Probably the most interesting aspect of the sudden rise of the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria) is the apocalyptic nature of the group. While hitherto most Salafi-jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and its ideological affiliates have avoided excessive embrace of the apocalypse, IS has completely identified itself with the end of the world. This attitude has its roots in the (many) previous incarnations of IS, going back to the period of Abu Musa`b al-Zarqawi (2003-6), during which the language utilized by its public statements and videos was that of an apocalyptic battle against the twin enemies of the Coalition (U.S. and allies) forces and the Shi`ites. Because the comparatively smaller Sunni minority could never hope to overcome the Shi`ites through numbers, there was need, so Zarqawi reasoned, to widen the battle to include all Sunnis—especially those in the neighboring countries.After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, IS went through a particularly apocalyptic phase, where apparently a great deal of its energy was spent in the search for the Mahdi, the messianic ruler foretold in Muslim tradition. Although one of the processes by which IS began to reconstitute itself as a viable force in 2012-13 was jettisoning this excessive apocalyptic focus, it was reignited in a different direction with the capture of the hitherto insignificant northern Syrian town of Dabiq in 2014.
It is ironic that Dabiq is only mentioned once in the Muslim traditions, in the collection of Muslim (one of the two most respected collections of tradition, the other one being that of al-Bukhari) with the statement that the Byzantines would descend upon Dabiq at the end of time to fight the apocalyptic battles.
One has to say that it is a bit audacious of IS to focus on the apocalypse. Other Salafi-jihadi groups have avoided this tendency because of the excessive specificity of the traditions—which could lead to outsiders divining their intentions or supporters being disillusioned by losses of regions mentioned in the traditions—or because apocalypse is a bad recruiting method. It is difficult to recruit fighters when one firmly believes that God is going bring the victory anyway. Earlier Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria tended to utilize more general apocalyptic themes with regard to Syria but avoided the specific prophecies that IS brought out of obscurity.
The rise to prominence of ISIS was fairly obvious from approximately 2012, when it began to take an interest in the developing Syrian civil war (which began in 2011). Although there was already an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra, which had the support of many Arabic-speaking Salafi-jihadis, including the al-Qaeda leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Islamic State saw different possibilities in the Syrian civil war. Since it was not fighting a religious-nationalist war, it, unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, was not tied specifically to a given country. The Islamic State’s principal claim to fame in the radical Muslim world has been the fact that it is entirely a game-changer—it is willing to ignore national boundaries in order to create an Islamic state. Even the Salafi-jihadis of the 1990s and early 2000s were unwilling or unable to take this to its logical extreme.
The Syrian civil war, like the Iraqi civil war, can be divided into phases: an initial phase of popular anger against the Ba`thist regime (2011-12), a period of sectarian and group consolidation (2012), which saw many of the smaller Syrian opposition groups amalgamated into the larger ones, and the secular western-friendly groups virtually disappear, and then a third phase which has been characterized by the stabilization and to some extent the rehabilitation of the regime on the one side, and the growth of the ISIS on the other. At the present time the various sides are almost evenly matched, with the Ba`thist regime firmly entrenched in the western section of Syria, while the Salafi-jihadis control the north and east. However, with the addition of Shi`ite forces from Hizbullah and Iran (especially relying upon the Afghani Shi`ites as cannon fodder), and the air-strikes of the Russian air force, the scales are starting to tip in favor of the regime.
Just as in Iraq during the early 2000s the brutal tactics of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS alienated most of the early secular opponents of the regime, who have been by default forced to go back to supporting the Ba`thists. ISIS’s policy of beheading westerners (fall 2014) killed off just about any support that non-Muslim countries might have had for the Syrian opposition.
But probably the most significant attractant feature associated with ISIS is its proclamation of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, which demonstrates its deep-rootedness in Islamic law and presents the appearance of the caliphate as the sum of that to which Muslims aspire. The apocalyptic sense of the appearance of the caliphate is confirmed by the citation of the tradition stating that the rule will be handed over to Jesus, who will appear at the end of the world as a Muslim, and it is apparent that the Caliph Ibrahim (otherwise Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) sees this event as a close one. The caliph’s title indicates his desire to renew Islam and monotheism as a second Abraham (cf. Q 60:4) Anyone looking at ISIS’s many communications and videos is struck by the strong sense of Islamic tradition and legal thought that pervade these statements. Virtually everything that ISIS does is rooted in Islamic tradition.
It equally is apparent also that the proclamation of the caliphate struck a deep cord with a certain element of world Islam, as the Islamic State continues to receive large numbers, perhaps up to 30,000 or more, fighters and Muslims who have immigrated to swell its ranks. While some of those are no doubt swayed by the idealistic fulfillment of prophecy that is contained within the caliphal proclamation, ISIS has other rewards as well. Because of the continual conquests in Iraq and Syria ISIS has been able to capture large numbers of captives, of whom the women are often used as slaves. Probably one of the most revealing documents to be published by ISIS in its English-language on-line journal Dabiq has been “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” which promotes the idea that sexual slavery is one of the signs that the world is about to end. While the exegesis is a bit dubious, there is no doubt that the theoretical ability of Muslims to hold sexual slaves persists among certain elements of Muslim jurisprudence. However, until the rise of ISIS one cannot say that this was a major theme. ISIS is able to attract numbers of young fighters by its ability to provide sexual slaves.
The trajectory of IS seems quite clear. Although as a state it may fail in the region of Syria and Iraq as both states seek to recover territories lost during the period of 2013-15, its appeal as a trans-national Salafi-jihadi phenomenon is overwhelming. For the first time in centuries Muslims, albeit Salafis, have a state that is completely based upon Islamic norms, unapologetically, towards the outside world. This experience for many marginal Muslims, especially those in the west or in repressive Muslim regimes, has proved to be an extremely liberating one, as there is a substantial sub-set of the community as a whole that is longing to bring the period of apologetics towards the outside world to a close.
Most likely IS will continue its apocalyptic trajectory even after it is wiped out in Syria and Iraq, and may even seek to heighten its apocalyptic-style operations into something more dramatic. As it has sought for a number of years to gain the attention of the world through an ever-increasing diet of horror, it may feel that as the tide turns against it that it needs something more to energize the Muslim world to its cause.
—David Cook, Associate Prof. of Religion, Rice University