The ISIS Beat | Why Caliphate and Everyone Else Got It Wrong

Rozina Ali

In March 2019, I arrived in eastern Syria to witness the demise of the Islamic State. The movement had been largely defeated, having surrendered major cities like Raqqa and Mosul. All that was left of the Caliphate, which had gripped our collective fears for the past six years, were a few square miles of desert along the Iraqi–Syrian border. The towns here appeared to be deserted. Car doors were left wide open, and clothes were still hanging on lines. Minarets and domes were etched with bullet holes. Concrete foundations of razed houses jutted out from the ground. A trail of mattresses and animal-print blankets lay abandoned in piles on the roadsides. From the main street in Shafa City, I could make out a painted ISIS logo on a wall. Not a soul was around.

When I reached the outskirts of Baghouz, the sole remaining ISIS-held town, and the site of the group’s last stand, I could see people leaking through the crevices of a rocky hillside. Women in niqabs carried backpacks and children, followed by the injured and the elderly, all of whom were surrendering to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces awaiting them at the summit. It turned out that there were tens of thousands of people in this small town, many of whom had fled other parts of Syria and Iraq to live here. Who were they? Why did these families abandon their homes and choose to live in this sliver of desert where ISIS still clung to power?

These are not easy questions, and they require a deep engagement with the history and politics of the region. But the welter of articles, essays, books, and films that has appeared since the group emerged — carving out a veritable “ISIS beat” in journalism — were less interested in the sociopolitical roots of ISIS than in portraying the group as a cipher for the otherworldly, for what keeps us up at night. After a decade of the War on Terror and chaos in the Middle East, ISIS seemed to be the ultimate testament to an enduring clash of civilizations. It is not that surprising that ISIS itself encouraged this fantastical narrative — but it is striking that our media took their word for it. 

Until recently, the torchbearer of the ISIS beat was the New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi. In addition to a series of high-profile features for the newspaper, her Caliphate podcast sought to explain to millions of listeners what made the terrorist mind tick. Caliphate won numerous accolades, including the Peabody Award, but came under intense scrutiny last year after it emerged that its main source, a young man from Canada, had falsely told Callimachi that he had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, where he learned of plots against the U.S. and participated in gruesome killings. The podcast team was unable to verify key details of his story but ultimately determined that it was accurate in its essentials — and worth relying on to illuminate the regime’s cruelty. After Canadian authorities eventually arrested the man for lying to the public about his exploits with ISIS, the Times admitted the podcast did not meet its “standards for accuracy.”

In subsequent weeks, theories emerged to explain the failure, from racism and journalistic malfeasance to shortcomings of the podcast medium itself. The Times put forward its own explanation, stating that its team was so caught up in the story that it did not vet the source rigorously, and that the paper should have assigned a “terrorism editor” to oversee the project. The acknowledgement that something went wrong is commendable, but the core issue with Caliphate isn’t just that a lying source may have misled overeager journalists. Rather, the controversy, and indeed even the proposition that a “terrorism editor” would have resolved the problem, points to a deeper flaw in the way media has long covered extremism: divorced from the local and historical contexts that have fueled its rise.

There’s no doubt that journalism documenting the horrors of groups like ISIS, and the specifics of the devastation they’ve wrought upon communities, is vital. However, by narrowly focusing on the savagery of ISIS fighters, we miss the deeper and more important story of how ISIS grew into a political force, and of how it moved not just the hearts and minds, but the physical bodies, of tens of thousands. Even if Caliphate’s source had not lied about going to Syria and taking part in executions, what would his single story have illuminated about ISIS? What would his adventures, bookended by the declaration of the Caliphate and the victory against it, have told us about what happened in those abandoned towns in eastern Syria before 2014, where ISIS rose to power with a degree of local support, and which we bombed and left behind?


