Inside The Islamic State's Apocalyptic Beliefs

An interview with expert Will McCants.
Reuters TV / Reuters

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Will McCants on the apocalyptic views of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has shifted in just a few short years from a militant group nominally under the control of al Qaeda and based solely in Iraq to an international insurgency. Now arguably the most powerful terror organization in the world, it brutally occupies major cities and is fighting to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.

Part of the Islamic State's precipitous rise is related to its belief that it is prophesied to bring about the end times. These are not just fringe beliefs held by some in the organization. Rather, as author Will McCants explains in his new book, The ISIS Apocalypse, they are views that directly affect the way that the group operates and appeals to its followers.

The WorldPost spoke with McCants, who is director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution think tank, on how these views have shaped the growth of the Islamic State.

How central are "end of times" apocalyptic beliefs to the Islamic State's ideology?

There are a number of Islamic prophecies of the end times, both Sunni and Shia versions. In modern history, Sunnis tended to downplay them and viewed thinking about the end times as beneath them -- something that the Shia engage in. But that started to change with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The political upheaval and the ensuing violence lent itself to an apocalyptic framework, particularly because these prophecies have to do with huge upheavals and violence in Iraq and Syria.

“The Islamic State and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, really played up the apocalyptic angle.”

The Islamic State and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, really played up the apocalyptic angle. This was both as a way to understand the upheaval and also as a way to recruit foreign fighters to come fight for their cause. This is in contrast to al Qaeda’s leadership that really downplayed the apocalypse.

When the Islamic State was established in 2006, the group's chief judge at the time said the group was created because they believed the Muslim savior, or Mahdi, was going to come any day, and the Islamic State had to be established to help him fight the infidels.

You mentioned recruitment as one thing affected by this "end of times" millenarian view. Are there other ways that this belief impacts the way the group behaves?

Just after the organization was established in 2006, its founder, Abu Ayyad al-Masri, ordered his lieutenants to fan out across Iraq and prepare to conquer it within weeks. He said that the Mahdi was going to come and they would surely have amazing victories.

Of course, they got their butts kicked and had to quickly retreat. But he was taking early strategic decisions based on his apocalyptic timetable, and I think a number of people in the organization grew uncomfortable with this urgent, apocalyptic mission.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri was a leader of the Islamic State prior to current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Masri was killed in 2010.
Abu Ayyub al-Masri was a leader of the Islamic State prior to current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Masri was killed in 2010.
AFP/Getty Images

Over time, there was a shift away from this urgent messianic vision. The early Islamic State talked a lot about the appearance of this savior figure, while the later Islamic State talked about the appearance of the caliphate and reestablishing it as a fulfillment of prophecy.

This allowed them to maintain a sense of apocalyptic anticipation, so you could still draw in foreign fighters, but it got them focused on the more stable, long-term goal of state-building, as opposed to the end of the world happening tomorrow.

You also describe in the book how instability in Syria played a role in the growth of the Islamic State. Would the group exist as it does today if it wasn’t for the civil war in Syria?

The Islamic State would have continued to be a serious terrorism problem in Iraq had the Syrian war not happened. It was already gaining strength, even though it was not yet an insurgency and it certainly didn’t hold any territory.

But it’s pretty clear that had the civil war in Syria not happened, the Islamic State would have never been able to take over the territory it did, and certainly not establish a proto-state and government.

“Had the civil war in Syria not happened the Islamic State would have never been able to take over the territory it did.”

It benefitted a lot from the fact that it focused on state-building in the Sunni hinterland, while other rebel groups were focused on overthrowing the Assad regime, and so Assad prioritized defeating the rebel groups who were trying to oust him.

You write that Syrian President Bashar Assad committed 90 percent of his airstrikes against groups that weren’t the Islamic State. Is it still in Assad’s strategic interest that the Islamic State stays alive and operational?

It’s not in his long-term strategic interest. If he ever hopes to reconstitute Syria, he’ll have to defeat them someday, but if he’s going to rank the threats against him, then the Islamic State poses less of a threat to his strongholds than other rebel groups.

His calculation might change, though, and as the Islamic State draws closer to Damascus he might decide they pose more of a threat. In that case you’d see increased airstrikes against them.

The Islamic State at this point has been through, depending on how you measure it, three changes in leadership. But now that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is firmly in charge as the so-called caliph, what would the effect be on the group if he were killed?

Well, we know from press reports that the Islamic State’s leadership has been devolving military authority to its generals in the provinces in anticipation of his eventual demise, since he’s one of the most hunted men on earth. But Baghdadi has unique skills as a bureaucrat and religious leader that will be sorely missed by the organization.

He not only descends from the prophet’s tribe, he descends from Muhammad’s own family. According to some prophecies, that's a prerequisite for reestablishing this caliphate. So his lineage will be hard to replace for the organization.

He’s also an honest-to-God religious scholar -- he has a Ph.D. from a real university in Qur'anic studies, which is very rare for a leader of a jihadist organization. They’ll miss his skill as a coalition-builder as well, and he is a savvy bureaucrat who has survived and thrived in the cutthroat politics of the Islamic State.

Is there any singular figure that you feel is the most important person to the rise of the Islamic State, in terms of the behind-the-scenes planning of it?

There’s just so many different people that have performed different functions. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi conceived it and really laid the intellectual groundwork for it, his successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri put flesh on the bone and really gave it a reality, but I would say that the current leader is probably the most important.

He had a lot of people to help him, including a number of ex-members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party who are very high-ranking in the Islamic State. They’ve been instrumental in running a repressive state because they have experience in it.

Was there something that caught you particularly by surprise when you were doing the research for this book?

I guess it was a personal revelation, if I can say that without sounding incredibly self-centered. I came to the end of the book and I had to ask myself hard questions: Can brutality work as a political strategy? Can you win an insurgency being brutal, and can you govern being incredibly brutal?

This went against a lot of my own biases. I believe that if you are waging an insurgency and you want to govern the people you are fighting for, you need to treat those people well and that will lead to a long-lasting state.

But I had to be honest and look at the success of the Islamic State, and other insurgencies that have been waged very brutally, and some of those ended up being successful. It turns out you can be an utter bastard and maintain control of a state.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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