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

ISIThe ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State is an immensely readable addition to the literature on the most powerful terrorist-insurgent group in the world. McCants covers the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS, from its inception in Taliban Afghanistan in 1999 to its migration to Iraq in 2002, and through its various stages before its blitzkrieg from Syria across central Iraq in June 2014, which brought ISIS to global attention. McCants shows that ISIS’s evolution is not just a religio-socio-political and military phenomenon, but an intellectual one. ISIS has built the foundations of its statelet on the lessons learned by Salafi-jihadists from their previous battlefronts, such as Afghanistan, Chechnya and Algeria, and their various mistakes, many of them ISIS’s own.McCants works from a great deal of primary material, much of it in Arabic and taken from various websites and forums where the “virtual caliphate” was in operation long before ISIS uploaded these institutions to the soil of the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, The ISIS Apocalypse is worth getting hold of for the reference section alone. McCants shows how ISIS developed its strategy to build a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East—and how this put it on a collision course with Al-Qaeda Central (AQC).

ISIS had pledged baya (allegiance) to AQC after eight months of negotiations in October 2004, becoming Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But almost immediately there were problems. On issue after issue—notably attacks on Shia civilians and the video beheadings—Zarqawi and AQC differed.

McCants contends that ISIS and AQC differed on the timeline in building the caliphate, too. Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and his successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) that October. It is certainly true that while AQC gave ISI public support, “The decision to declare the State was taken without consultation” with AQC, as an internal Al-Qaeda memo, written by Adam Gadahn in January 2011, puts it. But Cole Bunzel, in a Brookings paper on ISIS’s ideology, persuasively argues that the declaration of a proto-state in Iraq that would expand into a caliphate was an AQC-AQI/ISI project all along, and that the critical letters from AQC to AQI in 2005 bear this out. The letter from Osama bin Laden’s chief of staff to Zarqawi in December 2005 takes wholly for granted that AQI’s project is the imminent declaration of statehood.

Still, there were clear problems. In one of the book’s most memorable sections, McCants looks at the correspondence AQC sent to ISI’s leadership between late 2007 and early 2008 after Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi, a Saudi who had been fired as ISI’s chief judge in August 2007, went to Pakistan to register his complaints against ISI’s leaders directly to Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

ISI had allowed corrupt men into senior positions, Abu Sulayman said, and ISI’s leaders would not move against them—quite possibly because they did not know. ISI’s leaders were insulated and surrounded by people who would not tell them bad news, Abu Sulayman said. Further, while ISI claimed wide support among the tribes and the allegiance of numerous insurgent groups, it was all lies, Abu Sulayman said. In truth, only a few small militias had joined ISI and among them were men who’d “never carried weapons in their entire lives.” There was truth in this. Where AQI had at least controlled some villages and towns, ISI controlled nothing. The tribes were on the turn already by the fall of 2006 as the “Awakening” began.

Abu Sulayman’s most sensational claim, however, was that ISI was making poor strategic decisions, including declaring the Islamic State prematurely, without wide tribal support, because its leader was working on an apocalyptic timetable and believed that the Mahdi (messiah) needed to have His State to return to within a year. Abu Sulayman identified ISI’s leader as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Abu Omar’s “war minister.” Abu Sulayman claimed that Abu Hamza had told him: “A man will be found [to be ISI’s caliph] whom we will test for a month. If he is suitable, then we will keep him … If not, we will look for someone else.”

McCants endorses Abu Sulayman’s analysis that Abu Hamza was in control of ISI and that ISI was unduly influenced by apocalyptic thinking, but these two points are open to different interpretations—and McCants provides, as ever, the evidence on which one can come to this divergent conclusion.

Abu Sulayman only joined ISI in early 2006 and concedes to having never met Abu Omar. Given the terms on which Abu Sulayman broke with ISI and the compartmentalized nature of the organization—especially after Zarqawi’s death since he had been betrayed by an infiltrator—Abu Sulayman’s judgement that Abu Hamza was really in control invites scepticism. AQC’s belief both that Abu Hamza was in control of ISI and that he was their man is likewise open to question given that, as McCants documents, ISI not only lacked vivacity in responding to AQC’s requests for situation updates but actively stonewalled, having already declared an Islamic State in defiance of an AQC directive.

