The Islamic State’s brutality and its insistence on apocalypse now and caliphate now set it apart from al-Qaeda, of which it was a part until 2014. We’re used to thinking of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden as the baddest of the bad, but the Islamic State is worse. Bin Laden tamped down messianic fervor and sought popular Muslim support; the return of the early Islamic empire, or caliphate, was a distant dream. In contrast, the Islamic State’s members fight and govern by their own version of Machiavelli’s dictum “It is far safer to be feared than loved.” They stir messianic fervor rather than suppress it. They want God’s kingdom now rather than later. This is not Bin Laden’s jihad.
Present at the Creation : The never-told-before story of the meeting that led to the creation of ISIS, as explained by an Islamic State insider. (HARALD DOORNBOS, JENAN MOUSSA, AUGUST 16, 2016, Foreign Policy)
As The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright is the singular text on Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9-11, so The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants is the outstanding book on Baghdadi and company.
Obviously a group that has caused as much death, misery and Mayhem as ISIS has to be taken seriously, but an account of its history and ideology can't help but be comical. Nevermind how frequently Mr. McCants portrait of a rising jihadi and the imminent threat he represents ends with the character being killed by a US missile attack, consider instead just the impossibility of ISIS ever realizing its goals. We can start with the one the Al Qaeda skeptics enunciated above and continue from there:
(1) In order to be a legitimate potential political alternative, the jihadists have to demonstrate that they can take and hold or create a state. But the attempt does nothing, in reality, but to make it easier for the US to acquire targets. In essence, none of the public structure of a state can be brought into existence without our proceeding to destroy it.
(2) On the other hand, the inability to institute a caliphate--a state run by the jihadis' notions of totalitarian Islamicist governance--delegitimizes the group and its message.
(3) Suppose, however, that reality were radically different and the US and the West (and the Turks and the Iranians, etc.) all ceased paying attention to the Arabian Penninsula and allowed the Salafi radicals to establish their caliphate. As Mr. McCants recounts, the legitimacy of that regime would depend on its capacity to deliver decent lives to those living under its rule. And, of course, it would have to exceed the capacity of rival regimes--the Western model--to deliver prosperity, security, justice, etc., in order to demonstrate its superiority. As a slew of other isms have amply proven, there are no real competitors here at the End of History.
(4) Legitimacy would also depend on Muslims choosing to live under such a regime, which they stubbornly refuse to do--taking up arms against it or fleeing to the hated West. Indeed, ISIS has been forced to use such brutal methods to repress the locals that it tends to undermine its own claims to representing the popular will, fails to govern in conformity with the standards required of the genuine Caliphate and makes the prospect of its success repellent to even those Sunni Muslims it is ostensibly trying to appeal to.
(5) Nor is it just the methods that ISIS employs that are problematic; it is also the men wielding those methods. The military forces of ISIS are dependent on former Ba'athist officers, ignorant foreign fighters attracted to the war for non-religious reasons, and various and sundry psycho and sociopaths. The resulting brutality and corruption are hardly consistent with the idea of establishing a religious utopia. And the presence of non-Arabs is a tough sell in what are still tribal regions. Even if Allah were sending an army to help the faithful restore the Caliphate, this surely isn't the best he could do, is it?
(6) And here we get to the theological problems that ISIS faces. It's not just the inferior quality of the armed forces and their leadership, but the whole movement depends on the idea that it is being led by the Allah-sent Mahdi who is preparing the world for the End Times. It is sufficient for us as Christians that this is nothing more than heresy and that there is no possibility of a Mahdi to recognize the futility of the whole enterprise. But, taken on its own terms, the declaration by ISIS that the Mahdi is here and the Caliphate restored requires--as a purely theological matter--that they succeed. A Mahdi and a Caliphate that are being pummeled as relentlessly as those in Syria today stand as a rebuke to the theology itself. The Apocalypse is, obviously, not supposed to result in Christians, Jews, Shi'a, Alawites, Kurds, Persians, Turks and the rest standing victorious on the battlefield while the jihadi lower their black battle flag and run for cover.
Taken as a whole, these weaknesses make it clear that while the Salafi jihadists were a terribly destructive force, briefly, and will likely remain a terrorist threat for some time, they are not and never were a serious geo-political threat. There can be no Clash of Civilizations where only one exists.
