The ISIS apocalypse

The ISIS apocalypse

William Armstrong -
The ISIS apocalypse

In this this file photo released on May 4, 2015, on a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, ISIS militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad, northeast Syria. AP Photo

‘The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State’ by William McCants (Macmillan, 256 pages, $27)

The Western media has been obsessed with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) for almost two years. The jihadist group’s atrocities are carefully coordinated to stir horrified tabloid headlines and social media clickbait, and observers have been happy to oblige. Publishers have also rushed to release books on such a sensational topic; bookshops are now full of volumes with spectacular titles about the barbarity of bloodthirsty jihadists. 

The ISIS apocalypse“The ISIS Apocalypse” by William McCants, a director at the Brookings Institution, has a deceptively grabby title. But its focus is less on the shocking butchery that gets such attention in the West and more on the origins, development and strategy of ISIS and its predecessors. The book is cool-headed and deeply researched, drawing on leaked and captured emails and other messages to give something like an inside account of ISIS’s bloody rise across swathes of Syria and Iraq.

At its center is what McCants calls the “major changing of the guard in the global jihadist movement,” when ISIS supplanted its former master Al-Qaeda. The book explains ISIS’s ideological and tactical distinction from Al-Qaeda led by Osama Bin Laden and his “lieutenant” Ayman al-Zawahiri - a distinction that goes back to ISIS’s predecessors in Iraq, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. 

Of course, the most germane pre-ISIS experience was in Iraq. Early dreams of setting up a jihadi caliphate focused on the Taliban’s Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, but the American overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was a rude awakening. The chaos after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 gave Al-Qaeda a second chance. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had fought in Afghanistan and had set up a jihadi group in Jordan, had also planted militant cells across Iraq by coordinating the infiltration of Arab Islamists via Syria. When the Americans invaded, Zarqawi’s jihadists were ready to greet them - we all know what happened next.

Amid his campaign of bombings, beheadings, and ambushes in the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi’s fighters pledged allegiance to Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and would become known as the Islamic State of Iraq. But the alliance was never easy: Bin Laden and Zawahiri were cautious; Zarqawi was impatient. Zawahiri repeatedly advised Zarqawi to proceed slowly and warned him not to establish an emirate before securing the popular support of the Muslim masses and before the U.S. forces withdrew: The economic wellbeing of their subjects should be prioritized and religious punishments meted out leniently. Zarqawi had a far more explicitly sectarian vision. In McCants words, “his strategy was to ignite a sectarian civil war … He wanted to first overthrow local autocrats and eliminate the ‘traitorous’ Shi’a,’ whom he believed were collaborating with the Americans to subjugate the Sunnis.” He reveled in broadcasting gruesome footage of bombings and beheadings and applied religious punishments without mercy. 

Bin Laden and Zawahiri tried to put the rampant Zarqawi on a tighter leash, while maintaining the front of Al-Qaeda jihadi unity. Such flagrant broadcasting of beheadings may thrill “zealous young men,” Zawahiri warned, but the Muslim masses “will never find them palatable.” In general, the jihadists “shouldn’t stir questions in the hearts and minds of the people about the benefit of our actions … we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim] community.”

As the Islamic State of Iraq crumbled after 2007, Bin Laden and Zawahiri seemed vindicated. In the “Awakening” from 2006, Sunni tribal groups in Iraq rose up against Al-Qaeda. Chafing under its violently fanatic religious program that terrorized all opposition, Sunni Arabs eventually partnered with American forces to rid their communities of Al-Qaeda. Zarqawi had been killed by a targeted U.S. strike in 2006, but it was due in large part to his savage tactics that the flag of the Islamic State appeared so trampled underfoot at the time. 

However, online jihadist fanboys and Al-Qaeda affiliates kept the dream of the caliphate alive. And the tumult following the Arab Spring renewed their fortunes. The situation in many parts of Iraq and Syria provided a lethal cocktail that would allow the Islamic State to flourish in the vacuum. “The restive Sunnis between Syria and Iraq were ripe for the ruling by someone who wanted to establish a state and had enough manpower, muscle, and managerial experience to do it,” McCants writes. By 2014, “Iraq’s Sunni tribes no longer trusted Baghdad, the Americans were gone, and government troops could no longer pacify the Arab Sunni hinterland in Western Iraq.” In civil war-torn Syria, Bashar al-Assad opted not to target ISIS, keeping it around as a bogeyman to antagonize his enemies and scare his subjects. Damascus focused its firepower on other rebel groups that posed an immediate threat to al-Assad’s rule, while releasing scores of Sunni extremist militants from jail in the knowledge that they would taint the rebels. 

From 2012, ISIS distinguished itself from other jihadists for its sheer brutality. It had actually broken off from Al-Qaeda in 2013 after disagreements over tactics and control of resources in the tribal politics of eastern Syria. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group started referring to itself as Islamic State and declared the establishment of a caliphate in 2014, symbolically bulldozing the “artificial border” between Syria and Iraq. ISIS’s predecessors failed due to cruelty, zealotry, and arrogance, but by 2014 those were the very qualities that made ISIS so successful. “While other rebel groups worked together to overthrow governments, the State was busy creating its own,” McCants writes. “It filled its leadership with ex-Baathists from Saddam’s military and intelligence services who had been fighting an insurgency for a decade and were accustomed to running an authoritarian government.” 

Also key in ISIS’s rapid expansion were the thousands of foreigners flocking to join, attracted by a potent propaganda mix of apocalypticism, puritanism, sectarianism, ultraviolence, and promises of a caliphate. McCants’ book includes an appendix on various Sunni Islamic prophecies of the End Times, which he sees as central to ISIS’s appeal. Some Sunni prophecies say the land of al-Sham, another name for a region of northern Syria, will be the “land of gathering” before the Day of Judgment. ISIS lost many fighters trying to take the small, militarily unimportant town of Dabiq northeast of Aleppo, believing it is where an epic battle will take place against the Christian forces of the West, resulting in a Muslim victory and the beginning of the end of the world. ISIS’s English-language online magazine is even named “Dabiq,” highlighting the importance of the town in apocalyptic prophesy. Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was also fixated on apocalyptic thinking, but ISIS stokes messianic fire rather than suppresses it. It wants God’s kingdom now rather than later.

As befits a volume by a wonky DC think tanker, McCants ends with a series of “policy recommendations.” In this case they are not exactly wrong, but they are disappointingly unoriginal. He supports air strikes to contain ISIS and hollow out its “endure and expand” slogan, while also providing air cover and intelligence to Sunni tribal militias and Arab and Kurdish rebel groups. He thinks working with the Shia is unnecessary as they have a powerful sponsor in Iran, while working with al-Assad is also a no-no as his regime deliberately fueled ISIS’s rise. These recommendations are largely in line with the Obama administration’s much-criticized strategy; McCants argues that the current unsatisfactory results are a sobering reflection of a crisis to which there are no easy answers.

Equally sobering is the book’s conclusion that ISIS-style jihadism is likely to persist in the region, whatever the fate of ISIS itself. The current state of meltdown in the Arab world “all but ensure[s] that some jihadists will follow IS’s playbook,” McCants warns. Even if ISIS is ultimately degraded and destroyed, “the disappearance of a jihadist statelet [would not] mean the disappearance of the jihadists.”