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In 'Way Of The Strangers,' Wood Explores Why Young People Embrace ISIS


Our next guest spent the past several years interviewing members of the so-called Islamic State. As a correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, Graeme Wood travelled to places as far apart as Texas and Australia in this effort to find out what united a diverse group of young men and women to embrace the apocalyptic ideology of ISIS. His book based on those interviews is called "The Way Of The Strangers."

GRAEME WOOD: Most of the people I spoke to had taken part in some activity, some group that was called The Strangers. And that included writing for websites called The Strangers, being in military units called The Strangers. And when I asked them, why do you call yourselves The Strangers, they said, well, there is the saying that the Prophet Muhammad gave us. Islam began as something strange and someday it will return to being something strange so blessed be the strangers.

GREENE: Our colleague Rachel Martin spoke with Graeme Wood. And she began by asking him about an American he profiled, a man once named John Georgelas who is largely unknown back here in the U.S. but has become one of the most influential figures inside ISIS.

WOOD: He comes from a well-to-do American military family. His father was a radiologist who served in the U.S. Air Force with distinction. And he lived about 20 minutes from where I grew up. That's in Plano, Texas.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So you are suggesting that this guy has now become essentially the parallel of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was the public messenger to the West for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also an American citizen. Is that how you're thinking of him?

WOOD: Yes, it's very similar. Al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces, N.M. and he understood the United States. And John Georgelas is much the same way. He is an American through and through. I mean, he's a pickup-truck-driving Texan who has become fanatically devoted to a Jihadist interpretation of Islam. So he's able to translate that jihadism into a language that we Americans understand. And his job is to terrify us. And I think he's done quite a good job of that.

MARTIN: When you tracked down the parents of John Georgelas in Plano, Texas and went to visit them, what did they say? What was that conversation like?

WOOD: I think it's very difficult for any parent to realize just how off the rails their own kid has gone. Their son they remember, of course, as the troubled teen. He was deep into drugs at one point, never really held down a job. And so I think it was almost unimaginable to them when I confirmed that I had found out that he was with the Islamic State for them to really take that in.

MARTIN: It's interesting when you talk about how his parents perceive him. I mean, his dad talks about him as this guy who was bumbling through life and he wasn't living up to his potential and there was some kind of disappointment in how his dad was remembering him. And I sense in your telling of this that you want to kind of shake the guy and say, but do you realize that he's actually really successful? He's just successful in this horrible world.

WOOD: Yeah. John Georgelas came from a military family. And I think there was still a sense that the way to succeed was by succeeding in a kind of American military sort of way. And so when the parents saw their kid go off in a jihadist direction, they thought of him as a follower. And yet all the Islamic State supporters I had been in touch with thought of him as their leader. So to have this impressionable kid really find his footing and become the leader of a sect within a terrorist group I think is truly inconceivable for the parents to see.

MARTIN: Yeah, a horrible kind of position for a parent to be in. You write in the book that part of the West's misunderstanding of ISIS is a kind of refusal to acknowledge its religious roots, that there is a theology behind all of the violence.

WOOD: Yes. I think that there is a strong urge to say that Islam has nothing to do with religion, that ISIS is a bunch of psychopaths, people with blades cutting off heads wantonly. Unfortunately that's just not true. ISIS has looked into Islamic history with historical accuracy, with intellectual rigor. And that's part of what has produced that group as well as its Muslim opponents.

MARTIN: How do they justify the violence?

WOOD: You'll find some who will say the violence is temporary. We are Muslims who are reviving the faith and we have to do this in a fallen world, so we'll cut off the hands of thieves right now. But once the Islamic State is stronger and people realize this is the punishment, we won't have to cut off hands.

MARTIN: The violence is a way to peace?

WOOD: Yes. That's what you find with the nicer ones. The less nice ones just say this is a wonderful thing. The violence is not something that needs to be explained except to say that our scripture says it must be so. And so when it happens, we should celebrate it.

MARTIN: Why did these people let you in? Why do they trust to you to sit and have these conversations? How are you safe in those conversations?

WOOD: I often asked myself the same question. And sometimes I would even ask them that question. I would say, you've said to me as clearly as you could that you view my blood as legal to spill, that it would be OK for you to kill me right now. So why should I feel safe in talking with you? And sometimes they would give me a rational answer and say, well, we could kill you but you seem to be a nice guy and you're a reporter and you're going to tell people what we think. And so it would probably be a - we'd find better targets elsewhere.

MARTIN: So part of what motivates ISIS is to be acknowledged as legitimate. And when you do that, if you're the parents of one of these jihadis as you interviewed, if you acknowledge where they are and what they are doing, you are conferring legitimacy which gives them power. If you are a government and you acknowledge what ISIS is doing, you give them power. It seems unwinnable.

WOOD: It does present a bind for anyone who's fighting against them. There are certainly arguments within Islam and then universal arguments that appeal to the common humanity of just people. The problem is that ISIS has responses to these arguments. Sometimes you can win them, sometimes you will not. And what we just need to understand is that ISIS is an intellectually strong enough movement that it's going to require a sophisticated response intellectually to complement the military one that that's already going on.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State." We've been speaking with the author Graeme Wood.

Graeme, thanks so much.

WOOD: Thank you.

GREENE: And that was our colleague Rachel Martin speaking with Graeme Wood whose book comes out tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.