That Abu Hamza was powerful within ISI is not open to doubt, nor that in the early stages Abu Hamza probably held the balance of power. But there is good reason to think that Abu Omar reached at least parity before the two of them were killed in April 2010. Hamza and Omar seem to have managed ISI in a co-presidency, ably bridging the natural fissure between the locals and foreigners. It is this consideration that leads one to wonder if Omar was not more than a figurehead—as, in fairness, McCants suggests (“Although he still played second fiddle to Masri, Abu Umar’s stature among younger jihadists had grown” and he “became more substantial”).

By 2008-09, ISI’s original, largely-foreign leaders had been ground down by the surge and the waning appeal of a failing jihad had reduced the foreign fighter flow and even saw some foreigners leave Iraq (e.g. to join Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon). Zarqawi had made AQI part of the Mujahideen Shura Council before he was killed in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on his franchise, and ISI was at least partly a continuation of that. But the Iraqization had become a reality: there was nobody else to replace the foreigners. It is at this time, well before the accession of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2010, that the former military and intelligence officers of the Saddam regime begin rising to the top of ISI(S): the ex-Saddamists had, contrary to many reports, largely been in ISI from before it was AQI, and they were now the last men standing. Given the reduction in power of the foreign faction and the clear lack of influence of AQC over ISI, it is difficult to see what levers Abu Hamza is pulling to retain dominance.

Moreover, even if Abu Hamza had retained dominance, if he had been taken in by apocalypticism, it rather suggests he had ‘gone native,’ and adapted to ISI’s view, rather than keeping ISI on the AQC path. And it is here where one gets to the central argument—and tension—of the book.

McCants argues that eschatology is central to ISIS’s worldview but where it previously led ISIS astray, they have now reconciled the contradiction and moved to build a project in anticipation of an End Times that may tarry. “The shift of eschatological emphasis from the person of the Mahdi to the institution of the caliphate buys the group time to govern while sustaining the apocalyptic moment that has so captivated its supporters,” as McCants puts it. “Messiah gave way to management.” It is difficult to sustain the view that what went wrong for ISIS in the 2006-08 period is its focus on the apocalypse, however.

The tribal Awakening against ISIS was prompted by ISIS’s brutality and monopolization of resources. The tribes had believed that AQI/ISI was a means to end the American occupation, and had instead found that AQI/ISI was “taking over the smuggling routes, skimming profits, and killing those who resisted.” The violence of AQI/ISI’s rule—the kidnapping and extortion, rape and assassination, on top of formal ‘Islamic’ punishments—made the tribes look on the Americans and even the Iraqi government as the lesser evil. ISI’s revival was in no small measure attributable to their success in reaching out to the tribes, the elimination of their foes—principally Awakening Council leaders—and the exploitation of the growing sectarianism, authoritarianism, and Iranian domination of the Nouri al-Maliki administration, which starved the Awakening militias and opened the security vacuum ISIS filled. The ground for this was laid by Abu Omar and Abu Hamza.

Assuming Abu Hamza was in charge and beholden to apocalyptic thinking, this “does not necessarily demand rash and irrational behaviour,” as McCants himself notes. “A severe religious theology is not incompatible with practical considerations. And using the stick to discipline a population is not incongruous with giving it some carrots.” Which is the main point: Even if one accepted the argument that apocalypticism had led to the 2008 defeat, the course correction was underway before Omar and Hamza were killed, specifically by a new approach to the tribes—and McCants documents it.

In December 2009 or January 2010, ISI circulated a “Strategic Plan for Reinforcing the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq.” “The document has the look and feel of a DC think tank report, with analysis and recommendations for policy makers,” McCants writes, adding “The ‘Strategic Plan’ has a lot in common with The Management of Savagery,” the now-infamous 2004 manual that ISIS has taken as one of its guiding lights for building the caliphate. McCants is especially well placed to appreciate the similarity: he translated The Management of Savagery into English.

