainly seemed to be well coordinated multiple attacks of the sort that the ISIS central command would support and perhaps even help to plan. Attacks in the American cities of San Bernardino and Orlando appear to be less well organized, conducted by one or two people inspired by ISIS ideology. The perpetrator of the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, did exactly this—he declared his allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by telephone to 911 emergency operators minutes into his rampage. He was said to have been surfing ISIS sites on line in the weeks before the attack. And the ISIS news agency quickly proclaimed him a “fighter for ISIS.”

The term “ISIS inspired,” however, might not be quite fitting for the Orlando attack, and for some of the others as well, since “ISIS inspired” implies motives that were primarily related to an allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State. It also implies that the primarily intention of undertaking an act of terrorism is to carry out the broad directive of movement—in this case attacking unbelievers and enemies of the ISIS cause. There is some evidence that the perpetrator of the Orlando attacks, Omar Mateen, also had personal motivates, and attacked a gay bar out of a homophobic rage. In this case, what we can say is that is acts were “ISIS branded,” both by Mateen and by the ISIS leadership, whether or not it was directly inspired by ISIS ideology.

This may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadi network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

ISIS as an Apocalyptic Cult
The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few of the ordinary Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This “ISIS apocalypse,” as William McCants describes it in a perceptive book with that title, is a kind of extreme variant of Wahhabi Muslim apocalyptic thinking. Soon after the fiery leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyad al-Masri, turned to apocalyptic thinking to characterize the movement as the Caliphate that would emerge at the end times. He thought that the Mahdi would be coming soon and that the faithful had to act quickly to establish a Caliphate to receive him. His successor and self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, shared that view. The name of the ISIS online magazine, Dabiq, refers to a town in northern Syria that was the location of the battle of Marj Dabiq between the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate in 1516. It is an ISIS belief that this town will be the location of the final battle between true believers and infidels that will usher in the apocalypse.

The strict code of behavior and extreme brutality in dealing with perceived enemies are aspects of the ISIS movement are grounded in some instances of medieval Islamic history and practice. The relation between this kind of reign of terror and religion is problematic, however. One can claim that the ISIS policies are vicious because their religious understanding requires the faithful to act this way, or one can say that their need for an intimidating form of extreme violence needs to be justified, and they have found recourse in ancient tradition to do so. Either way it is an eerie relationship between religion and extreme violence.

Many have challenged whether ISIS should be called Islamic. Muslims around the world have risen up to protest against what they describe as the non-Muslim attitudes and actions of ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group that represents 57 countries and 1.4 billion Muslims, said ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” Similar denunciations have come from leading Muslim clergy in Egypt, Turkey, and around the world. Still, the leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict Shari’a law as the basis of their jurisprudence, and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks.

The religious credentials of al Baghdadi gives some credibility to this religious appeal. He is a cleric whose family can claim ancestry to the family of the Prophet. He received a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and the tradition of Islam better than most jihadists. Osama bin Laden had no religious credentials, and though he pretended to be an engineer, his college training was in business management; Ayman al Zawahiri was a medical doctor; and al Baghdadi’s predecessor in leading al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a street thug from Jordan. By contrast, al Baghdadi looks fairly legitimate. His credentials do not make the movement Islamic, however. Nor do the Islamic whitewashing of the regime’s terrorist actions and cruel restrictions make them Muslim. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder. And to most Muslims, ISIS represents the antipathy of the faith.

Still, every religious tradition has its peculiar extremists. Often these are marginal cults that communicate largely among themselves and do not surface to public attention unless they are involved in some kind of bizarre behavior. The Heaven’s Gate cult in the United States, for instance, believed that they would be taken up into outer space by UFOs in the last days of the world, a prophecy that was ignored by most people until they committed mass suicide in an attempt to collectively hasten their salvation. Similarly, it is quite possible that the apocalyptic ideas of ISIS will live on in small cults that cherish their ideas but do not have the means nor the need to force them on others in a violent way.

Transformation of Cosmic War
The key question in the transformation of the inner circle of true believers in the ISIS apocalyptic ideas from a terrorist regime to a benign cult is whether the image of cosmic war can be contained. Every religious tradition has such images of dramatic existential battle between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos. They have been a part of virtually every religious tradition from early times to the present. The sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an and the Hindu epics are rife with them, and the histories of Sikhism and Theravada Buddhism abound in glorified warfare for religious purposes. Yet for most believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, these images of warfare are symbolic and metaphorical. For most Muslims, the true jihad is the battle between good and evil within one’s own soul.

But once these images of cosmic war are applied to real situations of territorial struggle and guerilla warfare can they ever be put back in the metaphorical box? The history of extreme movements, such as the Khalistani movement of Sikhs in northern India that erupted into violence in the 1980s and then became quiescent, shows that it is possible. At the same time, some people within the movements will be convinced that the battles have to be conducted in real time and space in order to be a legitimate form of the cosmic war in which they believe. They will continue to plot schemes of attack, and occasionally conduct them in sporadic, uncoordinated terrorist assaults.

