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SWJ interview with William McCants on The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin’s Press, September 2015).
By Octavian Manea
William McCants is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University and has served in government and think tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism, including as State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.
How should we define ISIS? Is it a state, an insurgency, a terrorist group?
Today I see the group as a proto-state. It offers governmental services, provides security, raises taxes, and does everything that other states do. And it sees itself as a state. When the organization was founded back in 2006 it proclaimed itself to be a state but was nothing of the kind. It was an insurgent group, and then by 2008 an underground clandestine terrorist group. After 2014, the fact that it controlled so much territory and governed so many people gave credibility to its claim to be a state.
What are the core differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS?
There are at least three major differences between al-Qaeda Central and the Islamic State. In some respect these differences existed from the beginning when Zarqawi’s franchise in Iraq joined up with al-Qaeda in 2004. The main difference was that al-Qaeda in Iraq believed in establishing an Islamic State or a Caliphate now, while al-Qaeda Central focused on getting rid of the Western powers in the Middle East and unifying Muslims behind al-Qaeda’s cause. The Caliphate would be established in the future. That was a major difference in terms of strategic timing with respect to actually creating an Islamic state.
The second difference was also a question of timing-when is the end of days coming? Bin Laden believed it would be very far in the future, while the Islamic State believes it is right around the corner. That belief almost destroyed the Islamic State in the early days. Now it has made the apocalypse and the end of days an effective recruiting pitch, especially when attracting foreign fighters for its cause.
The third difference is a question of strategy. Al-Qaeda Central always believed that you need to win over the Sunni masses in order to establish an Islamic state. For Bin Laden, popular support was crucial. If the masses didn’t agree with your political project, and with the way you were pursuing it, your political project would not endure. Al-Qaeda had a more hearts-and-minds approach in the Sunni world, which the Islamic State fundamentally disagreed with. The Islamic State believed from the beginning that it would be better to be feared than to be loved, and that waging a brutal insurgency campaign not only against their enemy, but also against their fellow Sunnis, would allow them to reach their political objective faster and more effectively than trying to win over popular support.
To what extent did personal biographies and formative experiences of the leaders influence the direction of their respective organizations? The AQ core formed in Afghanistan in the 1980s, while for AQI the formative experience was the invasion of Iraq. Do these experiences and legacies contribute to differences in the organizations?
I think you can go further back in time in their biographies and see how their differences in class influenced their perspectives on insurgency. Bin Laden came from the upper class of Saudi society. So did Zawahiri. He came from an elite family in Egypt. This was not Zarqawi’s background. He was a street thug before he became a jihadist. I think if you look at the way they wage insurgencies, you can identify some differences based on their demographic background. Bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted to wage a more high-minded campaign in the Sunni world, versus Zarqawi’s street thug tactics.
But I take your point about the differences in how their perceptions on insurgency and the usefulness of violence formed. In Afghanistan you had a broad-based coalition where a lot of Arabs were brought together by Abdullah Azam who wanted to play nice with the other Arab regimes and who saw the fight as a classic defense of the Islamic land against the infidels. The focus was on unity of mission rather than unity of mind. This is in deep contrast with the Iraqi experience, which was a sectarian inter-communal fight between Sunni and Shia deliberately provoked by Zarqawi, whose hatred for the Shia was all-consuming.
What are the reasons for the failure of AQI in 2008?
For Bin Laden, the lessons of the first Islamic State failure in 2008 were that the organization was too brutal, too unwilling to work with other rebel groups, and too insistent that everyone bend the knee to its cause. Again, he wanted to cultivate broad popular support for al-Qaeda’s program. Bin Laden also thought that AQI didn’t do enough to cultivate the support of the tribes, which were crucial for the success of the jihadist state-building enterprise.
The IS members that survived the killing of their leadership took the exact opposite lesson. Their conclusion was that they failed because they had not been brutal enough. These are two very different readings of the lessons of that period. Where they converge is in coopting and winning over the Sunni tribes in Iraq. There is a fascinating document from 2010 that looks like a Washington DC think tank report but was written by ISIS members in which they conclude that they need to work better with the Sunni Arab tribes. The model they recommended emulating was what the Americans had done in Anbar. They thought that the Americans had coopted the tribes brilliantly and that the Islamic State needed to follow the exact same model, which in some ways they have.
Why did Bin Laden have a fear of governing?
He had two reasons for discouraging the Islamic State and the other al-Qaeda affiliates from establishing Islamic governments. One was that he did not believe that those governments would last; the US would not allow them to last and would destroy them with overwhelming power. Until you got rid of the US from the region, he believed, you wouldn’t have the conditions required to establish a lasting state.
The second reason was that he didn’t feel that these groups were ready to govern. They didn’t have the necessary human resources, and the areas they wanted to govern had acute economic problems that the jihadists would not be able to cope with. Sooner or later the people would blame them for these failures and problems. It’s one thing when you are fighting against the government and another thing when you are the government and you have to own all these problems. Bin Laden believed the state-building projects would fail because the jihadists couldn’t deliver quickly on services.
Why did AQI fail?
It’s hard to say from the outside why the state failed, but it’s also hard to say from the jihadist perspective. Did they fail because they were too brutal and were not doing more to win over the population? Or because of outside intervention? This is a problem particularly for the global jihadists. Inevitably global jihadist groups, just by virtue of who they are and what they say, invite invasion and are overthrown because they level threats against powerful nations, particular Western nations. As a result, they can’t decide if their failure is a consequence of the outside intervention or if they were terrible at governing. The question is never settled.
To what extent did The Management of Savagery influence the strategy of ISIS?