The Strategic Plan contained much delusion—it did not wholly own the brutality AQI/ISI had visited on the tribes, even suggesting the Americans had placed bombs in market places and blamed them on AQI/ISI—but ISI recognized the “clever, bold idea” behind the American surge, which had organized the local councils and militias, empowering the tribes to take control of their own security, while providing them protection when they needed it. ISI wanted to expand on the idea and was convinced that in the end the tribes would want to take money and protection from fellow Muslims rather than infidel occupiers, and it was prepared to kill those who did not. Between 2009 and the end of 2014, more than 1,300 Awakening members were struck down by ISIS.

This, again, leads to a tension in the book. McCants argues that where Al-Qaeda prioritized “hearts and minds,” ISIS “didn’t care about popular Muslim support.” But as McCants notes, ISIS’s revival is built significantly on tribal support. McCants explains that “allying with local tribes is quite different from appealing to the general public,” and this is of course correct. Playing on tribes’ desire for advantage over others, offering to share spoils, playing on the (justified) fear of the Shiite death squads, and above all being the ‘strong horse’ that cannot be overcome and needs accommodating, ISIS has built a popular base. To be sure, ISIS does not want to be loved by the global Muslim masses, as Al-Qaeda did, but it wants enough local support to sustain its project, and in Iraq especially it has built it.

Just as ISIS is building on lessons learned—its own and Al-Qaeda’s through the 1990s—ISIS’s lessons have now been assimilated in the Salafi-jihadist cannon. In one of the book’s most interesting sections McCants documents the spread of then-ISI’s flag among Al-Qaeda affiliates, which then follow ISI’s attempt to build an Islamic state. These attempts at jihadi governance—Somalia from 2008, Yemen 2011-12, Mali 2012-13—ended in disaster, but Al-Qaeda assimilated these results and even between the Yemen and Mali experiments was offering advice on the latter from lessons learned from the former.

McCants leaves unfinished the thought of Al-Qaeda’s learning curve and if perhaps Al-Qaeda has tacked in an ISIS-like direction. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda now holds territory and in Syria Al-Qaeda’s branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, has assimilated the lessons of gradualism and is playing its hand almost perfectly, winding itself into the wider rebellion, which it is using to shield its own agenda. McCants noted that in the struggle over the caliphate, Al-Qaeda hinted that Abu Bakr was illegitimate because the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar had gotten there first—an “ambiguous middle way between forthrightly declaring a countercaliph and having no caliph at all.” Mutatis mutandis, Al-Qaeda can at present point to tangible territorial gains for its supporters, while preserving deniability to outsiders to avoid triggering international action.

McCants concludes, persuasively, that ISIS has managed marshal its contradictions into longevity—its apocalyptic rhetoric and its careful planning, its religious purity and its dealing with avaricious tribes, its disdain for pursuing popularity and its need for a popular base that has been bought with inter alia social services, its austere creed and its relatively indiscriminate admissions policy (though McCants may find that ISIS’s inclusion of long-time Salafi militants and former members of Saddam’s ‘secularist’ Baath regime is no contradiction at all). McCants’ suggestions for how to deal with ISIS—above all that the “wait-and-see approach … emboldened the Islamic State” and that whatever ground force is deputized it must not be Assad “because he has deliberately feuled the rise of the Islamic State”—are likewise persuasive.

McCants’ covers a lot of ground in a short book; his is an account of the evolution of an idea, as much as it is an explanation of the rise of a movement. ISIS has remained remarkably consistent in its desires since its founding and has been lucky in its enemies. Now that ISIS has been allowed to expand this far, rolling it back will be immensely difficult. But understanding it is key to defeating it. McCants makes no claim to be the final word and in several of his emphases he raises a question on which one can reach a different interpretation, but raising the question is the beginning of the solution and on that McCants succeeds.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. He tweets @KyleWOrton.

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