Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

So the Obama administration has finally fessed up to what’s long been clear to more than a few mere citizens: the millions (or billions) spent to whip allies or elements we like into effective anti-Assad, anti-ISIS (or anti-Taliban) fighters has been a failure, an ill-conceived exercise in  militaristic hubris.  

Actually, it’s always been clear that the key to winning wars (as opposed to battles) in Syria (or Iraq or Afghanistan) must reside in the answer to this question: why do Islamist militants manage to achieve cohesion and  fight superbly without five star assistance from the U.S. or any modern military machine?  (The Kurds do pretty well, too, for that matter.)  And here’s the corollary question: why does that very same  training turn American recruits into really good soldiers?  

Obviously it’s not just the drilling and technical stuff that counts—though there’s plenty of documentary and observational evidence (much indeed in the book under review) to prove that Islamist militants get strenuous training to go along with their zeal.  Yes, zeal, the sine qua non which is rigorously, religiously and continuously bolstered by the ISIS leadership.  Islamists know what they are fighting for.  They are fighting for a very specific (this is important), entirely intelligible (however unsavory to outsiders) goal that ISIS, above all other Islamist militias, has brilliantly set forth: the reestablishment of the Muslim Caliphate and the imminent fulfillment of apocalyptic Muslim prophecies.  Similarly, the Kurds fight for Kurdistan (whether independent or “autonomous”).  And Americans, too, are fiercely patriotic when America is under threat.  

Sad to say, elements of American leadership have abused this loyalty and trust.  Ever since the astonishing events of 9/11, Americans have been encouraged to wallow in their emotions, to live in fear, to muddle around in helpless confusion over “mindless, senseless violence,” when exactly the opposite is true: Islamist violence is precisely targeted to achieve easily articulated, coherent ends.  And, thus, Americans have been turned into sheep, pathetic creatures incapable of measured intelligent response, easy prey for demagogues.    

The antidote to this state of dangerous malleability is reliable information, which is sufficiently available is this paradoxically short book: The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants, a distinguished scholar who directs the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.  He is “a guide proficient in Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies and Arabic”  and his promise is this:

“I am going to take you on a tour of the Islamic state.  We will explore its origins, meet its leaders, boo its fans and cheer its detractors.  You will read its propaganda, study its strategies, eavesdrop on its internal debates and follow its tweets.  Along the way I will explain its obscure allusions to Islamic history and theology so you can understand the ways the Islamic State uses and abuses Islam.  You will be able to appreciate how the Islamic State thinks of itself, how its self-understanding has affected its political fortunes, and what will happen if those fortunes change again.”

In short, for all the cruelty and violence of their methods, the leaders and members of the Islamic State behave like members of any other human group.  They thrive under certain circumstances, languish under others.  What can be understood can also be thwarted by the judicious application of that understanding.   

To further that process of understanding, let’s contemplate those alarming words “apocalypse” and “doomsday.”  Let’s bring them into the ambit of Western, especially American, experience involving fringe groups utterly convinced that the “end times” of the Christian apocalypse are nearly upon us.  Christians expecting to be lifted up into the heavens show as little pity for those doomed to a harrowing eternal death as Islamist jihadists  display for those who fail to accept their salafist principles.  The main difference?  The Christians who gaily desert the unsaved can claim to have unbloodied hands; Islamists feel obliged to render the punishment themselves. 

Maybe I should clarify something here.  I have no liking for the methods or goals of ISIS and related Islamist militias.  But I also oppose theocracies of any kind, their intolerance, their cruelty, their joylessness, their appetite for tyranny.  John Calvin’s Geneva would have held no charm for me either.

To return to the repercussions of 9/11, that day of infamy used so blatantly to impose a secretive, ever-prying national security state on the American population:  McCants structures his discussion, to a very large extent, by contrasting a fading but once triumphalist Al Qaeda with a burgeoning Islamic State.  He does not stress the ironies, but they are massive.  Again and again we’re treated to passages from communications in which Bin Ladin and his successors  berated ISIS leaders for being too impatient and too territorial, for using too many sticks and too few carrots.   Bin Laden, of course, was communicating from his rabbit hole in Abbotabad, while the Islamic State was attracting followers from around the world.  ISIS politely disagreed and, as of today, according to  McCants, “the Islamic State has demonstrated that a modern caliphate is possible, that doomsday pronouncements and extreme violence attract bloodthirsty recruits, and that cutting out the hearts and minds of a population can subdue them faster than trying to win them over.” 

But that cruelty has also created an inner resistance that sooner or later will erupt.  Just as Al Qaeda proved to be less than irresistible, ISIS has sown the seeds of its own destruction. ISIS leaders have admitted among themselves that that brutal methods have more than once led to a loss of control over conquered terrain.   Even so, McCants warns, nothing will fatally “sap the Islamic State’s base of support” until “the Shi’a governments of Iraq and Syria [make] the hard political compromises with their Sunni populations.”   

Nevertheless, McCants is “confident that the Islamic State’s governments in Syria and Iraq will crumble.”  For one thing, “no modern jihadist statelet has provoked international intervention and survived.”  BUT, “the disappearance of a jihadist statelet doesn’t mean the disappearance of the jihadists.  They will continue to wage insurgencies, taking advantage of the political instability and social unrest that gave rise to their statelets in the first place,” since ‘the current political conditions in the Arab world all but ensure that some jihadists will follow the Islamic State’s playbook.”

In sum, as American policymakers should note, only tolerant, honest, responsible governance  will deprive ISIS and its clones of life-sustaining nourishment.  Until then, the U.S. may win the odd battle, but the Middle East will remain in turmoil.   And the shocking scale of the 9/11 tragedy notwithstanding, terrorism in the U.S. will continue to be predominantly locally grown, a product of our own gun-happy culture.