fb-pixel Skip to main content
First Person

Harvard lecturer Jessica Stern on the roots of ISIS

The Cambridge-based terrorism expert shines a light on the Islamic State in her new book.

Richard Howard

I did my doctorate in public policy at Harvard. Then I did a postdoc in intelligence. Then I took a fellowship with the National Security Council. At the National Security Council I was working on nuclear material security. After I left the government I threw caution to the wind and decided to go investigate the terrorists rather than think about the weapons they were using. I had no training to do that, but I was just following my curiosity.

[Coauthor J.M. Berger and I] didn’t know what would happen with the Islamic State. It could have disappeared by the time the book was out. It could have tripled in size. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s very hard to work on such a changing topic. But we know about the evolution of how the group formed, and that will always be relevant.


I guess I would say I know more what we shouldn’t do than what we should do [about ISIS]. All of the options are really bad, and we’re choosing between bad and worse. The threat of this ideology, the appeal of this ideology is not going to be addressed with military means. We have to stick to the political problem, or Iraq has to stick to the political problem — with our support, with the world’s support.

Most Muslims have no idea what [ISIS] is talking about. It’s such a bizarre interpretation [of the Koran]. It’s this subculture, in the same way as, I suppose, Christians wouldn’t recognize Identity Christianity as Christian. I concluded in my last book that religion makes good people better and bad people worse. If you are seeking justification to sexually enslave women, well, then you might be able to find a way to read the text that would support that. That doesn’t mean this is Islam.


FOR MORE Stern and Berger will talk about ISIS: The State of Terror at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store on April 6. harvard.com; 617-661-1515

Related coverage:

- ISIS’ archaeological destruction creates a new Dark Age

- Fighting the Islamic State — how much will it cost?

- Ideas: The surprising appeal of ISIS