The extreme radical beliefs and brutal actions that caused al Qaeda in Iraq to fail earlier remain the heart of the success of today’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), all because the political context of a decade ago and today have changed, a leading scholar on Islamic terrorism said Monday.
William McCants, the author of the ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, said the emphases “on state-building now” and “don’t put off the caliphate” because “we are waging he final battles of the apocalypse” are attractive to many young Islamic men across the globe.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, he said the political context of the early 2000s, when AQI took the field against a large American army in Iraq and a Shi’ite dominated government in Baghdad, has changed. AQI’s incredible brutality—public beheadings and other executions of anyone who did not believe as they believed or act in accord with their view of Islamic law—drove a number of tribes to link arms with the Americans in what is known as the “Sunni Awakening” and fight back.
Even core al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden then, were appalled by AQI’s actions and disowned it, McCants, a historian of religion at Brookings, said.
With the American military largely gone from Iraq, the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, Syria, were “interested in holding power” above all else and concentrating their firepower “on other rebels intent on overthrowing the central government.” That left large swaths of territory under no one’s control. The Islamic State began filling that vacuum.
What became the Islamic State always “believed themselves a state.” Instead of waging the far war against the West, they seized territory in Sunni regions from Aleppo, Syria, to Mosul, Iraq, a distance about the same as from Washington to Cleveland, and established a form of governance over it. They view attacking the West in Europe and the United States “almost as an afterthought.”
As before, “they demanded other groups bend their knee to them,” but now there was no large military force to oppose them. This time, their brutality “scared the hell out of the population” which had no one to link arms with to resist.
The Islamic State also used that brutality as a recruiting tool in other Arab countries and also in the West. McCants said its skillful use of social media resonated overseas and appealed to those “wanting to fight on the right side of history.”
Facebook and Twitter make it easier to connect those interested in jihad with the organizations and social media now are more available than 10 years ago and safer than Internet chat rooms.
The reasons for joining the Islamic State are varied: wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves, handling weapons, looking to get married at a young age, the availability of sex slaves—such as Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker captured by the Islamic State in 2013 in Syria who died in captivity—and hundreds of Yazidi girls and women.
While the al Nusra Front, a jihadi group linked to al Qaeda, and al Qaeda itself, “are far more choosy” about whom they recruit, the Islamic State “got a fair share of crazies,” McCants said. The Islamic State also makes itself relatively easy to reach because of Syria’s shared border with Turkey.
He called Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, or caliph, a unique figure. His nickname as a child was “the believer.” McCants said he went on to receive a doctorate in Islamic Studies at a recognized university in Baghdad and claims to be a direct descendant of Mohammed.
Al Baghdadi “was always very good at negotiating with others,” true even when he was held as a prisoner following the American invasion of Iraq. He brokered the competing interests of the Baathists, who had been removed from power in 2003, and the jihadists. He also successfully worked with Arab foreign fighters and Iraqi jihadists, as well as the Baathists, in forging the Islamic State.
McCants sees “pretty dark days ahead” as “other jihadi groups are going to see it as a model” to follow.