ISIS & Death Cults, A New Taxonomy

ISIS & Death Cults, A New Taxonomy

Terrorism & Death Cults

“A rose by any name”

Semantic Limitations to Effective Policy Response

A Framework for an Effective Classification System

March 25, 2016

Wes Chapman


Isis Death Cult

ISIS – Their inhuman behavior knows no bounds

The proper words escape me.

Ever since September 11, I’ve been struck by the differences in how the media and politicians describe the mass slaughter of innocents by various Islamic militant groups. This really started to bother me shortly after the September 11th premeditated murder of thousands at the World Trade Center – a massacre of unarmed civilians – when TV commentators started to call the event a Tragedy. For me a tragedy is the earthquake last year in Nepal – thousands of deaths, but no discernable blame (other than abysmal building practices). Tragedy in human relations brings up Romeo & Juliet, a series of wildly unfortunate events that combine into a loss that was both foreseeable and avoidable.

The September 11th attacks were state sanctioned violence from a shadowy nation state controlled by Osama Bin Laden operating out of Afghanistan. Like Pearl Harbor, there was no warning, no declaration of war and perhaps most importantly there was no “if-then statement”; it was totally unstated as to what actions on our part were required to avoid the violent outcome.

Today we use the words war, terrorist, and tragedy in ways that conflate WWII with drone strikes on the Taliban, Patty Hearst with ISIS, and the massacre of innocents at the World Trade Center with a tsunami in Indonesia. This functional inability to categorize and describe events, leads directly to the inability to deal with them.

The US has not had a clear method of providing a comprehensible scale for describing the threat of armed combatants, and has accordingly fumbled for both words and policy. We see this in the news about ISIS all the time – at the West Point commencement address on May 28, 2014 President Obama said of ISIS, “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”  In the same month that ISIS seized the city of Falluja, President Obama said of ISIS, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a J.V. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

We need to do a lot better job of classifying violence, naming it accurately and responding accordingly. As President Obama inadvertently illustrates, we have very limited vocabulary for describing state sponsored violence, and no generally agreed upon classification system. As a result, we are reduced to speaking in metaphors, which by definition are biased and un-actionable.

When confronting a problem of like this, I like to use a four square analysis, with the outer limits of the squares representing the practical extremes of behavior – allowing the analysis of the problem at its limits. As shown below, I’ve used poles of maximum violence opposed to passive behavior, and religious or racist philosophies opposed to rational and democratic. Finally, I’ve looked at these on a -5 to +5 scale, with zero in the center of the graph.

Final Plain 4 square to use

Simple 4 Square

4 Sq Overlay JPEG to Use

Shown above is the same 4 square analysis, but with a variety of well understood conflicts and pacifist movements superimposed. The position of the conflicts is roughly determined by the analysis in the following table.

Shown below is a table that looks at 11 criteria that I have used to define characteristics of combatants in a variety of well known conflicts, and then applies the corresponding grade, from -+5 to -5 depending on facts and circumstances. The grades for each are summed up to determine a unique Combatants Violence Score (CVS). These grades of individual criteria are subjective, but based on a fairly extensive historical review, and certainly give a very clear directional understanding of the relative danger and violence of the combatants. While the reader may disagree with some or all of the grades that I have selected, they are all supported by historical analysis. Additionally, I have grouped the conflicts as: 1) Death cults, 2) Classic terrorists, 3) Terror related warfare, and 4) Losing military strategies.

In Table 1 below, I take a look at the various conflicts that were chosen for this analysis, and their relevance to this line of investigation. In Table 2, I take a look at the criteria that I’ve chosen, and why they are generally relevant in categorizing armed conflicts.

The Hanging by Jacques Callot

The Hanging, Jacques Callot, 30 Years War

The only good Apostate…


Combatants Violence Score (CVS)

