Book Review: 'The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State' by William McCants
Review by Susan Grigsby
Okay, I confess that prior to the Paris attack, I had paid little attention to the terror gang known as ISIS. I was aware of the Syrian civil war, what our government was saying and doing, and what the Russians were saying and doing. And while I probably had a better grasp of the refugee situation than many low-information voters or Fox viewers, I had not bothered to go any deeper into the weeds of who or what ISIS was, or what they wanted.
Zach Beauchamp interviewed McCants on the day after the Paris attacks for Vox. Cautiously discussing the possible reasons for the Beirut attack, the bombing of the Russian airliner, and the Paris attacks, McCants told Beauchamp that:
These attacks together, he says, suggest that ISIS is lashing out. It's been losing territory in Syria and Iraq, and this might be a response — an effort to deter further intervention against it by showing foreign powers that they'll pay a price.
In addition to writing books and his work at the Brookings Institution and Johns Hopkins, William McCants is also the founder and co-editor of the website Jihadica: Documenting the Global Jihad. In his spare time, he likes to get back to his “hobby, writing a scriptural history of the Qur’an.”
And, in one of those karmic coincidences, he has also just published his latest book on the Islamic State.
Published by Macmillan September 1, 2015 256 pages
HIs introduction begins with some of the very questions I had:
How had the Islamic State conquered so much land? Why was it so brutal? Why would such a murderous group claim to do God’s bidding and fulfill prophecy? Did it really have anything to do with Islam, the world’s second-largest religion? And what threat did it pose to the international community?
Readers who want more than sound-bite answers to these questions face a daunting challenge.
The challenge is due to the fact that most of the answers are in the Arabic language, history, culture, and religions.
Making sense of it all would require a guide proficient in Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies, and Arabic.
That’s what I am, and I am going to take you on a tour of the Islamic State.
And he does, going back to the 1999 meeting in Afghanistan between senior members of al-Qaida and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist looking to establish a caliphate throughout the Fertile Crescent. Zarqawi goes on to lead al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) after the U.S. invasion, welcoming recruits from Saddam Hussein’s security service which had been disbanded by the Bush administration. Other Sunnis joined up. Now out of power and subject to the Shi’a majority, they were willing to work together against their common enemies which included the Shi’a and the Americans.
The aims of Zarqawi and al-Qaida were quite different, as were the methods each used to achieve them. Al-Qaida did not want a sectarian civil war in Iraq—they wanted the United States out. Then they wanted to build a caliphate with the support of the Muslim people. They believed that winning the hearts and minds of the people was key to their success. Zarqawi hated the Shi’a, fomented a sectarian civil war, and instead of winning the hearts and minds of fellow Muslims, used violence to win their fear and obedience. He was determined to create a caliphate whether the people wanted it or not. He announced the formation of the Islamic State in April of 2006. Within two months he was killed by US forces.
Abu Ayyub al-Masri took over al-Qaida in Iraq after Zarqawi’s death. Al-Masri was sure that the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure, would arrive to lead the Islamic State in its final battles of the apocalypse within a year.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, most Sunnis gave little credence to the concept of an apocalypse. It was a belief held by some of the Shi’a or by a ”conspiracy-addled fringe” group, not unlike those fringe groups here in the States who repeatedly predict the exact date of the end of the world. We know they are there, and we realize that the book of Revelations could be twisted to mean what they suggest, but we don’t really take it seriously.
However, the American invasion of Iraq and the rapid fall of the Iraqi government—and with it the absence of all law enforcement—led to an outbreak of violence and sectarian civil war unlike anything the people had ever seen. This made apocalyptic explanations more likely to the Sunni public. Suddenly, faced with an invasion by infidels, the apocalypse lost its fringe group status. And nowhere was this more obvious than within the global jihadist movement.
Masri named an unknown, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, as the “commander of the faithful,” which hinted at his being the caliph. With some audacity, they announced that al-Qaida in Iraq no longer existed and that all of the jihadists had been merged into the Islamic State, without ever mentioning it to bin Laden or any of the other senior members of al Qaeda in Pakistan. McCants takes us backstage as the Islamic State tries to mend fences with al-Qaida while Islamic scholars and jihadists reacted with sharp criticism to the declaration of an Islamic State prior to its possession of any territory.
Although it was unable to control any territory to validate its claim to being a state, the Islamic State was in a position to impose the fixed punishments specified in Islamic scripture, the so-called hudud, upon any sinner they captured, which included:
beheading or crucifying bandits who kill people while robbing them; death by stoning for adultery; cutting off a hand or foot for theft; and flogging for fornication, drinking alcohol, and falsely accusing someone of fornication or adultery.
They demanded that all other insurgent groups in Iraq proclaim their allegiance. When the Islamic Army refused to do so, the Islamic State killed 30 of its members. They tortured and murdered members of other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq until some of the groups started talking to the Americans about how to get rid of the Islamic State in 2007. American and Iraqi soldiers killed al Masri and al Baghdadi in 2010. By that time, their mismanagement, excessive violence, and dogmatic belief in the coming apocalypse alienated any who might fight with them and drove them underground.
And then came the Arab Spring, which changed everything.
The chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring revolts prompted many Arab Muslims to wonder whether the end of the world was nigh. Even when the protests were peaceful, the sudden churn of Arab politics after decades of stagnation fired the apocalyptic imagination. Theories circulated online that Hosni Mubarak, the deposed president of Egypt, had really been the Antichrist prophesied in early Islamic scripture. Others swore they had seen End-Time heroes moving among the demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia.
Half the Arabs polled in 2012 believed the Mahdi, the Muslim savior, would appear any day. The mounting violence in Syria, or al-Sham, the land of the eastern Mediterranean mentioned in Islamic prophecies as the site of the final battles of the apocalypse, made the doomsday interpretation of events hard to resist.
Foreign fighters especially found the doomsday interpretation difficult to resist, and flocked into Iraq and Syria in order to participate in the final battle. And it is not just men who have answered the doomsday call. Women too have joined up, some of them acting as guards of the Yazidi sex slaves who are used by the State’s men. They also patrol the streets of Raqqa, Syria, seeking out “un-Islamic” behavior.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who holds a PhD in Quranic Sciences and was briefly held in the U.S. prison at Bucca in 2004, is now the head of the Islamic State, which stretches across Iraq and into eastern Syria. The oil fields within that territory provide much of the wealth that has given the Islamic State a war chest estimated between $1 billion and $2 billion.
The ISIS Apocalypse is more than a simple history of the Islamic State, as McCants also surveys the early failed attempts at state building in Yemen, Mali, and Somalia. He shows how the global jihadists use social media like Twitter to organize, debate, and recruit fighters.
Throughout this history of ISIS, McCants shows us not just what they have done, but why they have done it and how they have used Islamic scripture to justify their actions.
Islamic scripture is vast, encompassing not only the Qur’an but also the ahadith, the words and deeds attributed to Muhammad by his followers. Collections of ahadith run into the hundreds of volumes, and that’s just the Sunni variety. The Shi’a have their own collections, adding more volumes to the pile. Want to find passages justifying peace and concord? They’re in there. Want to find passages justifying violence? They’re in there too.
If you only have time to read one book about the Islamic State, who runs it, and what they may want, this is the book to read. It is a short book but it’s packed with information—much of it from primary sources, including leaked internal correspondence between al-Qaida and its affiliates. And what could have been a dry slog in the hands of many writers is enlivened by William McCants’ conversational tone, making it a highly readable book.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.