ISIS made itself known to much of the West in the summer of 2014. The organization dissolved the official borders between Iraq and Syria, declared itself a state, and surrounded more than twenty thousand Iraqis, mostly from the indigenous Yazidi minority, on Mount Sinjar. At the same time, the group’s fighters were barreling towards Erbil and Baghdad, threatening a bloodbath against Kurds and Shias. That August, the Obama Administration launched airstrikes, first into Iraq, then Syria, drawing the U.S. towards another war in the Middle East. Soon after, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of journalist James Foley. This was the era that minted some of the most indelible ISIS images: Western prisoners in orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits, surrounded by rifle-wielding men in black. Stories of the group’s atrocities emerged in quick succession, echoing the parade of violence ISIS was proudly broadcasting on its own channels: public executions, conscription of child soldiers, disappearances and murders of thousands, Yazidi girls sold into slavery.

The new regime induced shock and horror in Western commentators, whose responses ranged from the lazy (a CNN guest parroted ISIS members’ claims that they were “preparing the largest religious cleansing campaign the world has ever seen”) and the racist (a Fox host declared that ISIS-like violence by Islamists has been happening “for hundreds and hundreds of years”), to the absurd (a CNN chyron announced that ISIS was luring women with kittens and Nutella). ABC republished a world map with all of the Middle East, most of Africa and Asia, and some of Europe blacked out; claiming, without verification, that it represented ISIS’s five-year expansion plan. (Experts later determined it was likely fake.) Explainers at the time offered a few cursory lines to describe locals’ discontent with their governments, but inevitably returned to the main emotive thrust, that the group was so ruthless that even Al Qaeda had disavowed it. 

This frenzied interest in the U.S.’s darkly powerful new enemy lured some journalists and analysts to focus on the group full-time. It emerged as a distinct topic from the Syrian civil war, whose crowded theater was becoming difficult to explain, or the Iraq War, now a nearly-adolescent 11 years old. Soon, writers covering ISIS, what Wired called “the world’s most important beat,” developed a signature flourish, describing it not just as a terrorist organization, but as an almost supernatural threat. “It is not clear,” argued a New York Review of Books piece in 2015, “whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.” The author (who was granted anonymity by the Review and described as a former “official of a NATO country”) lists historical events that influenced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS’s founder, and that helped spawn the group, such as the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 uprisings. And yet, the author concludes, these factors simply cannot explain, in any meaningful way, “the phenomenon of ISIS.” It’s unclear why anonymity was necessary to make these points, but the article was a perfect distillation of how ISIS appeared in the public imagination: as a movement beyond human understanding. The only sensible answer to so inscrutable and atavistic an adversary was total war.

As foreign fighters poured into the Caliphate, commentators abandoned their bewildered posture. Graeme Wood’s seminal 2015 Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which sought to interrogate the group’s appeal, was based on a number of interviews with scholars as well as the group’s supporters and proselytizers around the world, none of whom had actually traveled to Syria or Iraq and joined ISIS themselves. Referring ostentatiously to Islamic texts, these interviewees offered evidence of the religious underpinning of the Islamic State, which Wood argued shed light on the enemy: “We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.” Wood’s innovation was to listen to and read Salafi thinkers — followers of a puritanical strain of revivalist Sunni Islam — who tend to generate polemics and have left behind a canon of texts. His deeper point was that to understand a group, we simply have to understand its ideology. 

In a distinct but similarly abstract vein, many journalists and analysts started proffering theories about “radicalization” to explain ISIS recruitment. They interviewed “radicalization experts” on the “classic radicalization process” and hunted for clues in recruits’ personal lives to understand their decisions to travel to Syria. Even Psychology Today joined in, digging into the past of two young Americans who attempted to join the organization. But, devoid of any political context, terms like “radicalization” and “ideology” lose meaning. The New York Post, for example, published a piece about a French journalist who pretended to be a Muslim convert interested in marrying an ISIS fighter. Over several months, she spoke with an ISIS commander through phone and video calls, and even traveled to Amsterdam so she could understand the network that moved recruits from Turkey into the Caliphate. The writer never made it to Syria, or even Turkey, but her subsequent book carried the terror-inducing title, “In the Skin of a Jihadist.” What did it mean to be a jihadist, then, if the term could describe a woman who merely spoke to one online?

Even if radicalization spread like an airborne illness from person to person, it would explain little. And even if Wood was right to focus on ideology, his approach fails to answer the more important question: Why here? Why now? Why did this ideology suddenly resonate in two Muslim-majority countries, and among a tiny fraction of Muslims around the world? To begin to formulate an answer, we would have to explore the world in which ISIS arose: That would mean trying to understand the role of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, and oppressive regimes like that of Nouri al-Maliki. Under their rule, there were no avenues for justice; thousands were routinely disappeared or killed, and certain key tribes and families were empowered at the expense of the rest. We would also need to understand the long history of foreign powers competing for control over the region: decades of imperialism, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Russia and Iran’s interventions, have irrevocably transformed communities in the Middle East. Similarly, though ISIS opposes the Saudi government, the Salafi-Jihadi underpinnings of the group could not have gained traction without the Kingdom’s years of effort of exporting and standardizing a particular form of Islam across the Middle East. 

What all this points to, uncomfortably, is that the current global order has left many people behind. Despite the anonymous NYRB author’s claims to the contrary, we cannot dismiss such factors, because people on the ground do not dismiss them. In late 2014, as the U.S. ramped up airstrikes in Syria, thousands of rebels who had armed themselves after the 2011 uprisings opted to join or align with ISIS. Though Barack Obama had famously drawn a “red line” as a warning to Assad as his regime slaughtered Syrians, the U.S. did not intervene until ISIS was involved. “All the locals here wonder why the U.S. coalition never came to rescue them from Assad’s machine guns, but run to fight ISIS when it took a few pieces of land,” one rebel told the Guardian. 

Add to the mix material pressures like economic inequality and political marginalization. Mara Revkin, a scholar who conducted field work on the Islamic State, found that it “could not have captured and governed Mosul for as long as it did without the compliance and active support of some of the city’s population.” Through a survey of 1,400 residents in the city, she found that civilians were likely to stay in ISIS-controlled territory because, among various reasons, the “quality of governance,” including “availability of electricity, cleanliness of streets, and crime rates,” was better compared to services provided by the Iraqi government. As Revkin points out, the Islamic State was adept at exploiting Sunni discontent with economic neglect and sectarian discrimination in Iraq.

Such sentiments echoed across the region. In late 2018, I visited the western reaches of Iraq’s Anbar province, near the Syrian border. Until a few months earlier, ISIS had controlled the villages there, giving it access to a vital border crossing between Iraq and Syria, which allowed for easier movement of weapons and fighters between the two countries. People tried to flee, and those who didn’t have the means or who didn’t want to abandon their homes resigned themselves to the group’s rule. In the town of Anah, I met 30-year-old Hassan, who chose to stay when ISIS arrived. Hassan was a day laborer who tended to his family farm and did odd construction jobs where he could find them. His father had done the same, even though he had a law degree. “There are no jobs here,” Hassan told me, explaining that the government only helped certain connected people. He had hoped that the new regime could offer a fairer system. 

In parts of the Caliphate, ISIS did promise a different model, at least nominally. In one piece of propaganda, the group declared, “The people are as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no difference between the rich and the poor and the strong and the weak. The holder of a right has redress, and the grievance of an injured party will be answered.” In appealing to residents and new recruits, ISIS touched upon something familiar: the desire for justice, equality, and law and order in a world that has manifestly failed to deliver any. Women, too, found opportunities under ISIS. In Fallujah, they used the regime’s justice system to secure divorces, which had been more difficult under the Iraqi government.

Callimachi acknowledges that some failures of the local governments helped ISIS hold power for as long as it did: under its rule, she wrote in her 2018 piece “The ISIS Files,”streets were cleaner and garbage collection more regular. And yet, the conclusion she draws in the Caliphate podcast is that the real story of the organization lies in its brutality. ISIS committed mass atrocities, and trumpeted them for all to see in slick videos and glossy magazines like Dabiq, which published a dedicated English edition. Western journalists used this same propaganda to underscore ISIS’s savagery: images of rifle-carrying men on truck-beds; fighters clad in black waving ISIS flags; militants training their weapons at a row of men lying face-down on the ground. But the issue here isn’t just the violence — after all, Assad has also relished the torture, starvation, and murder of his citizens. Since 2011, his regime has used chemical weapons repeatedly, more than three hundred times according to one study. The critical difference is that while Assad depends on the international system for legitimacy (Russia and Iran are key supporters, and Syria remains part of the global financial system), ISIS rejects it. While Assad would prefer that the world looks away, ISIS practically begs us to stare. It aims to demoralize Western audiences, while projecting to potential recruits its vision of a new world order. 