Final 5

Japanese Beheading Australian Prisoner


Japanese Murdering Australian POW – WWII

Germans shooting prisoners

Nazis murdering prisoners

Jihadi John

Jihadi John murdering prisoner

ISIS man Kills Mother

Celebration of death and cruelty


Conflict Discussion and Analysis

Table 1


Combatant Score/Classification Discussion
ISIS 55; Charismatic, Sovereign, Death Cult ISIS is the most blood thirsty group that I have encountered in modern history. They burn prisoners alive in steel cages, wage terror war on civilians, and have never been clear about what we could do to make it stop. ISIS drapes itself in the classic black banners of death, and celebrates its atrocities. The group is unmatched in modern history – scoring a perfect 55. They are the epitome of evil.
WWII Japan 51; Charismatic, Sovereign, Death Cult WWII Japan differed from ISIS only in one material measure – it did not routinely use non-uniformed combatants (classic terrorists) to wage war against civilians behind enemy lines. This was a very bad and motivated opponent, using suicide bombers routinely (Kamikaze pilots), and absorbed an unbelievable amount of punishment in the form of aerial bombardment before finally surrendering.
WWII Germany 47; Charismatic, Sovereign, Death Cult Nazi Germany owns the crown of evil in modern Europe. Driven by a strange mixture of racism and religious fetishism, the Nazis were uniquely awful in modern European history. I was frankly surprised that they did not get higher marks, but limited use of suicide attacks and infrequent murder of Allied prisoners reduced the score. Like the Japanese, they did not use classic terror tactics against most allied nations.
30 Years War 47; Charismatic, Sovereign, Death Cult The 30 Years War (1618-1648) was the awful result of the backlash against Lutheran based Protestantism in Europe, combined with a concurrent series of Imperial clashes between major European powers. I first started studying this war as a possible parallel to the current secular/religious confrontation in Western Europe. So great was the violence that up to 75% of the population was slaughtered in certain German counties. The Treaty of Westphalia, that established the basis for modern nation states, finally brought it to an end.
Christian Crusades 42; Classic Religious Terrorists The Christian Crusades were a vainglorious series of military excursions from Western Europe into the Middle East and Holy Land from 1096 to 1497. The motivations for these excursions were almost entirely religious, and ultimately accomplished nothing regarding the Christian occupancy of the Holy Land.
Red Brigades 37; Classic Terrorists For those of us growing up in the 1970s, the Italian Red Brigades were the classic terrorists. With a muddled brand of violent, nihilist Marxism, they were murderous and double-dealing terrorists. They were populists – if such a thing is possible in terror – never hurting their constituents – the poor and working classes.
NVA Vietnam War 34; Terror based war of national liberation The NVA struggle against the US is the classic study in asymmetrical warfare. We had B52s, they had bombs in bars and the Tet Offensive. Both combatants’ methods were imprecise, and resulted in a lot of civilian casualties. What was most important was that the if-then statement was very clear and actually adhered to by the NVA – once we were out it was over.
Symbionese Liberation Army 24; Terror based nihilist gang The Symbionese Liberation Army was a by-product of the Vietnam War, racial unrest and the inherent social/political instability of California. The only thing that this group did well was self-promotion. Patty Hearst was an involuntary gang member, and the classic study of Stockholm Syndrome.
US Firebombing of Japan 28; Terror based total war The night time, low level, US firebombing of Japan was a dramatic change from the high altitude day-time precision bombing of Germany. General Curtis Lemay pioneered the strategy to “produce results”, and a single night of this bombing over Tokyo killed more civilians than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. This was designed to break the Japanese will to fight, at which it failed. This was designed to kill lots of Japanese civilians, and was clearly motivated at least in part by a demand for popular vengeance.
Confederate Strategy of Northern VA 21; Terror based defensive war. This is an odd one. The actual conduct of the war was relatively “gentlemanly”. The terror in this case was being waged on the African civilian slave populace. While this was not seen by the troops on the battlefield, it was the unfortunate reality for a large disenfranchised segment of the populace
Sherman’s March to the Sea 22; Terror based total war Sherman was an awful innovator. He brought the practice of waging war on civilians to the US Civil War, and has earned a permanent role in perdition from the residents of the areas impacted. The March was a deliberate attempt to weaken the Confederacy and reduce the will of the Confederate soldiers by waging economic war on civilians. It is important to note that while awful, it was largely a war against property and commerce rather than direct murder.
US conduct of the Vietnam War 20; Losing Strategy in domestic violence The involvement in the Vietnam War was justified based on the Domino Theory of Communist expansion. It was in fact a domestic political dispute, with little or nothing to do with actual political motivation. We were drawn into a war fought in every village and hamlet, and the resulting bloodshed on all sides was both horrific and unnecessary. Worse still, we took away all the wrong lessons, which have crept back into our war with a very different foe -ISIS. The only high violence score that this war receives is related to the strategy of body counts as a measure of success.
US War to counter ISIS -30; Abject Failure It is very rare that a war is conducted according to pacifist principles, but so it is with our war with ISIS. We won’t bomb fuel trucks without a 45-minute warning to drivers – lest they prove to be unwitting accomplices. ISIS burns prisoners alive in cages and lights Europe afire while we watch. ISIS gets a perfect score for brutality and murder. They really deserve our very best, delivered in scale.

