The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. William McCants. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
Apocalyptic anticipation thriving in a sectarian bloodbath is the focus of this text, which was released alongside a biography of the group’s leader available from Brookings. Despite the claims of a recent anonymous author, there is nothing “bewildering” or “alien” about the Islamic State. On the contrary, ISIS is a terrorist group built up by an insurgency, which melded with other networks, and thrives on the ambivalence of the international community. William McCants’ contribution to the study of this group is to add a theological perspective that helps to explain the group’s ability to recruit and control people. (For a related perspective focused on insurgent strategies, see this report from Valens Global.)
McCants’ explanation focuses on apocalyptic myths mixing with authoritarian apparatchiks. Understanding these relationships completely, the author notes, is not possible. Analysis, at least in the press, seems to have been paralyzed by those apparent contradictions and the inevitable entropy that they seem to imply. In the conclusion, McCants shoves aside these often asked questions and argues that it is more important to assess the biases the group holds and the desires that they strive to fulfill. McCants discusses other revolutionary and apocalyptic movements in the history of Islam, and notes that these groups envisioned remaining in existence for some time. The Islamic State seems to be operating in the same way. Despite the group’s seizure of the plains of Armageddon, which appeals to the jihadi grunts, this group is building something more permanent though at the same time terrifying.
To the extent that Al Qaeda has a coherent strategy — and McCants also details ways in which its affiliates have veered off course — it has focused on the Far Enemy and been reluctant to inflict casualties on a substantial scale among fellow Sunnis. The group’s leadership has internalized its experiences in Algeria and Egypt, where bloodshed provoked a popular backlash. As this book points out, Zarqawi was not a part of that cadre of leaders nor did he value the lessons learned from more nationalistic terrorist movements. Zarqawi was always on the margins of bin Laden’s network. His views were too extreme to be fully included. But, at the mesopotamian fault line between Shiite and Sunni, he would implement his bloody vision.
The Islamic State is in essence the inheritors of Zarqawi’s religious and terroristic ideals. He left his bloody, sectarian mark on the war and his actions continue to influence events. The text provides a quick though robust outline of the group’s history in Iraq after Zarqawi’s death. The familiar story of “the academy,” or the massive American prison complex at Camp Bucca, is recounted. At this facility, hardcore jihadis melded with some of what was left of the Baath machine in Iraq. As the US successfully targeted senior leadership, new opportunities were made available for rising insurgent entrepreneurs.
McCants also provides the expanding literature on the Islamic State with a new detail on the group’s post-Zarqawi struggles. The Islamic State operated on “an apocalyptic schedule” (p. 15). The group’s de facto leader at the time, an Egyptian jihadi, expected the sudden appearance of the end of days and so any sort of state or caliphate, even only in his imagination, would do. Hence the subsequent flawed efforts at state building — really just brutality in a territorial expression — and some of the success with the Surge countering that nightmare.
Another contribution of this book is to point out the role myth has played in fueling the bloodshed. Prophesy and apocalyptic imagery were prevalent during political conflicts in the distant past. The insurgent groups operating on the same battlefields today draw inspiration and at times guidance from those tales. As McCants puts it, the ancient politics have “evaporated” but, “the prophetic residue remained” (p. 23). Those ancient politics rhyme with the current state of affairs. The Abbasids used apocalyptic imagery to justify their revolution and establish a new caliphate. Interestingly, the Shiite and Sunni jihadis have swapped banner colors between one another. They don’t seem to mind though.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri came from a generation and a class that looked down on apocalypticism. An important weakness with a movement founded on apocalyptic messianism is that failure would fatally undermine the movement. If the messiah dies as a dud, the movement dies with him. The Islamic State does not yet have a messiah, but the Caliph is in place to eventually facilitate the messiah’s arrival. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, was born from the failed and more underground jihads in the Middle East and North Africa and has designed its organization with those experiences in mind. The Islamic State shares in some of those experiences (Nusra shares in more though), but the sectarian nightmare in Iraq has yielded different conclusions for the splinter group turned quasi-state.
Take, for example, the grotesque legal codes in place under Salafist (or Saudi) rule. For a Salafist, applying the judicial and governance strictures from Muhammad’s era are essential. For most of the leaders within Al Qaeda, this is something to be realized gradually in a pragmatic balance. For any groups that wish to rival Al Qaeda, applying these harsh strictures quickly enables them to declare that they are more in accordance with the will of the divine. It also helps that these punishments seem to attract the truly depraved from around the world.
Why the onslaught of unprecedented migrations far surpassing the anti-Soviet jihad to Syria and Iraq? What does this mean for the world today? McCants points to the apocalyptic ideology of the Islamic State to explain its brutality as well as its appeal. Unlike what others have claimed, this is not an unintelligible situation. The problems here are understandable, and McCants illuminates a key aspect of the situation. Whether policymakers in Europe or North America will acknowledge what is at stake is the real question.
Chris Zeitz is a former member of the U.S. Army who served in military intelligence. While in the Army, he also attended the Defense Language School in Monterey and studied Arabic. He has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University and is a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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