It’s difficult to cut through this sensationalism without developing expertise in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts or, more generally, the dynamics of rebel movements and civil wars. Some scholars are doing just that, revealing a more complicated — and more interesting — story. The political scientist Austin Doctor recently conducted a study of sexual assault by 143 rebel groups around the world, from 1989 to 2011, and separately applied the results of his analysis to ISIS.  He found a correlation between the presence of foreign fighters and increased incidence of sexual violence, which suggests that the Islamic State functioned much like other rebel groups — that ISIS is not so singular as it may seem. 

Still, despite the growing and diverse literature on the Islamic State, the dominant narrative of the ISIS beat — in fact, the very existence of the beat — has helped obscure these layers. This isn’t the failure of any single journalist or outlet; the fact that Caliphate has drawn actual blame makes it an exception that proves the rule — that mainstream media coverage of ISIS receives almost no scrutiny. But many other publications and reporters have operated on the same flawed assumptions and premises as Caliphate, ones that animated the West’s understanding of the Middle East long before ISIS gained its first foothold.  


In its introductory episode, the Caliphate podcast poses the question that drives its interrogation: Who are we really fighting? It was the same one that had stumped us twenty years ago, when George W. Bush first declared the War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11. Bush’s swift military action offered a sense of certainty in uncertain times. “This is the world’s fight,” he declared. “This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” However, as some critics pointed out, this new fight against “terror” did not actually shed light on our opponents; it only made their identities murkier. “Terrorism is a tactic,” historian Michael Burleigh told a reporter, “so it’s a bit like saying the Second World War was a war against Blitzkreig.” The enemy was ill-defined, and the conflict lacked parameters, ensuring a war without an achievable end.

But such critiques were rare. By and large, the media accepted the Bush administration’s framing. By 2006, public criticism of the handling of the Iraq War was mounting, but even then, few questioned the legitimacy of the war itself. In a 2009 study of media coverage after 9/11, two scholars from the University of Texas found that journalists “helped brand the policy, [then] labeled the frame as public opinion,” ultimately contributing to the acceptance of that frame as a “fact of life,” and a “larger narrative of struggle and heroism.” Journalists did not treat the War on Terror as a policy decision made by the Bush administration, but as the natural and inevitable order of things. 

What the Bush administration argued, and what the media accepted, was that terrorism is not a mere tactic, but a full-blown ideology — what Bush called “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” including “fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.” In practice, this means non-state armed groups not allied with the U.S. should be understood as terrorist organizations — no matter if, like the Taliban, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and Hamas, they have little else in common. Although Bush was quick to differentiate between Islam and terrorism (“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”), a core argument for the war depended on the idea that terrorism was, in essence, a form of religious violence. “The religious dimension of this conflict is central to its meaning,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New York Times Magazine in late 2001. “The words of Osama bin Laden are saturated with religious argument and theological language. Whatever else the Taliban regime is in Afghanistan, it is fanatically religious…The terrorists’ strain of Islam… surely represents a part of Islam — a radical, fundamentalist part — that simply cannot be ignored or denied.” The fight against terrorism, in this conception, collapses into a morality play, a civilizational struggle of good versus evil — exactly the type of struggle in which we can’t afford to fret about the niceties of root cause and local context.