B29s over Tokyo

B 29s Over Tokyo

Very Destructive – Not very Effective

Criteria Discussion and Analysis

Table 2

Criteria Discussion
Maximum Use of Force in All Circumstances Execution of restraint in warfare is a critical element in limiting conflicts. The use of maximum force in all situations always results in unnecessary death and destruction – and always is contrary to the best long-term interests of the combatants. It is important to note that there is no differentiation in today’s conflicts for technical superiority. The truth is that in asymmetrical warfare all combatants have different strengths – none uniquely effective. Drone strikes are countered with suicide bombers and IEDs – none of the combatants has a long term technical advantage that allows for decisive, unilateral actions.
Bias to Brutality This criterion was added specifically to differentiate ISIS from all other combatants.
“If-Then” not Explicit This is the single most perplexing thing about modern Muslim extremists – what would they have us do to make the terror stop? The truth is they just like killing, and won’t accept any reason to stop. This is about the massacre of the apostate, and is a central element of their psychosis.
Faith or racially based These are the strongest motivators for relentless and unforgiving warfare. The only way to stop wars of this type is through death or adoption of the US Constitution.
Suicide Attacks – Support for the Apocalypse This is the end result of the true nihilist warrior culture – “we are going to die anyway, let’s take a bunch with us when we go”. This is an end stage social pathology, and leads to impossible levels of violence.
Massacre of POWs Once this becomes common place, there is no incentive to surrender, and all fighting is to the death. The adoption of POW massacres by Japan in WWII led to grotesque levels of casualties of Japanese troops who refused to surrender – sure that they would meet the same fate.
Massacre of Civilians This is common, but makes subsequent occupation nearly impossible.
Behind the lines massacre of civilians by non-uniformed combatants (Terror) Classic terror as we know it.
Death Celebrated as a legitimate goal Death as a desired endpoint leads to genocide everywhere and always. This is the signature goal of all death cults – such as ISIS.
Self-Aggrandizing propaganda This is normally racially, culturally or faith based.
Demeaning propaganda of Enemies (sub-human) This is normally racially, culturally or faith based.


B52 over Vietnam

B52 over Vietnam

Very Destructive – Not Very Effective

US bombing ISIS

US bombing ISIS

Not very destructive… Effective?


So what? So what difference does it make if we go to the trouble to classify ISIS as the worst Death Cult in modern history? How is it going to change our response?

First, a couple of observations. Death Cults never just go away. They require absolute destruction, and subsequent permanent occupation. Death Cults are always driven by a charismatic ideology, and to beat them, the goal must be the destruction of that ideology – this takes a lot of force, and then a whole lot of subsequent investment and repair. We absolutely destroyed Japan and Germany in WWII; they were pulverized. But still full of former combatants dedicated to the old cause. We still have troops on the ground in both venues over 70 years after the military victory, and the troops may never come home. The roots of ideology run deep, transcending generations. Permanent occupation is the price of stable peace.

It is worth the effort however. Just consider the enormous death and destruction of the two World Wars, and the subsequent value of both Japan and Germany as allies and trading partners. Consider what the cost of another war in Europe would be in terms of blood and treasure. Impossible to imaging – and just what ISIS wants.


Dresden Germany post Bombing

And still they fought on

It takes almost unimaginable firepower to break the back of a Sovereign Death Cult. And breaking its back is only the first step. Then you need to rebuild, retrain and occupy – forever. Worse still, the longer that you wait the worse it gets.

There can be no question that Neville Chamberlain emboldened the Nazis, and empowered them with their domestic constituents, resulting a short-term fix, and a vastly greater long-term problem.

Chamberlain with piece of paper

Chamberlain comes home with a piece of paper from Mr. Hitler

Nazi Tiger eating Chamberlains umbrella

Nazi tiger ate Mr. Chamberlain

The price of appeasement


Determining Proportional Response

Understanding your enemy is absolutely critical in formulating a proportional and effective response. By applying a rational CVS score, we can determine if we are dealing with Manuel Noriega or ISIS, Grenada or Lebanon. The nature and risks of the required response are very different in these cases, as are the risks of doing nothing.

3 small conflict to use

Panama and Grenada were walk-overs of weak opponents. In no event were the outcomes ever in doubt. Similarly, although we were fighting relatively weak and disparate opponents in Lebanon, they were wildly determined, religiously motivated and garnered a CVS score of 49 – slightly in excess of the 30 Years War. Our troops and commanders had no idea what they were walking into, and the net result was a suicide bombing that left 241 Marines dead. The hasty and ignominious US departure that followed was decried as a humiliation, but in fact was the only reasonable policy choice given the extremely violent nature of our opponents, and the lack of political will to do what was required for a victory.