-AUTHOR SITE: William McCants (Brookings)
-AUTHOR WEBSITE: jihadica.com
-WIKIPEDIA: Will McCants
-BOOK SITE: The ISIS Apocalypose by William McCants (MacMillan)
-VIDEO LECTURE: The ISIS apocalypse: The history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State: On September 22, William McCants discussed ISIS’ strategy and the future of jihadi terrorism. NPR Counterterrorism Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston moderated the discussion. (Brookings Institution, Sep 23, 2015)
-VIDEO INTERVIEW: The Foxhole: William McCants on ISIS, the Koran, and the future of the caliphate (James Rosen, January 05, 2016 FoxNews.com)
-VIDEO LECTURE: William McCants: "The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State" (William McCants, December 9, 2015
-VIDEO LECTURE: 2015 Meet the Author - William McCants - "The ISIS Apocalypse" (Marines' Memorial Club & Hotel, Dec 15, 2015)
-ESSAY: How Western Europe Became ISIS’s Favorite Battleground (William McCants, March 23, 2016, TIME)
-ESSAY: How the Islamic State Declared War on the World: The group is more than a terrorist organization — it's a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and it's expanding its reach to targets across the globe. (WILL MCCANTS, NOVEMBER 16, 2015, Foreign Policy)
-ESSAY: How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden: Brutality and doomsday visions have made ISIL the world’s most feared terrorist group (William McCants, August 19, 2015, Politico)
-ESSAY: A new Salafi politics (WILL MCCANTS, OCTOBER 12, 2012, Foreign Policy)
-ESSAY: Black Flag (WILLIAM MCCANTS, NOVEMBER 7, 2011, Foreign Policy)
-ESSAY: U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment (William McCants, Clint Watts, December 2012, FPRI)
-INTERVIEW: Inside The Islamic State’s Apocalyptic Beliefs: An interview with expert Will McCants. (Nick Robins-Early, 9/26/15, The Huffington Post)
-INTERVIEW: Why ISIS would attack Paris, according to an expert (Zack Beauchamp, November 14, 2015, Vox)
-AUDIO DISCUSSION : The Islamic State’s Destruction of Antiquities And How it Fits With A Broader Strategy For Power (Diane Rehm Show, 8/26/15)
-VIDEO DISCUSSION: “The Islamic State: Understanding its Ideology and Theology” (EPOC Faith Angle Forum, May 2015)
-VIDEO: The ISIS apocalypse: The history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State (William McCants and Tamara Cofman Wittes, September 2015, Brookings)
-VIDEO INTERVIEW: How the Islamic State group justifies brutality with an apocalyptic vision (PBS Newshour, November 2, 2015)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Inside ISIS philosophy, Will McCants on the inscrutable enemy (The Current, November 11, 2015)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Dr. William McCants on the ISIS Apocalypse (Mark Stout, Johns Hopkins University, September 21, 2015)
-INTERVIEW: ISIS makes sure to avoid one apocalyptic prophecy about the Antichrist (Pamela Engel, September 25, 2015, Business Insider)
-ARTICLE: Apocalypse prophecies drive Islamic State strategy, recruiting efforts (Guy Taylor, 1/05/15, The Washington Times)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Is ISIS A Solvable Problem? Podcast With John Sides and Will McCants (Allen McDuffee | September 25, 2015, Governmentality)
-BOOK LIST: After the Paris Attacks: Five Books About ISIS and Religious Violence (Alicia von Stamwitz | Dec 07, 2015, Publishers Weekly)
-BOOK LIST: 10 Must-Read Books on the Evolution of Terrorism in the Middle East (ANNA RUSSELL, Nov 17, 2015, WSJ)
-ARCHIVES: William McCants (FPRI)
-ARCHIVES: mccants (Foreign Policy)
-ARCHIVES: mccants (Politico)
-REVIEW: of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. By William McCants (The Economist)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apolcalypse (John Powell, Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalypse (Tobin Harshaw, Bloomberg)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalypse ()
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalypse (Hisham Melhem, Foreign Affairs)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalypse (Susan Grigsby, DailyKos)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalypse (Olivier Moos, Religioscope)
-REVIEW: of ISIS Apocalyps (Tim Chaillies)
Book-related and General Links:
-WIKIPEDIA: Jean-Pierre Filiu
-ESSAY: Ghosts of the caliphate: Fantasies of reviving the caliphate reveal a deep crisis of legitimacy within Sunni Islam (Jean-Pierre Filiu, November 25, 2007, Prospect)
-REPORT: Foundations of the Islamic State Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005–2010 (Patrick B. Johnston, Jacob Shapiro, Howard J. Shatz, Benjamin Bahney, Danielle F. Jung, Patrick Ryan, Jonathan Wallace, Rand)
-ESSAY: How ISIS Spread in the Middle East (DAVID IGNATIUS, 11/01/15, THE ATLANTIC)
-ESSAY: If Islamic State loses Fallujah and Raqqa, the ‘caliphate’ will be over (AVI ISSACHAROFF, May 28, 2016, Times of Israel)
-ARTICLE: Inside the hunt for Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Intelligence officials have pieced together details of the recent movements of the world’s most wanted man (Martin Chulov in Sinjar and Spencer Ackerman, 27 May 2016, The Guardian)
-ARTICLE: Isis apocalypse expert says sending ground troops to Syria is the 'worst trap' the West could fall into (Adam Withnall, 8 December 2015, Independent)
-ARTICLE: U.S. Seeks to Avoid Ground War Welcomed by Islamic State (RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, DECEMBER 7, 2015, NY Times)
-VIDEO LECTURE: The Strategic Logic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Robert Pape, Mar 26, 2015, Emory University : Halle Speaker Series)
-ESSAY: After Brussels, ISIS's strategy: Tunisia, Paris, and now Brussels: escalating attacks on western targets reflect a shift of focus by ISIS. (PAUL ROGERS 25 March 2016, Open Democracy)
-ESSAY: Daesh? ISIS? Islamic State? Why what we call the Paris attackers matters. (Amanda Bennett, November 25, 2015, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: What ISIS Really Wants: The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it. (GRAEME WOOD, March 2015 , The Atlantic)
-REVIEW: of The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present by Reza Pankhurst (Mahan Abedin, Religioscope)
-REVIEW: of ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger (Charles Cameron, Pragati)
-ESSAY: Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t have been surprised by the rise of Isis: TE Lawrence was always angry about the British betrayal of the Arabs in the Sykes-Picot agreement. A century on, the borders it established are falling apart (Giles Fraser, 8 Apr 2016, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: European far-Right populism and ISIS: Two sides of the same coin?: From the populist rhetoric of Germany's far-Right AfD to ISIS’s extremist religious ideology, polarizing discourse has universal features (Omar Alsawadi, 26 March 2021, , openDemocracy)
-ESSAY: Lure of the Caliphate: Apocalyptic movements under a charismatic leader have always appealed to people who are at the margins or who are seeking some new source of meaning. Until we properly recognize this tradition we will have difficulty fulfilling Obama’s goal of destroying ISIS. (Malise Ruthven, February 28, 2015, NY Review of Books)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd