The Book That Really Explains ISIS (Hint: It’s Not The Qur’an)

President Barack Obama is scheduled to unveil a new plan to address the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Wednesday, speaking during primetime to outline how his administration will respond to the extremist group that continues to commit horrific atrocities throughout the war-torn region. But as the White House readies what will likely be a detailed account of military measures it can use to halt the advance of the militants, it is important to remember that ISIS leaders, although driven in part by a radical version of Salafi Islam, are also pragmatic tacticians in their own right. Several scholars now contend that ISIS’s methods — including the group’s penchant for horrific violence — are part of a calculated plan that has bounced around jihadist circles for years, one that may even be designed to provoke an American military response.

In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that ISIS’s overarching strategy is especially influenced by one book in particular — and no, it’s not the Qur’an.

In 2004, a PDF of a book entitled “The Management Of Savagery” was posted online and circulated among Sunni jihadist circles. Scholars soon noticed that the book, which was published by an unknown author writing under the pseudonym “Abu Bakr Naji,” had become popular among many extremist groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, and was eventually translated into English for study in 2006 by William McCants, now the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. The book, McCants told ThinkProgress, was written as an alternative to the decentralized, “leaderless” approach to jihadism popular in the mid-2000s. Instead of using isolated attacks on super powers all over the globe, “The Management Of Savagery” offered an expansive plan for how a group of Muslim militants could violently seize land and establish their own self-governing Islamic state — much like ISIS is trying to do today.

“[The book] provides a roadmap for how to establish a caliphate,” McCants said. “It lays out how to create small pockets of territorial control … and how to move from there to a caliphate. It would not surprise me if the book were popular among the crew in Iraq [ISIS].”


McCants was quick to note that while “The Management of Savagery” is “the only text out there that really addresses the question of how [jihadists] can capture and hold territory,” the black-clad troopers in Iraq and Syria haven’t taken all of Naji’s advice to heart. ISIS has clearly ignored the author’s recommendation that fighters abide by traditional Islamic rules of engagement, such as refraining from violence against women or children. Among other horrors, reports abound of ISIS regularly using rape and sexual slavery as a weapon.

“The Islamic State stands apart from other [extremist] organizations,” McCants said. “They are not bound by the structures of traditional Islamic warfare.”

Nevertheless, other analysts, such as Lawrence Right of The New Yorker, former MI-6 agent Alastair Crooke, and Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post, have also observed echoes of the book in the actions of ISIS. They argue that while ISIS leaders haven’t openly acknowledged the influence of Naji’s writing, their machinations in the Middle East — especially how the group exploits destabilized regions and stokes intra-religious conflict — closely match several aspects of Naji’s plan. “The Management Of Savagery,” for instance, recommends inciting violence between Muslims and stretching the military forces of a target nation by temporarily laying claim to energy sources. This destabilization is supposed to create “regions of savagery” — or true chaos wrought by war — where shell-shocked inhabitants willingly submit to an invading force such as ISIS to end conflict. This, Naji argues, eventually leads to the establishment of an extremist version of a Sunni caliphate.

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria, using a divide-and-conquer approach to recruit followers and take cities. It has exploited the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in most of its land holdings, but especially in Iraq, where militants from both religious groups have been locked in various levels of armed conflict since the U.S. invaded in the early 2000s. ISIS has also targeted important power sources such as Iraq’s largest dam near Mosul, which their soldiers temporarily captured in August. Similar to Naji’s prediction, the move pressured the U.S. to launch airstrikes as Iraqi forces mustered their forces to reclaim the dam, a strategy that is being repeated now that ISIS has laid claim to the Haditha Dam near Baghdad.


ISIS’s grandiose use of violence is also foreshadowed in Naji’s writing. He dedicates an entire chapter to “Using Violence” in the book, explaining that it can be an effective tool for volunteer recruitment and instilling fear, noting, “Those who have not boldly entered wars during their lifetimes do not understand the role of violence and coarseness against the infidels in combat and media battles.” The author makes several references to the influence and power of media in general, adding that violent communication is crucial part of frightening an enemy.