Hence ISIS may end. It may lose its territorial control, and it may not be able to manage the entire communications infrastructure that made it for a time such an imposing force around the world. But aspects of it may remain in forms of Sunni empowerment and in small cells of true believers. For the most part these may be benign. But as recently history has aptly demonstrated, it does not take many activists with an extreme agenda and a willingness to lose their own lives in suicide assaults to do a horrendous degree of damage. Thus the specter of ISIS may continue to haunt the world for some time to come.

Research support for this project has come from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of the department of Peace and Conflict Resolution Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. I appreciate the help from my research assistants, Saba Sadri and Mufid Taha, and from the Pacifica Institute for arrangements assistance in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Inside the Moro Movement for Muslim Mindanao

“Abu Sayyaf has nothing to do with Islam or the Moro movement,” one of the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front told me when I recently talked with him in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Just because Abu Sayyaf claimed to be Muslim, had affiliated itself with the movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and had adopted its distinctive black flag, he said, that did not mean that it was anything other than a gang of thieves.

This was interesting, since the Abu Sayyaf connection to ISIS has often been given as an example of the worldwide reach of the movement, extending even to the Philippines. It is often regarded as the extreme face of Muslim separatism there, centered in the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Or at least that is the general perception of it outside the region. In Mindanao, the Abu Sayyaf cadres are regarded as thugs.

On September 21, 2015, a motorboat with a dozen or so armed Abu Sayyaf militants arrived at night at the upscale Holiday Ocean View resort on the tiny island of Samal off of the southern shore of Mindanao. Like other resorts on Samal, it caters to Europeans and North Americans seeking a sun-soaked vacation of tropical forests and golden beaches, and were unprepared for a militant attack. Apparently at random the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers nabbed the first foreigners they encountered: two middle-aged Canadian men and a Norwegian man, along with the Filipina girlfriend of one of the Canadians. They were then taken back to the boat and whisked off to the group’s headquarters near the town of Jolo in the Sulu archipelago, where monetary demands were made for the release of the hostages. In May, 2016, when there was no positive response, one of the Canadians was beheaded and his head left in a bag on the main street of Jolo. In June 2016 the other Canadian was beheaded, and the Filipina girlfriend was released. The Norwegian remained captive until September 2016, when he was released after a ransom was paid.

When I went to Mindanao two months after the second beheading, therefore, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. I flew from Manila to Cotabato City in central Mindanao, not far from where the Samal island kidnappings had taken place. Despite the recent attacks the region seemed calm, rural and sleepy, with pockmarked roads winding through lush tropical forests. Needless to say, however, there were no other foreigners on my flight, nor did I see any during my stay.

Though I saw no reason to be threatened, I felt secure in the hospitality provided by the local educational institution, Notre Dame University, run by a Roman Catholic monastic order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). The president of the University, Fr Charlie Inzon, OMI, was my gracious host and provided a room for me in the priests’ house on campus. His administrative assistant helped make arrangements to talk with people involved with the Moro movement, Muslim leaders as well as government officials.

What I discovered was that the movement was much more complicated than Abu Sayyaf, and that it has been around for quite a while. Although most of the Philippines is Christian, Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago of islands stretching towards Indonesia and Malaysia has been Muslim for centuries. There were Muslim Sultanates on Mindanao prior to the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the sixteenth century, and it was the Spanish who called the Muslims “Moros,” thinking they were much like the Moors of Spain.

So the Moros have always thought of themselves as different from the rest of the Philippines. The United States colonized the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and after it granted the Philippines independence in 1946 the movement for an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao picked up steam. For some decades, however, their protests were violent. After decades of armed encounters between armed militia associated with the Moro movement and the armed forces and armed police of the Philippine government, negotiations in recent years have led to a peace process with a good chance that the major issues in the conflict will be resolved.

This does not mean that all elements within the Moro movement are happy about the negotiations with the Philippine government, however. Nor are they all willing to put down their arms. The Abu Sayyaf is one of these die-hard militant movements, which began as a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and has degenerated into a brigand gang with no purpose other than to gain money extracted through extortion in taking hostages. Estimates of their profits in recent years have ranged from twenty to thirty million dollars. The Canadian government refused to provide the twenty-eight million dollars initially demanded for each of the Samal island hostages, or the amount to which it was later lowered, eight million dollars. After Abu Sayyaf responded by killing them, it is not clear what amount the Norwegian government was willing to offer for the release of the remaining Norwegian hostage.

