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ISIS: What Are They After?

Given that ISIS' enemies list now includes essentially all of the major world powers, what exactly is the group looking to achieve?

In the wake of last week's attacks on Paris, as well as other acts of terror elsewhere in the world -- including the bombing of a Russian passenger jet en route from Egypt and suicide bombings in Beirut -- the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has become a top priority for world powers seeking retribution for crimes against their citizens.

Given the extreme violence that ISIS is known for and the fact that its enemies list includes essentially all of the major world powers, what exactly is the terrorist organization looking to achieve?

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That's exactly the question The Atlantic's Graeme Wood tackled earlier this year in a an in-depth analysis of the group for an article titled, "What ISIS Really Wants," now being recirculated.

According to Wood, ISIS is committed "to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse."

Wood sums ISIS' views up as follows:

We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of–and headline player in–the imminent end of the world.

Wood paints Islam as central to the explanation of the behavior of ISIS. The extreme theological framework from which ISIS bases its actions certainly serves as an often-repeated justification by the group for conducting crimes against humanity, which include not only acts of terror, but enslavement and sexual violence as well.

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But while theology may well be the basis of ISIS propaganda, that explanation doesn't quite get at the heart of why ISIS has been uniquely effective in its recruitment efforts versus other Islamic terrorist groups. Recruiting followers, after all, is how a group shows what it really stands for.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, author Audrey Kurth Cronin earlier this year compared the recruitment efforts of ISIS and another well known, but increasingly less prominent, terror group, al Qaeda:

The core al Qaeda group attracted followers with religious arguments and a pseudo-scholarly message of altruism for the sake of the ummah, the global Muslim community. ... Although some of al Qaeda's affiliates have better recruiting pitches, the core group cast the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term, almost utopian goal: educating and mobilizing the ummah came first. In al Qaeda, there is no place for alcohol or women. In this sense, al Qaeda's image is deeply unsexy.

ISIS makes a different kind of pitch, as the author explains:

attracts followers yearning for not only religious righteousness but also adventure, personal power, and a sense of self and community. And, of course, some people just want to kill–and ISIS welcomes them, too.

Video: What is ISIS?

In other words, ISIS is a group that sells itself to the world as a kind of extreme religious avenger, but really gains members - often young people "attracted to the group without even understanding what it is, and older fighters just want to be associated with ISIS' success" - looking for power, adventure and violence for the sake of it.

This pitch seems to play well with foreign fighters, some 20,000 of whom have joined ISIS in Syria, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials (PDF). European nationals were also central to the recent attacks in Paris.

Given what's at the heart of ISIS' campaign of terror, it makes sense that the group distinguishes itself from al Qaeda by holding territory, maintaining a military infrastructure and developing numerous sources of financing to keep itself operational. Both authors agree that maintaining itself as a kind of pseudo-state makes ISIS a different kind of threat than other terror groups world powers have contended with in the past.

Islamic State militants ride a tank through the streets of northern Raqqa province in Syria.

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