“It behooves us to make [our enemies] think one thousand times before attacking us,” the book reads.

Fast forward to the ISIS of today, which has been widely recognized for both its death squad-like tactics and its unusually savvy use of media. Scholars such as Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy have argued that this combination is not coincidental, reasoning that broadcasting images of atrocities is part of how ISIS strikes fear into the hearts of its opponents — including Shia Muslims in Iraq. Similarly, Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London, told ThinkProgress that ISIS’s slick media game — which makes heavy use of social media to distribute recruitment videos that depict the ruthless massacre of hundreds of soldiers captured by ISIS — is what sets it apart from other extremists in the war-weary region.

“They have turned ISIS into a franchise,” Kersten said. “Violence has turned into a political spectacle. Their ideas have been around for a while, but are being presented in a very new way, by carefully balancing the Islamic [religious elements] and their use of media. We’re looking at a new level of sophistication … It has pushed management of violence to new limits.”

There are other potential lessons to be gleaned from the book, especially considering the United States’ ongoing military response to ISIS. Naji, for example, writes in the book about how to deal with airstrikes from foreign powers, saying that countries should be made to “pay the price” — meaning some form of retribution — for bombing jihadists.

“As for the stage of ‘the administration of savagery,’ we will confront the problem of the aerial attacks of the enemy — crusader or apostate — on military training camps or residential regions in areas which we administer,” the book reads. “The policy of ‘paying the price’ in this situation will deter the enemy and make him think one thousand times before attacking regions managed by a regime of the administration of savagery because he knows that he will pay the price (for doing so), even if (the retribution) comes later. Thus, the enemy will be inclined toward reconciliation, which will enable the regions of savagery to catch their breath and progress. This reconciliation means a temporary stop to fighting without any kind of treaties and concessions. We do not believe in an armistice with the apostate enemy, even if it was brokered with the primary infidel.”


The recent beheading of American journalists by ISIS is a clear utilization of this “paying the price” tactic. Just as the book recommends, soldiers attempted to force the U.S. to stop airstrikes in the region by threatening to commit gruesome acts unless American planes stopped dropping bombs.

“What these guys do not like, to a man, is the US sitting back and using air power,” McCants said. “This is very damaging to them. It’s an ‘unmanly’ activity, and it doesn’t give them a huge propaganda bump. [So] you need to hit the United States hard right on the nose. You force it to either completely get out of the region, or you force it to stop acting through proxies and commit ground forces.”

Unfortunately, the “The Management Of Savagery” doesn’t predict the future, and McCants noted that there is currently debate among scholars about whether the recent beheadings were designed to be deterrents against U.S. intervention or an attempt to goad a foreign military into a ground war — a move which, Naji argues in his book, would only bolster ISIS’s cause. That debate matters as in the lead up to Obama’s Wednesday night speech, pundits and lawmakers have taken to the airways to decry the group. Recent polling also shows that Americans are primed for military intervention in the region: A CNN poll found that 76 percent of respondents favor additional airstrikes against ISIS, and a MSNBC survey found that 61 percent of American voters believe that attacking them is in the United States’ interest.

And while CNN reports that 61 percent of Americans oppose sending ground forces to Iraq to combat ISIS, lawmakers such as Rep. Steve King (R-NY) and Texas Governor Rick Perry have expressed openness to putting troops in the region.

Thus, Naji’s writings, even if only somewhat influential to ISIS’s thinking, offer a word of caution to the U.S.; ISIS’s tactics, although undoubtedly cold-hearted and brutish, are anything but random, and their methods appear to be rooted in a calculated plan that accounts for — and may be bolstered by — the possibility of U.S. military intervention. How the Obama administration responds could spell the difference between a United States that breaks ISIS, or becomes another player in their twisted game.