Abu Sayyaf started as more than a kidnapping band, however. It was founded in 1991 by Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who had studied Islamic theology and was determined to give a more religious character to the movement than the secular MNLF had provided. Janjalani went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the Mujahadeen, and he was said to have received an infusion of cash and a mandate from Osama bin Laden to organize a more militant al Qaeda- style movement in the Philippines. The name, Abu Sayyaf, reflects this militant posture, since it means “father of the swordsman.”

After Janjalani’s death in 1998, one of his successors, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, swore an oath of loyalty in 2014 to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State. Hapilon regarded ISIS as giving a religious credibility to the movement’s violence, including beheadings, and, like ISIS, taking captive women into sex slavery as temporary “wives.” Today there are only a few hundred militants remaining in the movement, though villages near the areas where they are encamped are said to be paid for their silent support with the profits that the group has accrued through hostage-taking and extortion.

Abu Sayyaf was not the only movement to split off from the MNLF and to seek a religious justification for the cause. Earlier, in the 1970s, a much larger and more influential faction of the MNLF created the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is known by its initials, MILF.

When I was in Mindanao, I sought out leaders of the Moro movement, and one of the most articulate leaders I encountered was a young lawyer, Naguib Sinarimbo, who was a strategist and negotiator for the MILF. When I met with him in the offices of the UN Development Program, where he worked as an advisor on the Moro peace process, Sinarimbo was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a V-neck sweater, and spoke articulately about the history and goals of the movement. Rather than looking like a Muslim militant—whatever that might be—he looked like the young lawyer and bureaucrat that he in fact was. He told me stories about how in his previous work with the government when he went on work-related trips to Manila he became annoyed when co-workers in the government did not realize that he was Muslim, and he would listen as they denigrated the Moros and their political goals. That made him determined to leave government service and join the movement.

The specific movement that he joined was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. I asked him why he did not join the MNLF instead, and he explained that it was partly a matter of ethnicity and location, and partly a matter of ideology. The MNLF was based in the Sulu archipelago which tends to speak a Visayan language; the MILF was based in West-Central Mindanao where people in the Cotabato City vicinity spoke Maguindanao. For Naguib Sinarimbo, the MILF was the dominant movement in his region.

But there were also religious reasons that made it appealing, and nationalist ones. Sinarimbo thought that the MILF took a stronger stand for Moro rights and did not as easily capitulate to the government’s demands. It was able to do this, in part, because of its insistence that Muslim identity and culture were at the core of the Moro demands, and in part because the movement had stronger leadership, Sinarimbo felt, than did the MNLF.

The MNLF, which had been founded in 1969 by a professor from the University of the Philippines, entered into peace negotiations with the Philippine government. These resulted in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, brokered by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, which eventually led to the creation in 1989 of an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Though it sounded like an effective resolution to the conflict, ARMM was in fact a fairly ineffective administrative demarcation without much power, and with very little economic impact.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is known by its initials, MILF, was a reaction to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, and was founded the year afterwards by Hashim Salamat, a religious teacher who had studied at the premier Muslim educational institution in Cairo, Al Azhar University, where he was influenced by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Salamat believed that Muslim principles, including a ban on alcohol and tobacco, should be requisite for an autonomous Muslim state. He and the MILF movement rejected the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that was negotiated between the MNLF and Philippine officials and for a time proclaimed a jihad against the government. The movement collaborated on several military campaigns against the government with Abu Sayyaf during the earlier, more idealistic stages of the movement, before it turned to kidnappings and pledged its support to ISIS.

In recent years the MILF has become more conciliatory even as Abu Sayyaf has become more violent. The MILF has entered into its own negotiations with the Philippine government for a comprehensive peace settlement that would create Bangsamoro—a Moro State—in the Mindanao region to replace ARMM. One of the significant features of the negotiated deal is an elaborate sharing of government funds raised from taxes and sales of natural resources. In 2014, the Bangsamoro agreement was signed, with high hopes that the new entity would bring the region the identity and tranquility for which the movement had sought over many years.

There was a hitch, however. Before being implemented, the Philippines Congress had to pass a law enacting the provisions of the agreement. Before the bill was slated to be approved, an armed encounter between the Philippines National Police and militia units related to the MILF at the village of Mamasapano in Mindanao resulted in over sixty deaths. Investigations after the incident blamed poor communications between the police and officials in the MILF for the confusion that led to the clash, but the public blamed the Moros. The time was not ripe for Congressional approval and 2015 ended without a vote on the issue.

In 2016, the Philippines elected a new President, Rodrigo Duterte, a colorful politician from the Mindanao city of Davao. When I was in Manila, I talked with staff members of the Presidential advisory office that monitors the peace process, and they were optimistic. One of the directors, Pamela Padila, told me that Duterte had pledged to bring the Bangsamoro implementation bill up for a vote, though not until some revisions were made. She suggested that maybe next year the agreement would finally be implemented, and she showed me a chart indicating June, 2017, as the date for formal approval. Other political observers were more skeptical. For the MILF cadres, even a year meant more waiting and frustration.

