Will McCants writes with expertise and aplomb about the Islamic State, its history, and the foundations of its efforts at regional dominance. While, some of the zig-zagging back and forth in time requires a bit of gymnastics from the reader, the book is both educational and entertaining. Anyone interested in learning about this organization from a truly qualified scholar would benefit from a read of this book.
Dr. McCants proclaims himself, rightly, as a guide, proficient in Islamic theology and history, modern jihadism, clandestine bureaucracies, and Arabic. The good doctor flexes his linguist muscles with translations of original Arabic texts, providing crucial context to the situations he describes.
The book covers the history of the organization, beginning with distinctions between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; such as, AQ wanted to build popular support for caliphate, but IS wanted to impose a caliphate, regardless of the acquiescence of the masses. The book details Zarqawi’s rise to prominence and obsession with Nur al-Din and Saladin. Zarqawi linked his organization in Iraq to AQ [forming Al-Qaeda in/of Iraq (AQI)] but his brutality drew censure from Al-Qaeda Central. Once Zarqawi was killed and al-Baghdadi became commander of the faithful, AQI dissolved and was absorbed into IS with Masri as minister of war.
From there the book focuses attention on the Islamic State’s flag symbolism and parallels with historical references to the Abbasids. After Masri and Baghdadi killed in 2010, the focus shifted yet again. The group floundered until the Americans left and the Arab Spring happened. The next section details the beginning of the online presence through magazines and Twitter. Cautionary tales and lessons learned by the IS are presented in the rise and fall of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as failure to govern by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and Ash-Shabab (Somalia’s offshoot of violent jihadism). The book turns to the unlikely rise of Baghdadi and details sectarian divides, apocalyptic guidance, and the seizure of Mosul, while detailing some distinctions between the Abassid dynasty and IS.
Dr. McCants concludes noting many of the contradictions make the group hard to explain, noting that IS is “too entrenched for quick solutions.”
The group does not rely on outside funding. McCants believes that airstrikes can degrade, but not destroy, the organization. The only way to damage the Islamic State is to hurt its “ability to endure and expand,” thereby eroding its legitimacy. Sectarian governments must give way to true representation, meaning that Shia governments have to accommodate Sunnis. Noting that Iranian support for Shia militias probably means less attention is required from Coalition partners for those militias, freeing them to focus on Sunni efforts at countering the IS.
The one surprise for me was that the book was really
14% index and acknowledgements
The translations add value to the manuscript and provide and interesting comparison for anyone interested in comparing Dr. McCants’s translations to other sources. The endnotes show the level of research that went into the work. While the index makes the work more approachable to those without time to read the entire book.