Despite their prominence in America’s daily news cycle, the leaders of the Islamic State remain misunderstood. Many pundits and analysts seem to fail in differentiating their brand of Salafi Islam from the practices and beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims, while others overcorrect and artificially separate the Islamic State’s actions entirely from religion. In The ISIS Apocalypse, William McCants sets out to disabuse his readers of these notions and establish a factual account of what lies behind the rhetoric of the Islamic State.
The author provides a detailed analysis of the roots of the Islamic State’s ideology, from an apocalyptic urgency in the mind of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi to the eventual establishment of the caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Emphasizing internal disputes within and between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, McCants succeeds in proving that the Islamic State’s establishment represents a clear break from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Specifically, McCants pinpoints the difference between the two groups in terms of urgency and methodology, though not in terms of their ultimate goal. This is, he emphasizes, a strategic disagreement, not a scriptural one. This point is especially salient in light of several recent arguments for viewing al-Qaeda’s affiliates as positive alternatives to the Islamic State’s brand of militant Islam.
Although he does an admirable and thorough job of defining and differentiating the religious motivations of the Islamic State, McCants leaves several vital issues outside of his critical scope, some of which may have more bearing on the Islamic State’s future than its apocalyptic ideology. The author makes much of the contradictions between the Islamic State’s ideology and its political and military realities. Specifically, he argues that the Islamic State takes a surprisingly pragmatic approach to political and military strategy for a movement that claims to be religiously purifying its territories. McCants points out that the highest levels of the Islamic State’s leadership are riddled with former Ba’athists, most of them hardly ideologues, and that in several cases the Islamic State has loosened its interpretation of Shari’a in order to quell local misgivings where intimidation alone would not suffice.
Though McCants makes much of these contradictions in the Islamic State’s policies and theology, he does not fully connect them to the movement’s potential for growth. He allows that “in the apocalyptic imagination, inconvenient facts rarely impede the glorious march to the end of the world,” but demurs from exploring the effects of these incongruities on its recruitment base and public support. McCants dismisses these incongruities as byproducts of the Islamic State’s need for expansion and the necessary trade-offs of governing, but they may indeed hold the key to dismantling the state’s appeal. Surely, at some point the hypocrisy in the Islamic State’s selective interpretation of Shari’a must overcome the momentum of its media outreach campaign. A more complete discussion of the State’s theology would deconstruct the apocalyptic vision of the Islamic State’s leaders, showing where and how their policies degrade the legitimacy of the caliphate and ultimately render impossible the prophecy of apocalypse.
When McCants discusses the Islamic State’s support base, he relies on a broad assumption about the appeal of its methods and its interpretation of Islamic theology. The Islamic State has remained a prolific and widely successful recruiter of marginalized Muslim youth across the world as it has outstripped its nearest competitors in Syria in terms of recruitment. However, the reasons behind that success are mostly taken for granted. McCants claims that “the caliphate promised a place of honor for Muslim youth who felt shut out by their political systems or alienated from their societies.” This attribute reigns true, but does nothing to distinguish the Islamic State from other militant extremist groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda franchises like Jabhat al-Nusra. McCants would better differentiate the Islamic State by applying his analysis of the groups’ differences in strategy to his account of the Islamic State’s stunning success in recruitment.
McCants offers a few clues as to his thinking on the topic of the Islamic State’s popularity. First, he cites a Pew Research Center poll that showed half of Arabs queried in 2012 believed the Mahdi, a precursor to apocalypse, would appear “any day.” He connects the growing belief in the imminent apocalypse among Arab Muslims, driven by violence and political instability since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, to the Islamic State’s success in drawing fighters willing to create the necessary conditions for the Mahdi’s return. In the words of one Islamic State fighter quoted by McCants, this “apocalyptic pitch always works.” Even if we accept the Pew poll at face value—though it significantly omits Syria and the Gulf states—there is nothing here to justify the appeal of apocalyptic thinking in the 21st century. Research into this topic is certainly difficult, but not impossible. Analysis of the motivations of the Islamic State’s recruits, as opposed to analysis of its propaganda, would go a long way towards identifying the movement’s prospects for long-term success. If the Islamic State’s recruitment success were indeed driven by its appeal to Islamic eschatology, as McCants claims, this could significantly alter efforts to counter the movement’s propaganda. However, McCants does not persuasively show that this is the case.
If, on the other hand, apocalyptic themes are merely facile scriptural justifications behind a wider appeal to political upheaval and Sunni empowerment, then the relevance of McCant’s analysis of the Islamic State’s apocalyptic fervor recedes a degree. If there is a weakness to exploit in the fetishizing of the End Times scenario, it is only useful if the opportunity to contribute to that scenario plays a large role in the Islamic State’s attractiveness. However, if a myriad of personal, political, and religious motivations intertwine to define the mass of foreign fighters currently in or headed towards Syria and Iraq, we are left at a loss for action. Having knowledge of their apocalyptic goal surely aids in anticipating their moves, but plays no major role in the crucial problem of reducing the caliphate’s attractive qualities. In the uneasy stalemate currently developing around the Islamic State’s territory, and until regional stakeholders move to physically reclaim ground, the only apparent solution involves deconstructing the State from within. For all his analytical insights into the Islamic State’s ideology, it is uncertain that McCants offers a viable path to accomplishing this feat.