Does the Islamic State Want an Apocalyptic Showdown? Not So Fast


Following the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, there has been a fierce debate about whether containing the Islamic State is enough. As a contribution to this debate, a recent New York Times article stated flatly that Islamic State leaders have been “patently clear” that they “want the United States and its allies to be dragged into a ground war.” The implication is that the allies should therefore avoid a ground war.

I do not advocate a large-scale invasion led by Western powers for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere. And I certainly don’t want the United States to play into its enemies’ plans. But is this really the Islamic State’s plan?

The article observes that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq described the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “blessed” because it would create the chaos he needed to pursue his own state-building project there. But he was rejoicing because the United States was going to destroy the hated Baathist state, not a state created by jihadists. I doubt he would be enthusiastic if the United States and its allies destroy the state his successors built in Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State’s own strategic literature, for example The Management of Savagery, offers two conflicting reasons for striking the West. One is to force Western countries to go all in so their resources will be drained. The other is to persuade them to stay out.

The New York Times article argues that the Islamic State would view the large-scale invasion of its state as a fulfillment of prophecy and use it to recruit. That’s certainly possible — the Islamic State takes prophecy seriously and uses it to draw new adherents around the world, as I document in my book.

But here too there is reason to pause. The same prophecies also say that the Muslim army will make a truce with the “Romans” — the West in jihadist interpretation.  In fact, the Islamic State itself has acknowledged in its propaganda that this is also a possible outcome of the current conflict (see issue #8 of its Dabiq magazine).

As we contemplate a change of course in the fight against the Islamic State as a result of its recent escalation against the West, it is certainly worth thinking about what the Islamic State hopes to achieve. But our debate should be informed by accurate information about the group’s own internal deliberations, which we do not have (at least that is available to people without security clearances), and its past behavior, which we know a great deal about. Trying to divine the Islamic State’s intentions based on prophecy, false analogy, and selective reading of its strategic literature will only confuse rather than clarify our debate.


William McCants is the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.