Obama seemed to offer a refreshing change, at least in rhetoric. He campaigned against the Iraq War, and as ISIS gained territory in 2014, he was hesitant to take action. When he eventually dropped bombs into Iraq (at its government’s request) and Syria (without its request), he explained, “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.” He also insisted on calling the group the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” pointing out that it was a more accurate translation of its Arabic name. (Some experts argued it wasn’t, and commentators suggested the administration wanted to distance itself from its failures in Syria). Two years later, Obama again attempted to downplay the “civilizational battle” narrative, claiming that ISIS was “not an existential threat to us.” But, he explained, “We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.” The enemy was familiarly vicious. One CNN report from 2014 had described ISIS’s takeover of Mosul as a “Blitzkrieg-like sweep.” As with other battles against evil, the “killers and fanatics” necessitated the dropping of bombs, an operation that Obama’s successor continued. When I arrived in West Mosul, in February 2018, just two months after the fall of ISIS, the city was gutted by the torrent of American airstrikes. High-rise buildings sat open-faced, revealing the lives of ghost families: floral print armchairs, frames on the walls, a living room floor spilling out into a pile of rubble below. Many Iraqis were forced into white tents outside the city, while others tried to make a home amid the destruction and the decaying bodies.

The Manichean framework helps absolve the West of its role and its responsibility in ending an endless conflict. “Terrorism” has become so synonymous with horrific violence that most Americans are likely unaware that the vast majority of civilian deaths in global conflicts today are caused by states, not non-state actors. Massacres of Iraqi civilians, deaths of Afghan civilians by airstrikes, and indiscriminate detention and torture and rape have all happened at the hands of state security forces, including those allied with the U.S. When American airstrikes hit a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan in 2015, then-Senator Jeff Sessions justified the incident by stating the U.S. was waging “the good war.” As the scholar William Cavanaugh has argued, “The myth of religious violence thus allows us in the West to shrug off any specific grievances that the Muslim world might have about U.S. relations with the rest of the world.” In fact, Cavanaugh wrote in 2011, the myth that we are in a struggle between civilization and savagery ignores that the West, too, is shaped by ideology:

“Most American Christians would recoil from the idea of killing on behalf of Jesus Christ under any circumstances, and yet most Americans consider organized slaughter on behalf of the nation — or perhaps on behalf of some ideal like freedom — as sometimes necessary and laudable.”

The U.S., Cavanaugh noted, spends billions of dollars annually on its military, more than the rest of the world combined, to kill in the name of the nation.  (The Pentagon’s budget for 2021 is $740.5 billion).

If a war is a “good war,” or merely conceived of as a necessary one, it matters little why a terrorist group gained support, or how we may be inadvertently contributing to the group’s appeal. Yet, while the current approach to terrorism has been wildly successful in building a cottage industry of extremism and deradicalization experts, it has failed to rid the world of terrorists. In 2018, a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies determined that two decades of the War on Terror had only increased the number of militant groups across the world. “While the United States and allied governments have weakened some groups like the Islamic State, many of the underlying causes have not been adequately addressed,” the report noted. “Perhaps the most important component of Western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian and other grievances.”

And yet this conclusion runs the risk of perpetuating the ills of the past — pitting states against militants, leading the U.S. to back autocratic governments as long as they are fighting terrorism. If our enemy is everywhere, we will seek allies in even the most oppressive of regimes (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia) to hunt down “terrorists,” no matter if they are gun-wielding militants or political dissidents who believe that the current state of affairs does not serve them. In spring 2013, in the face of months-long mass protests against the U.S.-backed Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq, security forces opened fire against demonstrators in Sunni-majority cities like Mosul, Fallujah and Hawija. During the war against ISIS, the Shia-majority Popular Mobilization Units, partnering with Iraqi Security Forces, kidnapped, disappeared, and killed hundreds of Sunni men across Iraq, claiming they were extremists. More recently, the government and Iran-backed militias have carried out assassinations of peaceful protesters in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Almost always, the repressive governments used the language of counterterrorism. 

Certainly there have been some critics of American crimes perpetrated in the name of the War on Terror. But mainstream coverage continues to cast these acts as distinct from questions about the legitimacy of the War on Terror itself. Such framing restricts our ability to explain the world today. If we portray certain enemies solely as existential threats, we sweep over the political conflicts unfolding in places like Iraq and Syria, and the political violence wrought upon these communities, even by those who claim to be fighting a just war.


