The Al Khansa Brigade is the all-female fighting force of the organization that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).  Al Khansa, we are most unreliably informed, has 60 members, many of whom are British.  Their leader is reputedly a privately educated Scotswoman.  These amazons are, we’re told, particularly cruel, force captive local women to be sex slaves for the male IS fighters, and act as a dreaded police unit for the terrifying jihadists.

Stories like this are written to scare us, even if we can’t be sure any of it is true.  Still, maybe we should be scared of the Islamic State, which in recent months has burst from obscurity to control half of what used to be Iraq and about a third of Syria.  It has declared those jurisdictions defunct and itself an Islamic Caliphate.  At the same time, it has encouraged its even more terrifying look-alike Boko Haram to declare an associated “caliphate” based in Gwosa in northern Nigeria, in the old Islamic sultanate of Sokoto, destroyed by the British in 1903.

From time to time IS makes headline-catching declarations: that all women must report for female genital mutilation; that its ambition is to reconquer Spain; that it has banned the teaching of math and history.  Cameras follow its leaders everywhere.  They record not just the gruesome murder of Western hostages but mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers and rival jihadists.

It all sounds like something out of a horror film—which is, of course, exactly what we’re watching, with the foolish assistance of the media, who eagerly suck up what IS offers.  We even dutifully follow its name changes, which grow more pretentious every time, like those of some conceited celebrity.

The Islamic State is, in fact, a celebrity.

By the same token, it is dangerously modern, media-savvy, and horribly aware that the universally distrusted mainstream media are no longer the information “battlespace.”  IS realizes that Western governments have granted control of information access for ordinary people to giant private corporations.  These days information follows not the whims of press barons but the policies of firms like Google and the social-media giants.

The Islamic State’s horribly choreographed beheadings were all uploaded to YouTube and circulated via Twitter, and the first two, perhaps deliberately, were of journalists.  IS may have a stack of gruesome videos made months ago and doled out to social media sites when they need to shock.  IS collected hostages last year from the Free Syrian Army and other hard-up jihadi groups when hostages were cheap.  So now everyone in the IS target audience is bombarded with an evil and highly professional Theater of Cruelty, which has developed into an advanced form that would amaze Antonin Artaud himself.

Artaud, a sickly child twisted further by the shock of World War I, wanted his actors to “assault the senses” of the audience, shocking parts of the psyche that other theatrical methods had failed to reach.  Well, IS has read the book.  It’s been obvious since September 11 that we’re living in an age of vicious political theater.  That’s what “terrorism” is: the manipulation of large populations by shock and awe and “liberating unconscious emotions” (to quote Artaud).

Basically, they’re softening us up for worse horrors to come.

The Islamic State has a very sophisticated media direction.  Its “offering” is world-class.  Its website is as slick as anything anywhere; icon-driven, interactive, flick, flick, flick . . .  To young people, that very speed, modernity, the familiarity of the message and the medium being identical are hypnotic.  The appearance of IS propaganda horror videos and harrowing threats is professional, pitch-perfect.  You find yourself saying things like “perfect timing,” “right change of pace,” and so forth, just as you did back on September 11.

But what is the political strategy behind the flawless stage direction?

Unlike the hopelessly naive insurgent groups that rose against President Assad’s regime in Syria four years ago, the Islamic State is as slippery politically as it is militarily effective.  It’s hardly Islamic.  The IS connection to religion is as distant as Madonna’s.  Clerics and Islamic law are nowhere to be seen.  Executing prisoners and rivals like the mafia, IS is brutal, sectarian, successful.

IS emerged from the latest rebranding of an anti-Western insurgency that, for too long, we sloppily called Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda is essentially Wahhabi, inspired by the dominant Muslim sect in Saudi Arabia.  Its political strategy is vague—hostile, but scarcely coherent.

IS seems as ideologically vacant as a modern football club.  It has a regalia, slogans, branding, and it knows whom it’s against.  Victories bring reputation—there’s a club history and hall of fame—but there are no real principles, characteristics, or responsibilities necessary for being either a leader or a follower.  No goal but more goals.

As the cameras catalogue the masked and costumed female bodyguards of IS commanders, record the brutal episodes, every photo tagged with the logo, the black flags, the banners—this is the theater of jihad as you’ve never seen it.

This media prominence has ensured that the Islamic State has captured not just territory and oil wells but the imagination of many Muslims.  Even in comfortable European states, second-generation Muslim kids, restive in godless societies, can now find glamor and meaning at one and the same web address.  The voices of first-generation Al Qaeda veterans warning eager young idealists have been drowned.

Besides, in today’s Middle East, there is a growing list of nations that have been effectively trashed.  Libya and Lebanon are in chaos; Gaza has just taken another pounding.  In Syria, the war by the summer had destroyed 600,000 buildings and badly damaged three million more.  That translates into a massive refugee and displaced-person problem, misery and anger, fueling even the most nihilistic of insurgencies.  It’s no coincidence that IS has been busily recruiting in the U.N.-controlled refugee camps in Lebanon.

