(Caliph Ibrahim, or Abu Umar al-Bahgdadi, the leader of the Islamic State)

Since 2014 a number of interesting works have appeared that try to explain the background history of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and why it has been successful to date.  William McCants, the Director of the Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution has added his new book, THE ISIS APOCALYPSE: THE HISTORY, STRATEGY AND DOOMSDAY VISION OF THE ISLAMIC STATE to that genre.  What separates McCants monograph from the others is his emphasis on the role of Islamic messianism in the policies pursued by the Islamic State, and the differences between the Islamic State and Osama Bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda’s view of jihadism, and how and when to establish an Islamic caliphate.

In his introduction McCants presents himself with a challenge as he takes the reader on a tour of the Islamic State.  He tells the reader that they will be exposed to explanations concerning obscure allusions to Islamic history and theology, in addition the reader will be able “to appreciate how the Islamic State thinks of itself, and how its self-understanding has affected its political fortunes, and what will happen if those fortunes change again.” (2)  Having completed McCants’ tour, as a reader I believe he has accomplished his goals.  At the outset he does a nice job explaining the origins of ISIS by exploring the relationship and differences that existed between Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawri and Osama bin-Laden, and the creation and failure of ISIS by 2008.  McCants discusses the different historical figures and events that influenced ISIS as well as the current leadership in the different jihadi movements.

(An english speaking ISIS member leads a mass execution)

The most important aspect of the book is how McCants delves into the role of messianism in Islam and how it affected the rise of ISIS and the policies it pursues.  The prophecies of Islam play a major role for ISIS.  The concept of the Mahdi, “the rightly guided one,” is important because according to Islamic prophecy he would appear at the end of time to lead the final battle against the infidels.  The similarities between the Abbasid Dynasty and ISIS is treated carefully and presents an interesting dichotomy for the reader.  The popularity of the Dabiq prophecy attracted foreign fighters as the prophecy called for the conquering and cleansing of this small town near the Syrian-Turkish border before a caliphate flag could be raised.  Aspects of Islamic prophecy hold today that before the final apocalypse, sectarian conflict must precede it, as it took place following the death of Mohammad.  Each sect is trying to complete the task of killing the infidel, but first they must destroy each other to achieve the honor of doing so.  The apocalyptic message that ISIS employed along with the restoration of the caliphate that ended after World War I, and revolution are the core of its principles.  However, Osama Bin-Laden refused to accept this.  The al-Qaeda leader believed that the needs of the people must be taken care of first and the United States had to leave Iraq and Afghanistan before a caliphate could be declared, something he believed would not take place in his lifetime.

McCants is accurate in his explanation as to why ISIS was able to expand so easily and acquire the territory that would provide legitimacy to its restoration of the caliphate.  Bashir al-Assad’s policies in Syria facilitated ISIS’ task by funneling hundreds of jihadists into Iraq to fight the U.S., and releasing numerous prisoners to foster the chaos that allowed him to crack down on opposition to his rule.  Assad chose not to fight ISIS but concentrate on domestic opposition thus allowing ISIS to expand into eastern Syria, and with the issues attendant to Iraq they could easily capture western Iraq giving them a stronghold that encompassed Mosul to Aleppo.  McCants is also on firm ground as he detailed the rise of Abu Umar al-Bahgdadi within ISIS and the announcement of the restoration of the “caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method,” in addition to declaring himself caliph.  McCants explores the opposition by al-Qaeda and others to this move explaining that the trappings of a caliphate do not make it a caliphate.

(ISIS takes villagers hostage in Syria)

The book is a slim volume, but McCants certainly maximizes the space.  He explores events in Yemen and the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as other al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.  He points to their differences with ISIS, but also areas of support.  The influence of the Arab Spring is discussed in relation to ISIS ideology and its role in the apocalyptic narrative that ISIS spins.

Everyone seems to want to know why ISIS was so successful between 2013 and 2014 – it is a simple answer – they were pretty much left alone.  When Sunni rebels try to overthrow Assad, ISIS concentrated on setting up a state in the Syrian hinterland.  It filled its leadership with ex-Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s military and intelligence branches and attracted thousands of foreign fighters “by using a propaganda mix of apocalypticism, puritanism, sectarianism, ultraviolence, and promises of a caliphate.” (153)  all of these aspects of ISIS are fully explored by the author in creating an important addition in trying to understand the success of ISIS and where we go in the future.

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