By Faruk Rahmanovich
With an official 2017 defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) forces in Iraq and Syria, one might be forgiven for thinking that a book about the rise and ideology of the group is less than a timely read. If history teaches anything to policy-makers, however, the attention should be paid to underlying causes that gave rise to ISIS in Iraq—which has yet to be addressed.
After all, ISIS’s forefather, Zarkawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ) was destroyed in 2008 only to come back as a much stronger in the form of ISIS in 2014. More importantly, recent history shows us that these new groups learn from the successes and failures of their predecessors, making them an ever-evolving threat. ISIS may be gone, but their bloody role is already being taken up by new jihadists. Thus, understanding the history, ideology, and the politics at play is a crucial step in grasping the nature of the threat, and anticipating the future developments in the now global arena of terrorism.
William McCants’s The ISIS Apocalypse offers a rather brief account of the rise and ideology of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Yet, despite its brevity, McCants weaves the theological, documentary, historical, and social contexts masterfully into an astonishingly clear and concise eye-opening narrative; simultaneously providing a great depth to the topic while remaining stylistically accessible to the audience. At the outset, McCants notes that the ability to make sense of the quagmire that is ISIS, and partially the Iraq and Syrian situations, requires “a guide proficient in Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies, and Arabic.” (p. 2)
As he takes the reader on a “tour of the Islamic State,” McCants tracks the historical, political, social, and jihadist developments that contextualize the rise of ISIS in a demonstrable and practical way. His selection of foreign intelligence and internal documents of various jihadist groups uncovers the wide variety of intentions, motivations, and relations that create the extremist worldview, as well as within the extremist circles. These include letters, emails, and inter-group memos – including a number from Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other prominent figures of the MENA terror networks. The same selection also serves to reveal an underbelly of political intrigue, scheming, murder, and power plays he rightly calls “Frank Underwoodesque.”
The appointment of al-Baghdadi to the top leadership position (chapter 4) – through direct deception of the ISIS board – is perhaps the most striking example of such politically underhanded tactics. The result is a rare balance of documentary analysis and gripping narrative, that breaks the optical illusion of a unified and monolithic “Islamic extremism.”
Unlike most of what has been written on ISIS, McCants’s account is not a momentary analysis, given to heavy revision or rejection by later developments. The thoroughness of the research has ensured that the systematic analysis presented is a comprehensive and contextualized account. McCants’s scope is especially valuable, unifying and uncovering the complex network of relations between various terrorist networks, militant groups, and even their digital support groups.
These connections serve to demystify the ideology, methodology, and changes in tactics used across the Middle East, Africa, Indian Subcontinent, Europe, and the U.S. This broad approach provides a holistic context, from which the emergence of ISIS (and other terrorist organizations) is understood as a coherent development – and which may be extrapolated for future cases.
This approach is additionally strengthened by McCants’s analysis of strategic successes and failures of various terrorist groups, which have begun to serve as a core of strategic analysis for further terrorist efforts. As revealed by several Bin Laden memos, winning the hearts and minds (rather than focusing on doling out harsh punishments) had begun to occupy a central place in al-Qaeda’s ideology, in order to ensure long-term stability of regions occupied by the terrorist network.
Failure to win the hearts and minds had, in their estimation, led to the alienation from the local populace, and subsequent loss of territory. This kind of corporate approach paints a rather different, but far more realistic and functional, image of the actual innerworkings of terrorist organizations than is commonly portrayed.
Of particular interest are the four Appendices on the Sunni Islamic Prophecies of the End Times – a well-translated and organized explanation on the sources, ideas, and language often used by the terrorist groups to justify their actions on Islamic eschatological grounds – with ISIS being the most notable among them.
McCants both references and details the use of these sources throughout the book as a tool of the terrorist groups; making the appendices an invaluable resource for grasping the full context of their claims, as well as the grounds of the appeals by which terrorist organizations justify their actions and try to appeal to the local and global communities for support.
Unlike many so-called terrorism experts, McCants possesses a deep theological grasp that allows him to avoid the facile “clash of the civilizations” assessments, which inevitably paint the problems of extremism in Manichean “Us vs. Them” terms. Throughout his analysis, it is apparent that the rest of the Islamic world has become the de facto prime target of the extremists – and particularly ISIS – in their attempt to create a mythical utopian “abode of Islam,” and that painting the butchers and the butchered with the same brush seems rather nonsensical.
However, perhaps owing to brevity, McCants makes a small, yet crucial, omission, by failing to preface the main book content with an explanation of Middle East tribalism, its history, and development. This lack of introduction to tribalism is particularly problematic, because the author often cites tribalism as a key component of developments in both creating/strengthening extremist groups, and in providing major hurdles in the extremist modus operandi, and eventually leading to their downfall in attempted state-building projects.
This leaves the reader to wonder as to the role of tribalism in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere; which is particularly difficult for the average Western reader whose understanding of a nation is generally limited to the western nation-states: namely that the state of France is home to the French people; yet the same cannot be said of any Middle Eastern nation in the post-colonial period, especially starting with the Sykes-Picot agreement. A few pages spent introducing the issue, preferably preceding the rest of the book, could easily remedy the problem.
In the end, The ISIS Apocalypse is a great resource for understanding the context and history of rising jihadist extremism in general, and the ideology of ISIS in particular. The missing tribalism context presents an issue, though not an insurmountable one, and one which one hopes McCants will remedy in later editions.
Faruk Rahmanovich teaches at the University of South Florida’s Honors College. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of South Florida, specializing in comparative war theory and applied war ethics. Dr. Rahmanovich writes at the Actionable Cyber-Security and Actionable Thought blogs.
All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.