Journalist Graeme Wood Sheds Light on the Islamic State in EMBA Global Perspectives Colloquium

On a snowy afternoon in February, students in the Executive MBA program and I were treated to a discussion with Graeme Wood. His topic was one that he had written an article in The Atlantic, titled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The discussion centered on the often-misunderstood motivations behind the Islamic State. In my past, I had experience with the Islamic State (IS) and its predecessor, Al-Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), as a member of the U.S. Military, but this mostly focused on the ground tactical level, whereas the discussion this afternoon was on the strategic motivations surrounding IS.

This discussion was part of Yale’s Global Perspectives Colloquium, where the EMBA students break from their focus areas to learn about a broader and more global subject. These colloquia provide a critical view on subject areas that may not rest in our focus areas, but dramatically affect the world around us. It is critical that as future leaders in business and industry we have this global focus in order to successfully and responsibly navigate our companies through the turbulent waters ahead.

There were a number of fascinating subjects brought up in Graeme’s discussion that I think surprised most of the participants in the room. The apocalyptic nature of the group was one of the first. This is a difficult subject for many to understand, but one of the main motivations of the group is to bring about the apocalypse. This runs counter to at least my logic, where the idea of bringing about the end of days is not a good thing. Graeme explained that under the IS belief set, the apocalypse is what they are striving for. In understanding this and the story of how the apocalypse is supposed to play out, the brutal actions of the group can be better understood. This led to a discussion about the group’s overall strategy, which included three main pillars: to take land, to gain allegiance, and to destabilize. Graeme described how the first focus of the group was to take land through military conquest. Recently, though, they have shifted their focus, due in no small part to the greater and more effective resistance they have faced from groups like the Kurds, who have stalled and even pushed back IS with the help of coalition airstrikes. IS has shifted its focus to gaining allegiance from groups such as Boko Haram and to destabilizing countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Again, this is all aimed at bringing about their ultimate goal.

The most fascinating topic for me was how Graeme gathered this information. Most journalists try to go to the center of the action in order to get the full and accurate story, but as the IS is one of the most dangerous places in the world for anyone he decided to investigate using the propaganda they provided online as well as interviews with former members of the IS. In this I think he actually went to center of the action. As the internet has provided the source by which they recruit, it is a great place to find their true motivations. He commented on how the propaganda they were using was well thought out and persuasive, which highlighted how they are able to recruit otherwise-rational people. From his discussions with former members of IS he gained a better understanding of this point while also achieving a look into what life was like inside the IS.

Overall this was a fascinating look into the Islamic State and its motivations. It dispelled a number of ideas I had about them and gave me a better understanding behind their rationale. I felt that the members of the EMBA program were left with a clearer picture of the main geopolitical issue for the Middle East and the reason for how the United States has responded to this threat.

About the author

Bunk McCord

EMBA Candidate, Class of 2017