Before I arrived in Baghouz, on the frontlines of the last stand against the Caliphate, I had been deep in eastern Syria, in towns and cities that were freshly liberated from ISIS and now under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly Kurdish militia that the U.S. had helped create to secure a post-ISIS Syria. The S.D.F. offers a remarkable vision to counter ISIS’s draconian rule — local councils, farmers’ cooperatives, and committees that promote the rights of oppressed minority groups. In the village of Jinwar, a female-controlled town, the S.D.F. has built a commune for women and their children, both Kurdish and Arab, seeking to escape oppressive families and realize a community without patriarchy. According to the constitution of the so-called Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the S.D.F.-linked ruling authority in the region, a post-ISIS Syria will be “a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs.” In order to realize this vision, part of the S.D.F.’s mandate is not just to govern, but also to annihilate ISIS. Several soldiers and S.D.F. spokesmen told me that the war against ISIS isn’t over — its aim now, with the support of the U.S., is to destroy sleeper cells and root out the ideology.

In the city of Manbij, I met the family of a young man named Hamza, a store owner. Three years earlier, in 2016, soon after the city was liberated, Hamza had decided he wanted to spend more time on his family’s farm in a village just outside the city. He was only twenty-four, but he already had a daughter, and his wife, Basma, was pregnant with their second child. Late one night in August, they were sleeping on the second floor of their home when they awoke to the sound of gunfire. Masked S.D.F. soldiers rushed into the house, and then upstairs. Pointing guns into the family’s faces, they accused Hamza of being an ISIS member and took him away. When I met them, Hamza’s family told me that when ISIS was in power, fighters frequented his store, and rumors had started circulating about Hamza’s supposed connections to the group. In 2019, they still had not been able to secure his release.

I heard similar accounts from others. One woman told me she had been searching for her son for three years; he had been arrested by the S.D.F. and subsequently disappeared. Another told me that after ISIS fell, she elected to continue wearing the niqab, and one day, S.D.F. soldiers stopped her and her husband, took her husband away, and severely beat him — due to her clothing, she believes. In Qamishli, I spoke with a former Arab member of the Raqqa local council, part of the S.D.F.’s governing structure, who described being intimidated into silence by individuals linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which exerts control behind the scenes. Soon after the Coalition announced victory over ISIS, protests against S.D.F. rule spread across Deir ez-Zor.

The S.D.F. was not exaggerating the presence of sleeper cells. Months after liberation, in one town in eastern Syria, the names of local council leaders were compiled into a hit list and pinned up on mosque doors; in another village, two bodies were found tortured to death. ISIS attacks continue in Syria and Iraq. Today, ISIS has taken control over parts of regime territory in the deserts of central Syria, and slices of S.D.F.-controlled Deir ez-Zor province are witnessing a full-blown ISIS insurgency, underscoring just how central the question of governance is to the group’s appeal. But the U.S. and its allies’ focus on ideology risks ignoring why ISIS gained support in the first place. Raids and detentions, torture and execution, and governance that politically marginalizes certain groups and offers few options for justice or accountability will only build anger. It is these layers of political and social contexts that are lost in most coverage, even if they will shape Iraq and Syria for a long time to come. 

Twenty years later, the War on Terror as a conflict between civilization and savagery rings hollow, not just in light of the brutalities waged in our name, but also in the face of extremism at home; after all, weren’t the perpetrators of the Capitol Hill riots part of “our” civilization? As the persistence of far-right nationalism suggests, ideologies cannot so easily be destroyed — even those we thought we had bombed out of existence seventy years ago. Yet, the world refracted through this war (the “only one” of the 21st century, Bush hoped) has left us not just morally inept, but also woefully misguided about what is to come next. Even if we cannot agree on what’s happened at home, there has been a bipartisan consensus that the War on Terror abroad is necessary. The mainstream media’s critical posture toward the Iraq War debacle evaporated as soon as ISIS — which first reappeared in Iraq — burst onto the scene. Even while Obama and Trump criticized the forever wars, they both expanded America’s military footprint and backed oppressive regimes for the sake of fighting extremism. And even as the new Biden Administration announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, to “end” the twenty-year war, it will continue airstrikes and raids to tackle the ever-looming threat of terrorism. We owe the countries we’ve invaded and bombed more than such a narrow lens of the world, a lens we’ve created. The question we’ve been asking, after all, has yet to be answered: Who are we really fighting?

Rozina Ali is a writer reporting on the U.S. and the Middle East.