It’s hard to say. It’s been around for many years, since 2004, and is highly valued by the leadership of ISIS. But if you read the book and compare it with the strategy that they actually implemented you will see similarities, but also some interesting divergences. The similarities are the focus on taking and holding territory and providing basic services. That is the plan outlined in The Management of Savagery and this is certainly a plan pursued by ISIS. The Management of Savagery talks about the need to coopt tribes or suppress them if they don’t cooperate, which is part of the ISIS blueprint. The book also strongly emphasizes the need to wage a brutal insurgency. A major difference is that The Management of Savagery recommends a broad-based coalition with other Sunni rebel groups, which is not a program that ISIS has followed. That’s more of a program followed by al-Nusra.
In a time of revolutions that really have shaken the Middle East order, what significance does the Abbasid revolution have on the mindset that ISIS is trying to mobilize?
The Abbasid revolution happened in the 8th century. The propaganda for that revolution called for a restoration of rule by the Prophet’s family. They regarded the rulers at the time as usurpers of Mohammed’s family. A lot of disgruntled people began to coalesce around the movement and around the idea that everything would be better once a descendant of Mohammed was on the throne.
They also portrayed their movement in apocalyptical terms. The person that would come to the fore to lead the movement would be a savior called the Mahdi who would be the rightful ruler of the empire. There are a lot of similarities between their propaganda and the Islamic State’s propaganda today. Apocalypse, caliphate, and revolution were essential for both movements. The Islamic State emphasizes the lineage of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a direct descendant from Mohammed, which has garnered support for the State’s program. One additional thing that they emphasize is the centrality of Iraq and particularly Baghdad, which was also important for the Abbasid Caliphate.
What explains ISIS’s success under Baghdadi? What made ISIS better at state-building?
It is a confluence of a political context that was favorable to the rise of this kind of organization and the right kind of organization that could capitalize on the political context. If you look at ISIS’s strategy and recruitment, it used the same formula it had in 2007 but the politics then weren’t favorable to its program. It was acting like a state, but nobody wanted it there. It was facing a powerful US military that was capable of working with the tribes against it, the government in Baghdad was cooperative, and Syria was still under the iron fist of the Assad family, none of which was favorable to ISIS. You compare that with the politics that followed the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria. The chaos gave ISIS a new strategic opportunity, and its formula all of a sudden worked. Its emphasis on state-building suddenly worked because it focused on taking the Sunni hinterland in Syria and Iraq while every other rebel group focused on overthrowing the Assad government. In short, ISIS’s focus on building its own state rather than leading revolution against an existing state worked in its favor.
Then, the apocalyptic recruiting pitch which had nearly destroyed the organization in its early days became critical to its success in attracting foreign fighters to its cause. These foreign fighters have really given the organization an edge in the insurgency because they didn’t have many ties with the locals so they can afford to be far more brutal, which coincides with ISIS’s strategy of ruling through fear.
The third thing that worked in its favor was that the lack of an American military to stop ISIS from taking over the Sunni hinterland. ISIS did not have to worry about a popular uprising because the population had no strong external parties to turn to for help. At the same time, as a consequence of Baghdad’s and Damascus’s divisive policies, the restive Sunnis were ripe for the ruling by someone who wanted to establish a state and who had enough manpower and experience to do so.
How sustainable is this extreme brutality as a foundation for long-term state-building?
You would hope not very, but over the course of my research, I had to accept that this is a political strategy that can work. We forget that this terrifying approach to state building has been tried before. Extreme brutality is not incompatible with establishing a state. The Taliban came to power and ruled in a similar way. It was as brutal as ISIS, its state would not have collapsed had it not antagonized a powerful Western nation. We would still be talking about the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan today. Brutality works and can be durable. The challenge for ISIS is that like the Taliban, they will inherently antagonize foreign nations. Foreign intervention is what poses a threat to ISIS and may lead to its destruction, not the nature of its governing style.
What do you see as necessary to fight ISIS successfully? Degrading – the emphasis that we see today – is definitely not the same as defeating.
This is a hugely complex issue, especially because of the disaffection of the Sunni Arabs living in the land between Syria and Iraq. Until the Iraqi and Syrian governments reach an accommodation with them that is acceptable to all parties, this conflict is going to endure. It may not manifest as the Islamic State, but we will see similar groups emerge to capitalize on this disaffection, whether to channel it against the government or to exploit it as the Islamic State has done. Addressing the underlying politics driving this Sunni disaffection has to be high on the agenda. Even if Baghdad and Damascus reach some sort of political accommodation with the Sunnis, those governments will still have to take care of their material needs. They have to equitably provide goods and services and fairly apply the rule of law.
The difficulty that I see in an international intervention is that it lets the local governments off the hook. The US and its allies may come in and solve the ISIS kinetic problem, but this will not solve the political problem. It will absolve local governments of making the tough political choices required to end the Sunni disenfranchisement that fuels the insurgency.
I am also hesitant to recommend that kind of Western intervention because I don’t believe it’s sustainable. After more than a decade of war and occupation, the domestic political will is not there. There is no will for these long-term military commitments.
We are very focused on maintaining the integrity of Syria and Iraq. That may be the right thing to do, but I also wonder if we shouldn’t start contemplating more of a federal system of governance. The current formula is not working.
What made ISIS more popular than AQ in the context of the global jihadist movement? Is the ISIS brand becoming more powerful than AQ?
ISIS has definitely become more popular than AQ and has really seized the imagination of the global jihadist movement precisely because it has been able to take and hold territory and proclaim itself the Caliphate. And it is not an empty claim. By the same token if it were to lose its state, that would put at risk its political program. Since it stakes its legitimacy to control of the land, it makes itself and its political project vulnerable if its land is taken away. The appeal of the Islamic State rests on its ability to endure and expand. Take either of those away and you erode its legitimacy.