Nobody Expects the Islamic State

October 12, 2015

Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)

One year after the dramatic entry of the Islamic State onto the world stage of public notice, we continue to search for an understanding of how a brutal and anachronistic group has been successful at carving out a new state in the Middle East. Having struggled to contain the growth of this monstrosity, and having contributed in no small way to its rise in the first place, we are lucky to have a distinguished scholar in Will McCants to explain the group to us. Explanation will not be enough unfortunately, as he — correctly and honestly — raises more questions than he answers.

McCants’ book is based predominantly on primary sources in Arabic from jihadist websites, and his education in Islamic history at Princeton is most helpful in deciphering the importance of the Islamic State’s religious doctrine that informs their policies and strategies. His previous works, including an atlas of jihadi movement texts and a translation of the now famous Management of Savagery, make him uniquely qualified to be our guide in understanding the Islamic State.

ISIS Apocalypse is a short and well written account that flows effortlessly between the history of the movement and its founding by Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2002, the development of its ideology, the history of its flag and its design, and the importance of apocalyptic beliefs to its key leaders. McCants, unlike many others, truly understands the continuity and singularity of a movement that has changed names and form several times but remained remarkably true to its founder’s vision. For these reasons alone, the book is a must-read for anyone who is searching for ways to deal with this group.

McCants has three main goals in this book: to demonstrate how the apocalyptic nature of the Islamic State affected the group’s successes and failures, to chronicle the group’s rocky relations and ideological differences with Al Qaeda Central (AQC) concerning insurgency and state building, and lastly to explain how these factors were instrumental to their recent success. These are tough tasks, and in the end he gets it mostly right.

McCants’ best analysis is found in his exploration of how the Islamic State’s founders erred by declaring the state in 2006 without the support of Sunni tribes and resistance groups. The movement’s heavy handed approach and pathological need to achieve dominance eventually alienated their base. The creation of an Islamic State, with its religious mandate of obedience from Muslims, was probably a catalyst for most to move away from supporting the movement. While McCants rightfully blames Abu Omar and Abu Hamza, Zarqawi’s successors, for declaring “the state” at such a poor moment, he lets Zarqawi off the hook for creating the overall attitude in the first place, exemplified by his harsh actions toward the Albu Mahal tribe in al Qaim as early as 2005.

McCants is also convincing when he ties the presence of the apocalyptic narrative in a variety of leadership speeches to the actions of important leaders. The description of one such period relies on the testimony of Abu Sulayman al Utabi, a Saudi sharia judge that left the Islamic State in 2008 on bad terms after serving as chief of the legal system for a year. McCants uses captured letters between the Islamic State and AQC to document Utabi’s complaints about the Islamic State’s obsession with eschatology. The comments about Abu Omar and Abu Hamza are damning in many ways, even though we should caution against taking the comments of a disgruntled ex-employee at face value. McCants’ subsequent claim that the group almost destroyed themselves in 2007 based on this apocalyptic belief is not as convincing, however. This interpretation for the Islamic State’s defeat in 2007-2008 is unique and relatively unsupported. More conventional interpretations involve a general Sunni antipathy against the group among tribes and resistance groups for many reasons — mostly involving the loss of tribal business income and brutality.

McCants seems surprised by the success of the Islamic State, particularly since its actions seemingly violate every principle of revolutionary warfare, as prescribed by Mao and endorsed by jihadist theorist Abu Musab al Suri. Even Osama bin Laden was pushing this “hearts and minds” mantra for his wayward offspring, which was hopelessly trapped in the cycle of violence it started. If there is such a thing as “bad counterinsurgency,” then the Islamic State was bemoaned by Al Qaeda for its bad irregular warfare — until it worked, but by then the relationship was over. According to McCants, the Islamic State’s success is only shocking to us because we have forgotten that extreme violence can be an effective way to control a population, in certain circumstances. This is a sobering conclusion, and one that I have written about in War on the Rocks before.

In the end, this explanation fails to resonate with me — not because I disagree that Islamic State brutalizes and strikes fear in its enemies — but because we don’t give the Islamic State enough credit for experimenting with how to gain the support of the Sunni population after its defeat in 2008. If the Islamic State’s violent treatment of Sunnis inspired their defeat in 2007, why would it work today? McCants attributes the revival to the current caliph and his trusty ex-Baathists, but I think he misses the mark by a couple of years. The foundation for the Islamic State movement’s return was established and built by Abu Omar al Baghdadi, Abu Bakr’s predecessor, a leader dismissed by McCants as a figurehead. In the captured AQC letters I mention above, it turns out that Utaybi’s other complaint in 2008 was that the leadership was too soft on the Sunni tribes — “the traitors” that rebelled against them in the Sahwa movement. Abu Omar and partner Abu Hamza’s decision to conduct outreach to the Sunni tribes, something Omar was best positioned to do as an Iraqi and member of the Zawi tribe, set the stage for a long process of tribal engagement that eventually succeeded in bringing back much needed Sunni tribes to fill the Islamic State movement. Many of these efforts were described in captured documents housed at the Conflict Records Research Center that date back to 2009 — before Abu Bakr. Certainly those that would not reconcile with the Islamic State were assassinated, but this was done often with the direction and complicity of the tribes themselves. It turns out Utaybi was wrong and Omar and Hamza correct — conciliation and co-opting was the best approach, and it facilitates a politico-military approach that one scholar of the Vietnamese communists called the “expansion of control” into the villages. McCants understands this but he does not emphasize the process in the book and misattributes its origins.

The Islamic State understood what Al Qaeda Central did not: “Hearts and minds” can’t work at the global level against a far foe. Instead, it truly took Mao’s advice to find local contradictions (such as sectarian oppression) and exploited them to replace local governments and establish their own state. The mastery of this approach by our enemies has severe consequences for the future.

This is a book that will challenge many readers, mostly because of the breadth of the issues involved in understanding the Islamic State — including aspects of religion, ideology, culture and the principles of irregular warfare. It certainly challenged me and many of my ever-changing beliefs about an organization that is extremely secretive — despite their prolific media campaigns and our own access to their captured documents. ISIS Apocalypse by Will McCants is very helpful to the reader to put it all together, and hopefully we can learn from it and continue to build on our knowledge of the movement in the future.


Craig Whiteside is an assistant professor at the Naval War College, Monterey, where he teaches national security affairs. Email ( and Twitter @CraigAWhiteside. These views are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College.

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