Graffiti (R) sprayed by Islamic State militants which reads
Graffiti sprayed by Islamic State militants at the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria, in April © Reuters

In the dying days of the Obama administration, the news from Mosul — where a battle against Islamic State has raged for months — offered a puff of good cheer. Iraqi government special forces were seen waving atop armoured personnel carriers. They had secured the eastern half of the strategic city in northern Iraq; they were on their way, as the FT reported, to “deprive the jihadi group of its last main stronghold in the country”.

It would only take a few hours for Isis to frustrate the notion that the extremist group was coming unmoored in what it calls a new caliphate. Across state borders that Isis does not recognise and deep into the sands of the ancient city of Palmyra, the extremists had spent days rigging explosives. As troops in Iraq were celebrating near-victory, parts of a centuries-old Roman amphitheatre in Syria and a rare tetrapylon — a monument of graceful sky-grazing pillars — shuddered into plumes of dust. History destroyed. Such is the vision of Isis.

In his sobering account, The Way of the Strangers, the journalist Graeme Wood explores the methods of the jihadist group and offers reasons why the battles will not end. He worked in Iraq during 2004, the early days of the contorted US occupation, and saw the on-the-ground chaos that, within a decade, helped stir Isis to life. (Employed by a courier company near Mosul airport, Wood would dive into a concrete bunker during mortar attacks from insurgents.) In the past decade, he has traversed time zones to document Isis’s global allure, notably for Atlantic magazine; in this book he scrupulously records how religion pervades the mission of the terrorist group.

What Wood writes discomforts analysts who have cast Isis as rooted in un-Islamic ways. Instead, he makes the case that the followers of Isis have developed their notion of terrible righteousness through a studied approach, drawing inspiration from tracts and practices or “hadith” that indeed are part of the religion. Religious citations — and the men Wood interviews cite such in defence of slavery and extreme violence — are essential to recruitment. Wood contends that the Isis message, whether conveyed through video or sparky websites, offers a coherent worldview that has not been so coherently challenged by Islamic scholars.

These zealots do not represent the entire religion, writes Wood, who provides careful scholarship of the splits within Islam as well as jihadi groups. Grievances may feed their radicalism but scripture underpins their plans. “It will not do to pretend that they believed in nothing, or that they believe weakly,” he writes. They have convinced thousands of people to kill and to die for Islam that way.

Wood also argues that it is unhelpful to view this religiosity as servient to everyday politics. Put in another way: viewing the rise of Isis in relation to the vagaries of the Ba’ath party of Iraq does not explain the trajectory of the extremism. Debating its religious outlook does. Unless there are rigorous analyses of their religious claims — not mere damnations or ripostes from scholars — there will be no relief, according to Wood.

Wood discovers that converts often are the best tinder for the fires of Isis. Admitting to queasiness during some of his creepier interviews, he connects with influential members of the jihadi group while avoiding the badlands of Iraq and Syria. The American writer travelled to Cairo, to Tokyo, to London and, surprisingly near his childhood home, to Plano, Texas, in pursuit of the misfits who have help fuel Isis’s appeal. His examination of how Islam was used in the unravelling of one tradition-bound family is among the most disturbing chapters.

John Georgelas hails from a well-to-do American family with military roots. His grandfather worked for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His father, a retired colonel, served in the Army and then the Air Force as a physician. Georgelas, born in 1983, converted to Islam two months after the 9/11 attacks in the US. In the decade since, he has metamorphosed into Yahya Abu Hassan, an articulate defender of Isis’s twisted demand for religious purity.

Wood does not interview Georgelas, who crossed into Syria in 2013. He compiles a dossier of the troubled propagandist, though, through interviews with other jihadis and conversations with the Georgelas family in Texas.

The elder Georgelas sees his son’s conversion both an affront and a sign of mental weakness. What the elder Georgelas does not grasp is that his son also had a brilliance that emerged as he matured. John-turned-Yahya was a computer geek in his teens. As he practised Islam, he applied his talents to Arabic and ancient texts. He travelled to Damascus, married, then returned to the US. Along the way, he roamed jihadist forums and looked for ways to wage jihad. He was a data technician at a server company in Texas when he was arrested for hacking the password of a client — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying group. He served nearly three years in prison for the hack.

Yahya studied Islamic texts full-time in prison. As he became increasingly estranged from his parents’ world, he fused with a global chain of discontent. In 2011 he left for Cairo, where he steeped himself in religious texts and began writing. His exhortations may be called distortions by most Muslims but they travel silkily across the internet. By 2015, he was “fluent in the doctrine and culture of jihad and in the culture and language in which he was raised,” Wood writes. Yahya is now Isis’s leading producer of English-language propaganda. Military might has yet to diminish the power of this rebellion.

Isis’s resilience has also led it to profit from the ruin it has created. Loretta Napoleoni, who has written about terrorist funding in previous books, attempts with Merchants of Men to connect criminal gangs and criminal-jihadist groups to the flood of migrants that have arrived on the Mediterranean coast. She re-examines the deadly kidnappings pursued by Isis (including an interview with an anonymous hostage negotiator). She reviews much of what is known in the popular press about the awful travails of those displaced by the conflict in Syria. A humanitarian crisis of epic proportion has taken hold. In 2015, she writes, 1.5m people crossed from Syria via Turkey and into the EU. Human traffickers who moved Syrians through Turkey, it turns out, primarily use an Isis-controlled border crossing. As one Syrian refugee tells her: “It is safer to travel inside the Caliphate. There are no roadblocks set up by different arms groups or warlords.”

In this way, Napoleoni, whose account is unfortunately untidy and repetitive, helps to explain the staying-power of Isis. It rakes in millions of dollars by charging hefty crossing fees to smugglers and demanding $1,600 a person on boats sailing from the western shores of Libya.

Beyond the easy cash, Isis has another reason to track and monitor the people desperate to escape. The illegal migrant flows could be a way to bolster its brethren, she writes. Anyone who wants to qualify for safe passage through Isis territory must first attend a week-long sharia course.

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, by Graeme Wood, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$28, 352 pages

Merchants of Men: How Kidnapping, Ransom and Trafficking Funds Terrorism and ISIS, by Loretta Napoleoni, Atlantic, RRP£17.99/Seven Stories, RRP$24.95, 304 pages

Christine Spolar, the FT’s investigations editor, covered wars in Iraq and the Balkans

Photograph: Reuters

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