An American analyst on violent extremism and radical Islam argues that the focus on state building, the belief that fear is the quickest path to power, and an apocalyptic vision are the reasons Islamic State failed when it was first established, but also why it later succeeded.
William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. It provides an inside look at the genesis in 2006 and later the resurgence of Islamic State, after U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011.
McCants said the founders of the organization, when it transformed from al-Qaida in Iraq into Islamic State, really believed that the end of the world was coming, but it’s harder to say whether that’s the case for the newer leadership.
“Their style of apocalypticism focuses much less on the Messiah appearing than it does on the institution of the caliphate and state building as a fulfillment of prophecy," he said. "In their public propaganda they emphasize the return of the caliphate or God’s kingdom on Earth as a fulfillment of prophecy, and encourage young Muslims around the world to come fight for it."
In McCants’ view, al-Qaida was focused on popularity in the Muslim world, but not so Islamic State.
“Islamic State makes enemies on all sides, and it is hated by many of the people that it tries to govern," he said. "But this is also part of the Islamic State strategy. They are not trying to make friends; they believe that brutality and fear is the best way to cow populations and make them subject to your rule.”
But what is the allure for foreign fighters to join this organization?
Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, more than 20,000 foreign fighters — at least 3,400 of whom are Westerners — have gone to Syria from more than 90 countries to fight for IS, according to the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. intelligence community.
McCants said given that the vast majority of recruits are under age 35, part of the allure for the foreign fighters lies in the deep countercultural appeal.
“The Islamic State deliberately provokes an identity crisis among Muslims, particularly living in the West," he said. "It carries out horrible acts and it justifies those acts by citing Islamic scripture. And so the youth then, when confronted with it, have to decide, ‘Does this really represent my faith, or is this completely beyond the bounds?' And oftentimes they haven’t even heard of these scriptures that are being cited by the Islamic State. This creates a cognitive opening for many of these youth.”
McCants said that both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the withdrawal of troops in 2011 contributed to the group’s rise.
“There would be no Islamic State if the United States had not invaded," he said. "It provided the opportunity for the organization to be founded. And the ensuing violence gave the organization legs and oxygen to operate.
"The second way the United States contributed [was] when it drew down all of its troops, except a small portion for the embassy, in Iraq. It no longer had a counterterrorism force to be deployed against the Islamic State.”
But, added McCants, there is a possible third way the United States may have contributed, and that is by not making a push early on in the Syrian conflict to create a large, moderate opposition to Assad’s rule.
“I think the Islamic State thrives any time there is chaos, and not having an American presence there when there is chaos contributes to the rise of the Islamic State,” he said.
McCants said the problem now is that eliminating the organization is not a top priority for most of the regional governments.
“It’s only a top priority right now for the United States, and until it is a top priority for governments in the region, we are very limited in what we can do from the outside,” he said.
But there is still more that the U.S. can do, said Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, who testified last week before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
“The United States needs to use military force as well as diplomacy, all of the nation’s instruments of power, to break ISIS’s capability to fight, because it’s an apocalyptic enemy and is not likely to break,” she said.