In many articles about ISIS/ IS/ ISIL/ Daesh, I came across the name of William McCants, fellow and director of the Brookings Institute, and his book on Islamic State. As he seemed to be a trustworthy source for many writers on the subject, I wanted to read his book – subtitled The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State -, for myself.
More than Napoleoni’s book this book is a thorough and elaborate introduction to the horrifying world of ISIS. McCants paints the lives of the people behind the movement, its origins in Al-Qaeda and how the US invasion of Iraq created an influx of foreign fighters seeking for a role in the ‘End-Time drama’. He explains how these events gave ISIS the boost it was looking for.
Where Islamists as Bin Laden always opted for ‘working the base’ first (getting popular support before considering launching the Caliphate), ISIS chose the opposite strategy: establish an Islamic State, and attract people with the promise of a physical place of Islamic purity. IS believed waging an insurgency would be far more effe
ctive than a hearts-and-minds strategy, that used to be Bin Laden’s approach. As we know, it was right.
However, the first attempts to launch a new state failed for or a wide range of reasons (fickle tribal allies, resentful subjects and powerful foreign enemies, as the French in Mali), but Islamic State finally got what it wanted: its own territory. After all, an Islamic State is nothing if it has no land. By 2014 it was the unquestioned authority in many cities in Syria and Iraq. And the land they captured was the land mentioned in most p
rophecies: Syria. This was ground zero, where the ‘final battle’ would be fought, as promised by the Prophet.
The initial failures had taught Islamic State that they hadn’t been brutal enough, and made them decide to increase the violence and terror, in a cynical combination with providing government services and co-opting with local tribes. In Iraq, they were hugely helped by Syrian dictator Assad, who had funneled hundreds of jihadists into the country to fight against the United States.
It is estimated that about 90% of the foreign fighters in Irag had come through Syria. Assad’s regime also made sure to release – and facilitate – jihadists from prison when Syrians began to peacefully protest against their government. They served as perfect armed brigades to fight the protesters. Moreover, Assad was happy to let Islamic Staten weaken his internal enemies, as long as it didn’t threaten him.
In the meantime, Islamic State welcomed all kind of fighters and was able to rule its territory unchallenged. Not in the least because an internal issue had been settled, as the battle for its leadership had been won by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was proclaimed Caliph.
By now it is widely known that Islamic State holds Yazidi slaves. Less known is that it sells them in markets. Worried about price deflation, IS fixed the prices: a girl between the age of one and nine would sell at $170 , thereafter the prices dropped $40 for every additional year of age.
Most of the rules and the harsh hudud punishments are almost identical to the ultraconservative brand of Islam as is the norm in Saudi-Arabia, with a clear distinction: IS goes the extra mile, more cruel and with an wide as possible audience. IS carries out its penalties in public whereas Saudi-Arabia prefers to behead behind close doors.
The apocalypse has proved to be a great recruiting pitch, violence and blood do attract. McCants states that most IS soldiers have little knowledge of the wide body of the Islamic scripture, but the leaders know them all to well. And know how to use it. Whatever the real motivation of the Islamic State’s leaders, the facts are the same: a brutal government at war with its neighbors.
So, what to do? McCants argues that the wait-and-see approach that the international community adopted from 2012 to 2014 only emboldened the Islamic State and filled its ranks. But, the best it can do now is to constrain IS in its growth, by considering more air strikes, giving ‘Bagdad’ all the intelligence and support it needs. However, we should refrain from providing heavy weapons, as they could fall in the hands of Islamic State.
McCants admits that this is almost exactly the current coalition strategy, but sees no alternative, its simply the best option for now. He is convinced that the State won’t last, which doesn’t mean that jihadist will disappear with IS’s eventual collapse. The IS formula will remain attractive to thousands, if not millions, future jihadists.
The ISIS Apocalypse – William McCants (2015)