The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State: Review

For one week only, 10/19-10/23 subscribe to follow my blog by email (the button is on the right hand side of my blog below my twitter feed) and you’ll be entered to win a free copy of The ISIS Apocalypse.

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants is short, surprisingly accessible, and does an excellent job inside its parameters. Readers will appreciate McCants’ concise presentation of a series of important factors about ISIS. McCants draws on letters written inside the Al-Qaeda organization to elucidate otherwise opaque organizational relationships. Osama Bin Laden, long demonized (and justifiably so) is revealed here to be the moderate and frustrated “parent” in relation to many branches of Al-Qaeda less restrained than OBL. Over and over again before his death we see accounts of Bin Laden urging other AQ branches to moderate themselves, to not hastily seize territory they won’t be able to keep, and to tone down the hudud punishments that so many outside ISIS find so shocking. Additionally, I really appreciated his ability to weave tweets into his analysis, something I hadn’t seen done as well as McCants does it here. If anything, I’d like him to do it even more. The readers not only get a startling picture from inside AQ but they also see the way these material issues were discussed in parallel in the digital sphere. After analyzing some of these important issues, I will get to the ultimate question I think hangs over McCants work: do the parameters of his argument work as he’s drawn them up?

In Chapter one, McCants begins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and outlines his biography and importance to the historical development of the Islamic State. Here in chapter one we already see some of the new details that McCants is able to weave into his analysis from interactions between OBL and Zarqawi. The two had very different views, especially over how to use violence, and if the group should declare a caliphate or not. Zarqawi was much more extreme than OBL, and he wanted to strike violently at Shi’ites, whom he detested, and draw them into a larger, more violent confrontation. Zarqawi thought this would not only force Sunni groups on the sidelines to join the fight, but it would also help them defeat the transitional government in Iraq. OBL, on the other hand, saw these as unnecessary provocations that would not benefit Al-Qaeda’s cause, but would provoke a larger coalition against them they wouldn’t be capable of handling. OBL and Ayman al-Zawahiri were both more focused on getting the Americans to leave Iraq and were not interested in provoking a conflict with Shiites in the short term. This tension remained after Zarqawi was killed by American forces in 2006, a key split on the jihadist side for years to come. If there’s something I wish McCants would have included here, it would be the fact that these tensions in jihadist camps are largely traceable in the 20th century to Sayyid Qutb. This is one element I am sure McCants knows well, but chose to draw outside the scope of the analysis.

Chapter two begins with the failures in leadership by Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The picture McCants paints here is nuanced and will serve readers well who oversimplify and speak of all jihadis as the same. A short passage on page 34 illustrates well the same tension we found in chapter one:

“ It is a major taboo in Islam to kill a fellow Muslim. But the Islamic State argued that those who defied its rule were apostates or rebels so it could kill them without blame.”

This again goes back to Sayyid Qutb, for it didn’t matter to ISIS if these people under their rule considered themselves Muslims or if they practiced all of the 5 Pillars- if they didn’t engage in jihad and support the jihad of the Islamic State, they were shirking a fundamental duty as Muslims, and thus they were apostates. This extreme interpretation fueled significant amounts of violence and bloodshed directed at Sunni groups and populations that crossed paths with the Islamic State at this time, and drew the ire of these people towards ISIS. Chapter two does a good job detailing a large conflict inside of Al-Qaeda when AQ leaders outside of Iraq heard these complaints and demanded that Masri answer for them. These complaints also came from tribes frustrated at the extreme violence directed at them by the Islamic State, and we see the first traces of resentment that would explode later in the Sahwa. The cooperation between the tribes and the American troops after the surge proved too much for the organization to handle at that time, and the Islamic state was largely defeated. McCants cites an interesting document about the Islamic State’s internal assessment of its own failures, but it doesn’t seem to hone in on OBL’s advice to them to stop being so brutal. Instead, they blamed mismanagement, bad communication, and tensions inside the organization between Iraqi fighters and foreign ones.

Chapter three finds the unlikely beginning of IS propaganda in the suggestion of a young member, Nayif al-Qahtani. The trajectory traced out of how the propaganda grew afterwards is quite interesting indeed. McCants continues to trace the organizational tensions of the group, and we really see the central argument start to take form here. The split at the top leadership over whether or not to declare a caliphate, whether or not to seize territory, and how much to consequently use violence against groups under their control was fundamentally won by the more extreme wing of the group, culminating in the complete separation of the Islamic State from its former parent group Al-Qaeda. OBL and others still wanted to drive out the far enemy and win hearts and minds in the process rather than skipping straight to declaring a caliphate and expanding it, yet those on the ground like Zarqawi, Masri, Baghdadi and others wanted nothing to do with this patient approach. I see a parallel here not only between the question of whether or not to act like a state, but also the very dynamics other studies have found in states themselves; central governments often have proven unable to get distant territories to be governed by their deputies exactly as they wished. As much as the transnational dimension of Al-Qaeda scares counterterrorism officials, it proved to be a divisive force which prevented the organization from acting more cohesively.