The name Islamic State is deceptive.  It is in fact in the business of state destruction.  It has no obvious capacity to build a state.  Its most notorious slogan is that the Sykes-Picot era is over.  This was the Anglo-French treaty that drew the lines in the Middle East after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  Thus, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq are all under threat.

The Islamic State is not an anti-imperialist movement.  It is in fact offering to continue the policies we’ve seen pursued by Saudi Arabia and her allies—which include the United States—for the last decades: weakening or damaging any country that might constitute a threat to them.

And by epitomizing the most extreme takfiri attitudes (the practice, that is, of declaring some Muslims unbelievers so they can be legitimately killed) IS has declared war on Iran and other Shia states—governments that are the principal poles of resistance to the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Western powers, in that order.

So where did IS spring from?

The Islamic State proves to have very dubious antecedents.  It was supposedly formed by professional Syrian jihadists linked to Abu Moussa al-Zarqawi in Iraq.  Zarqawi had been in Afghanistan under Al Qaeda leadership.  His Jund al-Sham metamorphosed into Al Tawhid al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad).  It later acquired the more pompous title of Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn.

Though Zarqawi was supposedly the leader of “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” his relations with Ayman al-Zawahiri were in fact so bad that it took almost a year of difficult negotiations before Zarqawi declared his movement part of Al Qaeda.  Zarqawi spent the majority of his time in Iraq murdering civilians and spectacularly executing foreign hostages.  Interestingly, his local opponents insisted from the start that he was a fake.

Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi army, the Shi’ite militia, famously opined, “I believe Zarqawi is fictitious.”

Zarqawi died in 2006, and his movement went into effective hibernation until the Syrian civil war, when many fighters joined the Jabhat al-Nusra, which was paid for by the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID).  Al-Nusra had a short run, from its inception at the end of January 2012 to its being declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department some ten months later.

But others in Tawhid returned not to fight for the Saudis but to join something called ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Greater Syria), or more usually ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  For the first three years of its sojourn in eastern Syria, ISIL behaved very much like Zarqawi had done in Iraq.  Until earlier this year, ISIL seemed studiously to be avoiding any engagements with the Syrian military.

It is perhaps worth recalling that last year—when ISIL was obscure—Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Islamic rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, denounced ISIL.  Its behavior, he said, seemed explicitly designed to give jihad a bad name by its pointless cruelties and absurd pseudoreligious pronouncements.

ISIL’s credentials as a rebel group were so poor that it was easy to give credence to rumors that it had been set up by the Russians to hoover up money from Qatar and to kill other jihadists.

ISIL was busily passing itself off as a minor player in 2012, when the more sober elements in U.S. intelligence managed to get past Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to warn that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian insurgent group that had been built up by the Saudi GID, had become too dangerous to U.S. interests.  In January 2013, U.S. intelligence began canvassing Syrian opposition groups in Jordan to get them to destroy Al-Nusra.  They declined.

ISIL, on the other hand, seemed to have rather fewer scruples and began a campaign of attacking not just Al-Nusra but many other rebel groups in Syria.  This continues, with the assassination of the remaining Ahrar ash-Sham leadership on September 10—probably by a sophisticated gas bomb.

By January 2014, maddened by ISIL’s campaign of assassinations, other rebel groups hit back.  It didn’t work.  By the summer, ISIL emerged as the winner in most of eastern and central Syria, having killed almost 3,000 rebel fighters.  Many others, cut off from money and supplies, promptly defected to ISIL.

Three factors seem to explain ISIL’s rapid rise.  One is the meticulous staff work in planning for its assaults on the other rebel groups.  Its intelligence seemed unusually good.  The second is the presence in ISIL’s ranks of many Europeans and other Westerners, prepared to carry out attacks on other Arab forces even when heavy casualties were being taken.  The third factor is money.  ISIL has always seemed awash with money.  ISIL also inherited the money and the weapons, many of them supplied by the United States, that had been destined for Al-Nusra.

Flush with money, manpower, and weapons, including handheld antiaircraft missiles, ISIL rebranded itself as the Islamic State at the end of June and acquired a new cadre of leaders from Iraq, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Interestingly, the Islamic State’s principal ally in Sunni Iraq is a flamboyant jihadi named Shaker Wahib al-Fahdawi, a.k.a. the Desert Lion.  Commander Wahib took over the rump of Tawhid after he supposedly escaped from Tikrit Prison during a rebellion at the jail in 2012.  He seems to have been held along with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the previous leader of IS.

In August 2013 Wahib was filmed executing truck drivers from Syria who could not answer questions about the Koran to his satisfaction.  Shaker popped up in Mosul in August after its surprise capture by IS fighters.  He communicates with his followers by Twitter and has a legion of young female admirers all over the Arab world who post photos of him.

IS is growing in power and influence, hence the panicky CIA reestimate in mid-September, in which they admitted that IS could now count on over 30,000 fighters, despite U.S. air attacks and taking at least a thousand casualties in its seizure of Raqqa air base in August.

