Book Review — The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants is the history of growth the Islamic State movement. McCants is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is also adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and has held various government and think tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism. From 2009 to 2011, McCants served as a U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.

Nations need a boogeyman to direct their hostilities. Before Islamic extremists, America had Communists. Castro kept Cuba under control by blaming shortages and failures on the United States. An outside enemy provides a distraction from internal problems. Sometimes the threat is real and other times it’s not. There is no doubt that ISIS is real, but what is it and how much of a threat is it to America?

McCants sorts through the movement’s history and its relationship with Al Qaeda and Bin Ladin. There have been several attempts to set up an Islamic State in the Middle East. Yemen met with failure. The attempt in Ethiopia met with early success but failed in several ways. First strict enforcement of Islamic law including banning of tobacco alienated the local population, and the bombings in Kenya ended any hold the Islamic State held there.

The idea of unity in the movement is dispelled in the book. Bin Laden had his issues with the Islamic State in Ethiopia. The state there sold charcoal to earn money to support itself. Bin Laden wrote and said they should look for other ways to earn money. Cutting down scarce trees for a quick profit would do long-term environmental damage. Bin Laden came off sounding more like Al Gore than a terrorist leader. Al Qaeda had its issues with Bin Laden’s attack on America. They had believed in using force, but controlling it as not to involve international retaliation. The direct attack on the US was seen as counterproductive to the creation of an Islamic State. Foreign intervention into Arab land does not help the cause, much like the Japanese learned after bombing Pearl Harbor.

McCants gives a history of the Islamic movement including the split between the Sunni and Shiites. What we see in Islamic history is a history of factionalism. Although a monotheistic religion, it is not monolithic. Groups claiming to create an Islamic State often do so on their own volition. Al Qaeda supports winning the hearts and minds of the local population and gradually introducing Islamic law. Groups creating the so-called Islamic States use force and violence to intimidate and control. Restrictions on Muslims killing other Muslims is overlooked or rationalized away. Syria’s Assad is using the Islamic State as a tool to distract from his attacks against his enemies. The ISIS group in Iraq is a splinter group from Al Qaeda and has driven the more moderate Al Qaeda out of Iraq.

The ISIS Apocalypse gives a detailed history of the movement and its fractured history. Its strict code is based on medieval texts and the coming apocalypse. McCants writing contains topics that are controversial, but he backs up his claims. Nearly one-third of the book is bibliography used to support the author’s writing. The ISIS Apocalypse is a well written and informative history of not only the Islamic State but also Islam in general. What we in the west see as a monolithic movement is hardly that, but it’s violence and ruthlessness is very real.


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