A number of essays have been published recently about the history and remarkable expansion of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS henceforth) or more pejoratively as Daesh. Journalist Michael Weiss and Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts, 2015) explains how an Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group has evolved into an international jihadi army able to defeat the Iraqi regular forces and seize a territory overlapping Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. British Middle East correspondent for the Independent Patrick Cockburn provides in The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso Books, 2015) a more polemical report of the context of the rise of the organisation in Iraq. ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015) authored by two specialists on terrorism: Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, offers a less granular analysis than M. Weiss and Hassan, but with a more policy oriented approach and an in-depth look at its relations with Al-Qaeda.
William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State is a welcome addition to the list. A fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, McCants is also an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University and has held various government and think tank positions, notably as a U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.
ISIS is a splinter group that has evolved from its Al-Qaeda matrix in Iraq into a successful insurrectional organisation, controlling a territory overlapping Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, and motivated by an ideological blend of Salafism, Jihadism and strong eschatological beliefs. Able to conduct military operations against regular armed forces, ISIS has also demonstrated a rare capacity to set up the structures of a proto-State: delivering services, collecting taxes, controlling the market (from slaves to staples), purging and rewriting school curriculum and applying (summary) Shari’a-based justice.
As its predecessors, The ISIS Apocalypse provides a detailed history of this singular organisation and its fractured trajectory since the constitution of the clandestine network of Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi (1966-2006) in Iraq (2002-2003). With the added flavour of behind-the-scene trajectories, the book deals with the ups and downs that comes with establishing a new brand and the “state of confusion” that prevailed in its inception between Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and the leadership of Al-Qaeda, and among their followers trying to decipher whom their allegiance should formally go to. Declaring a new Caliphate was a bold move, met with rejection or derision not only by Al-Qaeda but also a number of jihadi peers: two among the most influential scholars of Jihadism, Abu Qatada al-Filistini and the former mentor of al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, described ISIS leadership as a bunch of deluded simpletons and the Caliphate a heinous conspiracy. Rather than a direct confrontation, Al-Qaeda hinted that there were already a Caliphate, promoting the head of the Taliban in Afghanistan Mullah Omar (now deceased) as a sort of counter-caliph, but without proclaiming him Caliph (probably because, as McCants suggests, he might have not wanted the job).
However, despite these debates within the jihadi sphere, the new branding of ISIS as the Caliphate drew recruits from all over the world.
A new brand meant a new flag: a stark black banner displaying a white scrawl across the top saying “No god but God” and a seal-like oval containing the words “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”. The deliberately ragged writing was designed on a computer, but is meant to suggest a blessed era before Photoshop; the seal on the flag echoes the one found on letters attributed (in all likelihood incorrectly) to the Prophet and implies that the self-proclaimed Caliph, al-Baghdadi, inherited the seal of the Prophet like his prestigious predecessors did. Unlike other attempts to replicate the flag of the Prophet, the Islamic State’s design displays the “cultural biases and modern sensibilities they try so hard to displace” (p. 20). In spite of its ambition to revive the early days of Islam, ISIS’s design betrays modern sensibilities: quoting a 19th century Ottoman historian, Ahmad Cevdet Pasha, about the bonding virtues of a flag, ISIS unwillingly reproduces the utilitarian outlook of religion as a glue for a multi-ethnic empire, a notion influenced by European nationalism. “A Jihadist pundit complained, writes McCants, that the Islamic States used modern words to describe its bureaucracy [and] griped that confining the State to Iraq [the flag was made public for the first time in January 2007 by Al Qaeda media arm, al-Fajr, years before its territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq] was too close to modern notions of the state.” (p. 21) Of course, ISIS had bigger ambitions. The flag indeed was not only the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the promise of a future caliphate; it was also the harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days.
The gradual history of the emergence of the Islamic State from the ruins of Iraq, to its prominent position in the Syrian civil war, has been amply covered both by specialist literature and the mainstream media. William McCants is no exception. The first chapters cover a lot of ground, successfully interweaving biographies and organisational evolutions in different parts of the Arab world.
What has remained relatively neglected from most of the observers is the paramount importance of the millenarian beliefs which permeate much of the organisation’s religious and strategic thinking. Broadly speaking, the debate revolves around a secular interpretation of ISIS, as epitomized by the oft-quoted Spiegel article “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, and an ideological one, illustrated by the debates around Graeme Wood’s piece for the Atlantic “What ISIS really wants”. What makes them tick: the pragmatic ambition of Machiavellian ex-Baathist officers to carve a Sunni stronghold, or the international appeal of a neo-Wahhabi ideology waging a never-ending Jihad? However we answer that (false) dilemma, the novelty of this organisation is to be found in the renewal of Jihad through both a caliphate-building endeavour and a millenarian ideology. Indeed, here lies the added-value of McCants’ essay.
The chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring revolts prompted many Arab Muslims to wonder whether the end of the world was nigh. […] Theories circulated online that Hosni Mubarak, the deposed president of Egypt, had really been the Antichrist prophesied in early Islamic scripture. […] 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 many Islamic prophecies as the site of the final battles of the apocalypse, made the doomsday framework hard to resist. (p. 97)
The author successfully makes the case that apocalyptic beliefs are not just inconsequential idiosyncrasy, but a key part of the Caliphate identity. The western mainstream coverage of the Syrian civil war heavily focuses on Sunni militants and especially on the foreign jihadists. Stirred by the promise of being part of the last battles before the Day of Judgement (among other incentives), the latter emigrate to Syria to join ISIS or other fighting groups; understandably prompting many to wonder what will happen when these battle-hardened muhajirin will head back home. On the contrary to al-Qaeda leadership, who tended to disregard these prophecies, the Caliphate has been the main actor to capitalize on them, but interestingly not the only one. McCants highlights that apocalypticism is a trend among Shiite militants fighting in Syria too:
Despite fighting bitterly against each other in Iraq and Syria, many of the Sunni and Shi’i militants drawn to the battlefield were motivated by a common apocalyptic belief that they fight in the vanguard of the Mahdi. […] Readers might puzzle at the incongruity of Muslims killing one another somehow fulfilling a prophecy of Muslims defeating infidels. But the early Islamic prophetic prophecies are intrinsically sectarian because they arose from similar sectarian conflicts waged at the time in Iraq and the Levant. As such, they resonate powerfully with today’s sectarian civil wars. (p. 105)
[…] The Islamic State alone reportedly has twenty thousand foreigners fighting in its ranks. The number on the Shi’i side is comparable. In the sectarian apocalypse, everyone has a role to play in a script written over a thousand years ago. No one wants to miss the show. (p. 109)
The Islamic State has become an entrenched jihadist statelet feeding off the failure of the Iraqi state and the chaos of the Syrian civil war. If its model of totalitarian governance pilling up enemies at home and abroad is bound to eventually fail, McCants relevantly writes that the key question is how the jihadists will evaluate the demise of the Caliphate? In the current Middle East political environment, it is likely that other groups of the same kind will follow the same violent path: the Islamic State experience will have proven that a modern caliphate is possible and that apocalyptic rhetoric coupled with choreographed and extreme violence not only attract recruits, but also can successfully subdue a population.
William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 22 September 2015.
(Caveat: the quotations are from the advance uncorrected proof – page references might not necessary match the final print version.)