Chapter four brings readers up close to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi by acquainting them with his personal trajectory. He studied Islamic studies in the 1990s, at a university founded in 1989, which McCants characterizes as “an integral part of (Saddam’s) effort to patronize Islamic Studies to offset the growth of ultraconservative salafism, which he viewed as a threat to his rule.”  After being thrown in prison by the American occupying forces, Baghdadi made many connections inside prison, something well documented by Martin Chulov, among others. I found very interesting the connection here to Haji Bakr, the man described in Christoph Reuters’ exposé about the Ba’thist roots of the Islamic State. Haji Bakr was apparently an important ally of Baghdadi’s inside the group. Not long after his rise to power, Baghdadi carried out a Saddam-like purge of opponents inside the state. On pages 81 and 90, McCants engages with one of the important ongoing discussions that has emerged in studies of ISIS, that of the relationship with the tribes in areas where the Islamic State rules.

Chapter five details the various understandings of the apocalypse influencing those fighting from the Sunni or Shi’i sides, though that’s not to imply the war is entirely about that difference. It is certainly viewed as such by some of those fighting, though. It’s important to highlight, as McCants does here, that some of those fighting are not there because they feel they must overthrow Bashar al-Assad, but rather because they see their participation as part of the events leading up to the apocalypse. It’s important that McCants details this but doesn’t take it too far- he doesn’t insist the entire conflict must be understood this way, but rather that some on the ground are influenced by these ideas. The chapter ends by returning to the author’s central argument, and questions of declaring a caliphate and acting like a state. The quote he adds here from Islamic scholar  Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi speaks volumes, and gets straight back to the ongoing argument detailed earlier:

“ What concerns me greatly is… whether this caliphate will be a refuge for oppressed people and a haven for every Muslim or will become a sword hanging over the Muslims who oppose it.” 

Chapter six proceeds from June 2014 in Mosul, connecting the ongoing argument over Islamic governance to the events on the ground. McCants explicitly argues that those who insisted on declaring the caliphate not only won the argument against their more reserved, and now displaced leaders, but that it proved to be quite a successful tactic for them. McCants shows that even after the declaration of the caliphate dissent continued even amongst jihadist scholars, with prominent scholars like Maqdisi quoted above and Abu Qatada al-Filistini speaking out in opposition to the caliphate, while Al-Qaeda took a different route and attempted to declare their own caliph, Mullah Omar. The section ‘Governing the Caliphate’ begins on p. 135, and I really wish it were longer. This is the material I really hoped there would be more of, the details on the ground of how the Islamic State has been governing the territories under its control. He comes, on p.139, to an interesting point about smoking. McCants argues that the jihadist reaction to smoking is a kind of bellwether; one can seem to guess a lot about how the jihadist in question will approach larger questions of governance based on their view of whether or not smoking should be banished. McCants calls this the ‘hearts and minds’ debate and his choice of words is quite interesting, as it overlaps with much of the counterinsurgency doctrine developed by the USA. The Americans came to see that they could not achieve their military objectives in areas where the populations remained hostile to them, and that they needed to “win hearts and minds” on the ground. This ties into the jihadist debate over governance through the question- how much should Islamic authorities antagonize the populations under their rule while they are still attempting to establish themselves? OBL and Zawahiri, among others came to see the tactics of hudud punishments as something that alienated more people than they won over or brought in line. McCants pounds nails into the argument in the conclusion when he asks why the Islamic State was willing to be so brutal to Muslim and non-Muslim groups alike by stating bluntly that “..gore and violence work.” He ties together the rest of the argument’s loose ends- many of those fighting for ISIS on the ground are indeed ignorant of the complexities of Islamic scripture, but “brutal insurgency doesn’t necessarily follow from Islamic scripture.” He re-emphasizes the extent to which this group left Osama Bin Laden behind, and argues that contradictions in the group’s actions can be understood by looking at how they’ve put building a state above all else and do not act with the reckless abandon one would expect of people convinced the apocalypse is near.

McCants closes with his answers to the question, “what should be done?” by arguing for policies he admits are basically identical to the coalition’s current military strategy. I don’t take issue with his answers about how to proceed, but rather as I stated at the outset, I am not sure about the boundaries of McCants’ study. I think his argument about jihadi governance and the ‘hearts and minds’ approach is well formulated and he uses his sources well to support it. It also helps readers trace the questions of doctrine and strategy well from the arguments over them to their implementation on the ground. Readers leave with a nuanced picture not only of the groups involved, but of jihadists and Islam more broadly. This is where I see McCants’ study to be most successful. It’s especially hard to argue with because he used so many primary sources from the individuals involved.

More broadly, details about the power vacuum in Iraq after the American invasion are not present, drawn outside the bounds of the book. Likewise, details of the developments on the ground in Syria are barely present if at all. McCants teases around the question of tribes and ISIS at multiple points in the book but I see this as one of the most important points to be analyzed. As McCants acknowledges, if the Islamic State was defeated by the combination of the Sahwa uprising among the Iraqi tribes and the surge of American troops, this open question remains a hot topic of debate. Can another Sahwa take place to once again displace the Islamic State? McCants answers this in two sentences in the conclusion, and even refers to Assad’s government as “Shiite” in the process, an oversimplification at best. I would’ve liked a much more thorough treatment. What about questions of historical changes in Iraq and Syria? Or the lasting influence of Saddam’s brutal rule? He most certainly covers the “strategy” and “doomsday vision” of the Islamic State, it’s the “history” part I think could have been broader. My picky complaints aside, this is very well written and will be a very informative book for many that is easily readable. This is a solid book to recommend to people who don’t know much, or anything about the topic besides what they’ve seen on the news.

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