“I give the government two years at most,” Naguib Sinarimbo told me. He explained that the young members of the movement were impatient and wary of the compromises that the movement had to make already. If the agreement were to be watered down further, or delayed for an indefinite period of time, their restlessness might lead to renewed militant action. Moreover, the credibility of the MILF leadership would be undermined and negotiations with the government would be mistrusted. The situation would be fertile for violence.

One of the persons most concerned about the renewal of military confrontation from elements of the MILF was one of its area commanders, Butch Malang, with whom I spoke in Cotabato City, Mindanao. Though he had led his Moro fighters on a number of campaigns against the government in the past, Malang had now renounced violence in favor of the 2014 peace agreement, and was serving as Vice Chair of the MILF panel on the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities, a joint government-Moro movement organization that was charged with overseeing the demilitarization of the Moro militias and coordinating between the police and the movement to keep incidents such as the bloody encounter last year at Mamasapano from occurring.

Butch Malang knew his fighters, and he knew that the younger ones especially were easily lured into more violent organizations than MILF if they were frustrated. One such group, a faction that had split off from MILF, was organized as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They had already been involved, along with MILF militia, in the Mamasapano incident, and were ready to mobilize and attract new recruits as soon as the peace agreement seemed to be faltering.

This assessment was supported by Major Carlos Sol, a former Philippines army official who was appointed director of the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities. Major Sol was raised in central Mindanao and though he was Christian he knew the players in the Muslim movements well. When I talked with him about the situation in his map-lined office in Cotabato City, Major Sol explained some of the internal politics within the movements. He also told me that there were three other small groups of Moro fighters beside Abu Sayyaf that had pledged their support to ISIS. One, created by the nephew of the founder of BIFF, called itself ISIS of Mindanao.

All of these allegedly ISIS-related groups, including Abu Sayyaf, were examples of what I have called ISIS-branding: they had no real connection to the ISIS movement but had adopted its name—its brand—to give them international militant credibility. Nonetheless, the movements in their own locales are just as lethal as ISIS is in Syria and Iraq. Any of these movements in Mindanao could quickly erupt in violence if they sensed that the mood of frustration in the Muslim regions would support them.

In the meantime, leaders like Naguib Sinaringo were planning to create a political party. They were getting ready for the next stage of the movement, the implementation of Bangsamoro as a political entity. This means that leaders and fighters in the movement that have lead an armed struggle over many years will have to adjust to peace. They will have to treat the government like an ally rather than a foe, and learn the art of compromise and negotiation that all politicians have to adopt.

This also means that the militants will have to abandon the vision of a cosmic war between good and evil that had animated much of their struggle, and made mortal enemies out of those with whom they differed, including the government and other branches of the movement. Butch Malang admitted that might be difficult.

“Some of our fighters know only how to fight,” he said, somewhat sadly. In his case, however, the old commander himself had willingly taken on a new role of facilitator in the cessation of hostilities. So new circumstances—the hope of a settlement—can make old fighters look differently at a struggle, and even imagine the possibilities of reconciliation and peace.

Religion has been playing a role in the transition from conflict to peace, and it is a good role rather than a destructive one. Since the MILF has influence over all of the mosques in the area, Sinaringo told me, they have given the imams in each of the mosques instructions on what to include in the sermons about the peace process. The imams have encouraged the faithful in the area to embrace the plan and not militantly reject it the way that the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf have urged them to do.

Back at the campus of Notre Dame University, I found that President Charlie Inzon and his faculty members had found other ways to use religion in the healing process. He has set up a peace research center in the University, and has helped to create an interfaith council in the community. He has also used the curriculum itself as a means of reconciliation.

Mindanao is a mixed Christian-Muslim population, and the student body in the university is 65 percent Muslim and 35 percent Christian. Since it is a Catholic institution, the Christian students are required to take Bible and Christian theology courses. But the Muslim students are also required to take courses in religion, though in the Qur’an and Muslim theology. Then all students, regardless of religious background, are required to take courses in peace studies and interfaith dialogue to make sure they understand each other’s culture.

A Muslim professor in the university told me that teaching Islamic studies in a Catholic university had been a positive influence on his faith. “By learning more about Christianity I have become a better Muslim,” he said.

For someone like me, who has made a career out of studying the dark side of religiosity and its relationship to violence, it was good to see an instance in which religion was not just playing its familiar divisive role in social conflict. At least at some moments in Mindanao, it could be an agent of healing as well as harm.

My thanks to Mike Saycon and staff members of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process in Manila for their assistance in making contacts in Mindanao, and to Fr. Charlie Inzon OMI and his faculty and staff for their hospitality. The research for this essay was supported by the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project based at Uppsala University, Sweden.