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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.

In some ways, the difference between Bin Laden and the Islamic State’s leaders is generational. For Bin Laden’s cohort, the apocalypse wasn’t a great recruiting pitch. Governments in the Middle East two decades ago were more stable, and sectarianism was more subdued. It was better to recruit by calling to arms against corruption and tyranny than against the Antichrist. Today, though, the apocalyptic recruiting pitch makes more sense. Titanic upheavals convulse the region in the very places mentioned in the prophecies. Sunnis and Shi’a are at war, both appealing to their own versions of prophecies to justify their politics.

The French scholar of Muslim apocalypticism, Jean-Pierre Filiu, has argued that most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. It was something the Shi’a or the conspiracy-addled fringe obsessed over, not right-thinking Sunnis. Sure, the Sunni fringe wrote books about the fulfillment of Islamic prophecies. They mixed Muslim apocalyptic villains in with UFOs, the Bermuda triangle, Nostradamus and the prognostications of evangelical Christians, all to reveal the hidden hand of the international Jew, the Antichrist, who cunningly shaped world events. But the books were commercial duds.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the stupendous violence that followed dramatically increased the Sunni public’s appetite for apocalyptic explanations of a world turned upside down. A spate of bestsellers put the United States at the center of the End-Times drama, a new “Rome” careering throughout the region in a murderous stampede to prevent violence on its own shores. The main antagonists of the End of Days, the Jews, were now merely supporting actors. Even conservative Sunni clerics who had previously tried to tamp down messianic fervor couldn’t help but conclude that “the triple union constituted by the Antichrist, the Jews, and the new Crusaders” had joined forces “to destroy the Muslims.”

The Iraq war also changed apocalyptic discourse in the global jihadist movement. The languid apocalypticism of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri now had to contend with the urgent apocalypticism of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and his immediate successors. Iraq, the site of a prophesied bloodbath between true Muslims and false, was engulfed in a sectarian civil war. As Zarqawi saw it, the Shi’a had united with the Jews and Christians under the banner of the Antichrist to fight against the Sunnis. The Final Hour must be approaching, to be heralded by the rebirth of the caliphate, the Islamic empire that had disappeared and whose return was prophesied.

Because of the impending Final Hour, Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, quickly dissolved al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to establish the Islamic State in 2006. Masri rushed to found the State because he believed the Mahdi, the Muslim savior, would come within the year. To his thinking, the caliphate needed to be in place to help the Mahdi fight the final battles of the apocalypse. Anticipating the imminent conquest of major Islamic cities as foretold in the prophecies, he ordered his commanders in the field to conquer the whole of Iraq to prepare for the Mahdi’s coming and was convinced they would succeed in three months. The Islamic State’s forces fanned out across the country, only to be recalled a week later because they were spread too thin. When those close to Masri criticized him for making strategic decisions on an apocalyptic timetable, Masri retorted, “the Mahdi will come any day.”

    -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)

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)

In mid-April 2013, Abu Ahmad noticed a dark red-brown car pull up in front of the headquarters of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM), a Syrian jihadi group led by Abu al-Atheer, in the northern Syrian town of Kafr Hamra.

One of Abu Ahmad's friends, a jihadi commander, walked up to him and whispered in his ear: "Look carefully inside the vehicle."

The car was nothing special: not new enough to attract attention but not a jalopy, either. It wasn't armored and it did not have a license plate.

Inside the vehicle sat four men. Abu Ahmad recognized none of them. The man sitting behind the driver wore a folded black balaclava like a cap. On top of it was a black shawl, falling over his shoulders. He had a long beard. Except for the driver, all occupants held small machine guns on their laps.

Abu Ahmad could see that there was no extra security at the gate of the headquarters. As usual, just two armed fighters stood guard in front of the entrance. The internet connection at the headquarters was working normally. To him, there didn't seem to be any sign that today was different from any other day.

But after the four men got out of the car and disappeared into the headquarters, the same jihadi commander walked up to him again and whispered "You have just seen Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi."

Since 2010, Baghdadi had been the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al Qaeda's affiliate in that war-torn country. According to Baghdadi's own account, he sent Abu Muhammad al-Jolani as his representative to Syria in 2011, instructing him to set up the Nusra Front to wage jihad there. Until the beginning of 2013, ISI and Nusra worked together. But Baghdadi wasn't satisfied. He wanted to combine al Qaeda's Iraqi and Syrian affiliates to create one outfit that stretched across both countries -- with him, of course, as the leader.

Every morning, for five days in a row, the red-brown car dropped off Baghdadi and his deputy, Haji Bakr, at the headquarters of MSM in Kafr Hamra. Before sunset, the same car with the same driver would pick them up from the headquarters and take Baghdadi to a secret location for the night. The next morning, the car would come back to drop off Baghdadi and Bakr.

"The sheikh is here to convince everybody to abandon Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jolani," one of the participants in the talks told Abu Ahmad. "Instead, everybody should join him and unite under the banner of ISIS, which soon will become a state."

Baghdadi, however, faced one big problem in realizing his goal. The assembled emirs explained to the ISI chief that most of them had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chosen successor and the leader of al Qaeda. How could they suddenly abandon Zawahiri and al Qaeda and switch to Baghdadi?

According to Abu Ahmad, they asked Baghdadi during the meeting: Have you pledged allegiance to Zawahiri?

Baghdadi told them that he had indeed pledged allegiance, but hadn't declared it publicly, per Zawahiri's request. But Baghdadi assured the men that he was acting under the command of the al Qaeda leader.

The jihadi leaders had no way to check if this claim was true. Zawahiri was perhaps the most difficult person in the world to contact -- he had not been seen in public in years, and is still in hiding, most probably somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

With Zawahiri unable to mediate the dispute himself, the jihadi leaders had to make up their own minds. If Baghdadi acted on behalf of Zawahiri, there was no doubt they had to follow the order to join ISIS. But if Baghdadi was freelancing, his plan to take over Nusra and other groups was an act of mutiny. It would divide al Qaeda and create fitna, or strife, between all the jihadi armies.

So the commanders gave Baghdadi a conditional allegiance. "They said to him: 'If it is true what you are saying, then we will support you,'" Abu Ahmad told us.

Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important, he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the world.

The participants differed greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria. Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them. A state with a defined territory and institutions was a sitting duck.

Abu al-Atheer, the MSM emir, had already told his fighters before the arrival of Baghdadi that he was very much against declaring a state. "Some people are talking about this unwise idea," Atheer told his men. "What kind of madman declares a state during this time of war?!"

Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Chechen jihadis, was equally hesitant about the idea of creating a state, said Abu Ahmad. There was a reason why Osama bin Laden had been hiding all these years -- to avoid getting killed by the Americans. Declaring a state would be an open invitation to the enemy to attack them.

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.


Grade: (A)


William McCants Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: William McCants (Brookings)
    -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
    -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: The Iraq Report: 10 years after the Islamic State's 'caliphate': A decade since the Islamic State declared its 'caliphate' in Iraq and Syria, its legacy of violence continues to shape the country's path towards recovery. (The New Arab, 02 July, 2024)
-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)
    -REVIEW: of Degrade and Destroy by Michael R. Gordon (Ralph L. Defalco iii, 9/06/22, Law & Liberty)