The Islamic State is probably the best fighting force in the region, with the exception, perhaps, of Hezbollah and the PKK, but its aims and policies seem obscure and flimsy.  It is disturbing that, for all its apparent Al Qaeda origins and ferocious pseudo-Islamist rhetoric, IS is in fact carrying out the strategic policy of the Saudi Arabian and Israeli governments, which is to inhibit and block the ability of Shia Islam to acquire power and influence in the region.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a dangerous possibility that a merged Iran and Shia-majority Iraq would eventually constitute a Shia superstate.  This Shia state might then extend its influence to Alawite-dominated Syria and Shia-dominated Lebanon.

Already in a strategic alliance, Tel Aviv and Riyadh reasoned that breaking up Iraq and trying to install a Sunni extremist regime in Damascus were priorities.  They had always been skeptical of U.S. plans to bring democratic institutions to Iraq, because the country’s ethnic arithmetic would inevitably leave the Shia in control.

The defeat of the IDF in Lebanon in 2006 and the strategic failure of the offensive against Gaza in 2009-10 persuaded Israel that she had to support Saudi initiatives.  It was a joint Israeli-Saudi effort that ousted the dangerous-looking Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.  Whatever Israel’s reservations about the wisdom of encouraging extremist Muslim groupuscules in Syria, it was less problematic to support the takfiri elements among them, spreading enmity between Sunni and Shia.

Equally important, for both countries, was the prospect of miring their ally, the United States, in an increasingly ugly war in the Middle East—and perhaps encouraging a reengagement in Iraq.  Israeli hawks have always admired what they call the “Brzezinski-Wolfowitz Model” of laying waste their neighbors; IS fits very well into that scheme.

At the moment the fight against IS promises to create a vortex of violence and instability in the region that will exhaust everyone directly involved.  Iran cannot ignore this one, any more than can the United States, France, Britain, and other powers.

The wild card in all this, however, is Turkey.

The Turkish government at first seemed to be hedging its bets on the Syrian rebellion, but as the regime began to get the upper hand in 2013, the Turkish government decided to back ISIL.

Over recent years, recruits, money, and weapons have flowed over the border into Raqqa, long the ISIL headquarters, all with (at the very least) the connivance of the Turkish authorities.  Turkey is suspected of being behind the intra-Kurdish coup in Mosul in August that let IS fighters in.  Turkey has refused to take any part in crushing IS, denying the use of Incirlik Air Base.  Ankara refused even to sign the Jeddah Communiqué, which tried to coordinate a position against IS.  Indeed, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official has recently revealed that, inside the Beltway, the Turkish government is now seen as a “non-ally.”

It has become clear, however, that the Turkish military has policies and allies rather different from those of its government.  When IS columns began to attack Kurdish positions in the Kurdish Regional Government in August, driving back Peshmerga units, it was the Turkish army that deployed seasoned fighters from the PKK, the Kurdish communist party, which two years ago had been the army’s bitter enemy.  The PKK was accompanied by Turkish commandos, many thousands of whom are now deployed against IS.

The PKK—secular, indeed Marxist—appeals to Turkish generals because, modern and businesslike, it is as much Turkish as it is Kurdish.  It also promises to organize Kurdish nationhood in a way that will not threaten Turkish interests.  Indeed, the prospect of a Sunni state in what was northern Iraq, allied to Turkey but excluding politically unreliable Arab factions, is far more attractive than the Saudi plan for unstable statelets.  It is a reasonable supposition that the PKK has been promised the chance to take over one—or, more likely, several—of the independent Kurdistans that will, it is expected, now emerge from the state-destructuring going on in the region.  IS may also have played into Turkish hands by declaring historic treaties abrogated.  What goes for Sykes-Picot might equally go for Lausanne, the 1923 treaty that formally dissolved the Ottoman Empire and limited Turkey to her current borders.

Already, the confusion in the region is mind-boggling.  Last month we witnessed the bizarre Orwellian spectacle of Pasdaran ground controllers calling in U.S. warplanes to attack a modern “Muslim International Brigade,” composed partly of Westerners.

It would now seem that even the mighty United States has been drawn into a “battlespace” that, for all its money, intelligence resources, and technology, Washington no longer understands.  Indeed, it is hopeless to try to follow the factions, their paymasters, their apparent goals, their alliances.  We are in the world of what the Kremlin calls “dramaturgies.”  Some of these have scripts; others do not.

Perhaps the most chilling comment was made early in September by Pope Francis, while visiting an Italian memorial to the dead of World War I: “In today’s world, behind the scenes, there are interests, geopolitical strategies, the lust for money and power,” which had already led to the outbreak of open conflict, indeed to “a third world war, one being fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

What is happening in Syria and Iraq today looks like a “Theater of War,” real and terrible for those caught up in it, but false and treacherous even for sophisticated powers.  One hundred years ago, in his famous epitaph for assassinated archduke Franz Ferdinand, Karl Kraus spoke of Austria-Hungary and the Balkan chaos over which she presided as “an experimental laboratory for the end of the world.”  There are uncomfortable similarities today with the “Islamic State.”