The Power of New Media for Death Cults

ISIS has been spectacularly successful in the application of social media in their recruitment of converts and vilification of enemies. This is a hallmark of high scoring and uniquely dangerous opponents. The German propaganda machine before and after the start of WWII was brilliant and enormously effective. Watch out, this one aspect of this struggle that we are just starting to understand.

Death Cults depend on the fanatical belief of their adherents. It takes a uniquely motivated person to pilot a Kamikaze attack on a US carrier, or wear and detonate a suicide vest in a crowded subway. Social media forms very powerful networks that have proven amazingly effective at recruiting and motivating budding cultists.

Japanese Super Man

Japanese WWII recruiting poster

ISIS on Facebook

ISIS recruits on Facebook

Triumph of the will

Nazi recruiting through films

A Complete Failure of Intelligence

When President declared ISIS a JV team (I’d hate to meet the varsity), it made one thing absolutely clear – our intelligence services are wholly inadequate to the game they are playing, and the foe that they are facing. If the President doesn’t know that ISIS is a real threat, then it is fair to assume that nobody in the Federal Government does. I’m working on the assumption that our intelligence agencies are relying on the same failed methods and sources that put us in the wild goose chase in Iraq, that brought us to the mess that we are in today.

I further assume that they are relying on the same type of proprietary network of informants and sources that led to that ignominious fiasco. I would suggest a little use of the Internet, some sound reasoning and a little common sense. Nobody doing any form of structured analysis could come to the conclusion that ISIS was a JV team.

In my mind’s eye I picture a well edited memo, full of lovely metaphors, and absolutely wrong. A memo full of quotes from sources that nobody can verify, that contradict the obvious truth written large across the morning headlines. A memo on the President’s desk, assuring that all is under control – despite all evidence to the contrary.

Finally, I see a military plan put together with political rather than military objectives. Where the possible innocence of an oil truck driver working for ISIS is reason not to bomb the truck and cut off the supply of money that ultimately keeps the entire diabolical operation afloat. One thing is for sure, those folks that died in Brussels this week, might be alive if we actually had the end of this regime as our end goal.

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

Shortly after 9/11 I was at a dinner party with a group of women – all classmates at a small, liberal New England College. I asked them, would they be in favor of carpet bombing the Middle East with nuclear weapons if it would prevent a single nuclear detonation in New York or Boston? To a woman (and before the evening’s wine could be credited with the answer) they said absolutely yes.

ISIS is a CVS 55 – the worst in history. Do what it takes to destroy it in both the Middle East and Europe, and never let it regrow. Otherwise both we and the Muslims with whom they live will face a vastly worse outcome in the future – one in which Muslims become the new punching bag for Popeye.

Popeye takes on the Axis

There is no question where Popeye is headed next.

“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even if you have a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

The Art of War


Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 25, 2016

    Interesting analysis. Not convinced it is all necessary to reach the conclusion, but it is compelling. While not defending our assessment track record, disagree that current Commander in Chief’s flawed communications follow from incompetent intelligence. Havana performance alone did not even process USA Today. Is there a Churchill stepping up in 9 months? Is the question even being posed?


  2. Avatar
    March 26, 2016

    Wes, I have always found four box matrices useful in many evaluations. You have done a nice job applying some useful dimensions in this case. (remind me to describe my human resource classification system on fast/slow, smart/dumb dimensions). But I digress. Mr. Buffalo is correct in disputing the “intelligence” issue. My sense is that the defense and intelligence agencies have been politically conditioned by the lecturer-in-chief to providing only the answers he wants to hear.

    The military historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote an interesting book of comparative military leadership focusing on Patton, Sherman and Epaminondas, the 4th century BC Theban general who destroyed the Spartan hegemony. Hanson describes how each leader recognized that the only way to destroy radical/violent/implacable ideologies was by invading and destroying their homelands, occupying them and ruthlessly rooting out the offending culture. He also points out that people who do this tend to be a little unbalanced and extreme. To date, it seems that the West has not suffered enough at the hands of the extremists to allow leaders like this to emerge or be released.


  3. Avatar
    April 02, 2016

    Wes, interesting analysis. While your goal was to classify this aggression as a means to understand it, it leaves open the bigger question of what to do now. That quickly follows to conclusion the the US, as the worlds only super power, must take the lead. Never in recent history has the US needed a strong, competent commander and chief!!!! Unfortunately I do not see that. Discouraging!