Thinking Aloud: “The ISIS Apocalypse”

Sept. 30, 2015 by Darius 

Earlier this month, I saw Brookings fellow Will McCants talk about “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” As always, McCants provided new insights into ISIS and what will be required to stop it.

According to McCants, ISIS’s formula for success is based on three pillars. The first is that ISIS, unlike other jihadi groups, has attempted to build a state now rather than in the vague future. The second is its constant apocalyptic rhetoric. Claiming that the apocalypse is imminent has become a major recruiting tool for ISIS, especially among foreign fighters. Not only does it differentiate ISIS from other jihadi groups operating in Syria, which do not rely on apocalyptic language, ISIS’s apocalyptic rhetoric adds a level of urgency to recruits: the apocalypse is happening now – come and be a part of it. The final pillar of ISIS’s formula is the extreme brutality and violence with which it wages both insurgency and governance in areas it controls.

However, as McCants recounted, today’s ISIS is not the first time ISIS has made a play at regional power using this formula. Its first attempt, when ISIS was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was disastrous. By insisting on being called a state without actually controlling any territory, ISIS became a laughingstock in the jihadi community. Instead of attracting recruits, the apocalyptic beliefs of ISIS’s leaders led them to make questionable decisions. One element of ISIS’s early strategy was successful: by 2004, ISIS’s leader at the time, Abu Zarqawi, articulated a policy of targeting Shias. Zarqawi argued that such a strategy would either eliminate Shias, which was good because ISIS considers Shias apostates and a “fifth column” within Islam, or it would provoke a backlash by Iraq’s Shia majority against Sunnis, who would then turn to ISIS as protectors. ISIS has managed to claim the mantle of the protector of Sunnis in countries like Iraq and Syria today.

According to McCants, it has been a changing political context that has allowed ISIS to conjure success out of failure. The first time ISIS challenged for power, the central governments of Syria and Iraq were comparatively strong. Today, these governments are concerned only with maintaining their grip on the centers of power, leaving ISIS free to operate on the Sunni peripheries. This lack of central government focus has allowed ISIS to genuinely control territory and build a protostate. Having a protostate allowed ISIS to declare a caliphate, which has helped recruitment significantly. Moreover, ISIS’s brutal violence has given them a strong grip on power throughout their territory because there is no outside force stopping them. In ISIS’s first incarnation, the Iraqi government and the United States military gave substantial armed support to local Sunni tribes, who rebelled against ISIS. This time around, though, no outside power is willing and able to support locals opposed to ISIS. McCants felt that it was likely that ISIS will be able to crush rebellions indefinitely in the territory it holds if no other power intervenes.

According to McCants, ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a suave operator who has demonstrated an ability to work with many different factions. For example, Baghdadi managed to befriend both Baathists and radicals while in a US detention center. Many Baathists are important members of ISIS today. McCants said the roots of Baathists joining ISIS goes back to the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein made a conscious effort to increase the religious fervor of the Sunni officer corps. Many of these Baathists were radicalized in US custody and came through jihadi ranks at the same time as Baghdadi. According to McCants, it would be a mistake to assume that the Baathists working with ISIS are not true believers in the jihadi cause.

McCants worried that other groups will rise to emulate ISIS. McCants reiterated the importance of social media for facilitating jihadi recruitment: a personal Twitter exchange is much more secure and user-friendly than previous jihadi chat rooms, where there was a great deal of concern about intelligence officers posing as jihadists. He also noted that ISIS’s recruitment success stems in part from the fact that ISIS will take almost anyone, in marked contrast to groups like the Nusra Front, which vet their recruits much more carefully. McCants pointed out that this recruiting policy reflects the fact that Nusra is still trying to win the hearts and minds of locals, whereas ISIS doesn’t care. However, McCants felt that foreign fighters can potentially be turned into anti-ISIS propaganda tools: many fighters are disillusioned and leave ISIS. Publicizing their stories of what the caliphate is really like, as opposed to what ISIS says the caliphate is like, could stop other potential recruits from joining ISIS.

Unfortunately, despite what some US politicians believe, McCants said that it is very difficult to cut off ISIS’s sources of funding: unlike most other terrorist groups, ISIS is largely self-financing, commanding revenue from the residents in the territory it holds.

McCants said that in his opinion, ISIS will continue to hold its own and even expand until governments in the region make defeating ISIS a top priority, which so far they have not. He advocated for a policy of “sandals on the ground,” where regional governments aggressively support anti-ISIS locals. This doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.


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