At approximately 9:40 p.m., on Nov. 13, 2015, three heavily armed gunmen stormed into the Bataclan theater in Paris and began killing people at random. According to some of the survivors, the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is great.” But the gunmen also reportedly exclaimed, “This is for Syria” and “What are you [the French] doing in Syria? You’re going to pay now.”
These statements gesture at the complex tangle of motivational factors behind contemporary Islamic terrorism. By the terrorists’ own admission, their murderous rampage was carried out in the name of both religion and (a perverted form of) political justice. Yet many commentators in the West — some with large media megaphones — are attracted to highly simplistic, overly reductive explanations of Islamic terrorism.
On one side are what the former Islamist Maajid Nawaz calls “regressive leftists” who deny any significant link between religious belief and Islamic extremism. Rather, these “regressives” claim that Islam has been “hijacked” by outlaws who are really — even secretly — motivated by social, economic, or political grievances (such as the 2003 Iraq War). On the other side are apologists for U.S. foreign policy who stubbornly deny that Western intervention in the Middle East has had a significant role to play in the rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, among other groups. As one advocate of this view states, it’s pure liberal “masochism” to suggest that “we created them” (meaning the terrorists) and that we are, therefore, “in every morally relevant sense, getting exactly what we deserve.”
Unfortunately, both of these extremes miss the mark. As with so many intellectual debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. First, it’s crucial to recognize that radicalization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are specific societal conditions that can, and do, influence the probability that otherwise moderate believers will drift toward the fringe and adopt radical jihadist ideologies in the first place. In fact, the scholarly literature on this issue strongly affirms, through detailed historical analyses and empirical investigations, this very point. To paraphrase the terrorism scholar Mark Juergensmeyer, extreme conditions breed extreme religion. This being said, once a radical ideology becomes an integral component of one’s mental software, it can indeed have a profound effect on one’s behavior, perhaps even leading one to engage in violent acts of catastrophic terrorism that would otherwise be morally unthinkable.
Making matters worse, these two factors can reciprocally interact such that societal instability (caused, for example, by a military invasion) provokes radicalization, which leads to “retaliatory” attacks, more violence, and even more radicalization. And so on. It’s precisely this cycle of conflict that the West and the Middle East are currently locked in, and which could become immensely worse if someone with the foreign policy competence of, say, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz were to get into the Oval Office.
With the 2016 presidential election rapidly approaching, U.S. foreign policy in the next four to eight years could change dramatically. It’s crucial that whichever candidate enters the Oval Office next January — as well as everyone else heading to the polls in November — listen to what the experts have to say about the nature and root causes of terrorism. Without a sophisticated understanding of this ongoing threat, our policies in the Middle East are doomed to be ineffectual — or worse, self-destructive.
There are few scholars today with greater expertise on Islamic militancy than Will McCants. With a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, McCants is the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. McCants has also recently authored a marvelously comprehensive book, "The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State."
Over email, I queried McCants about the etiology of terrorism, the role of religion and U.S. foreign policy in fueling anti-American extremism, and the future of terrorism in a world cluttered by increasingly powerful new technologies.
Thanks for talking to me, Dr. McCants. To begin, what role does religion play in shaping the Islamic State’s strategy? Would it be a mistake for analysts in the West to ignore the influence of religious beliefs when trying to understand the group’s ideology and behavior?
This is a tough question to answer because religion and politics intermingle in the Islamic State, just as they intermingled in the state created by Islam’s founder, Muhammad. Islam was born in a fractious, tribal society that had no central government. Muhammad used religion to unite the tribes into a larger polity. Unsurprisingly, much of Islamic scripture has to do with the maintenance of that polity. Matters of state were matters of religion and vice versa. That changed somewhat over the centuries but the Islamic State is more interested in reviving the earliest period of Islamic history when religion and politics were fused.
Scripture and sira — the biography of Muhammad — influence the Islamic State’s goals more than they influence the group’s strategy and tactics. The State’s leaders want to reconstitute the early Islamic empire and implement the fixed punishments required by scripture. They also believe prophecy has foretold their inevitable conquest of the world, which is one reason why they war with everyone.
Although the Islamic State’s goals seem static, they have shifted somewhat over the years when confronted with reality. The founder of the Islamic State in 2006 believed a messiah was going to appear at any moment, so he made terrible battlefield decisions as a consequence. His successors learned from his mistakes and changed their interpretation of prophecy. They emphasize the return of the caliphate as the fulfillment of prophecy rather than the appearance of a messiah. They changed their doctrine for the sake of survival. It’s unlikely but not inconceivable that the Islamic State will also modify its imperialism in order to survive. Medieval Islamic groups that were just as apocalyptic made the same turn in order to survive once they established states.
As for tactics and strategy, the Islamic State’s leaders pick and choose what they think will work best given the circumstances. When scripture and sira justify what they do, they cite it. When it doesn’t, they ignore it or explain it away. The burning of the Jordanian pilot is a good case in point. Burning an apostate is forbidden by Islamic scripture because only God can punish apostates with fire. Yet the Islamic State decided to light the Jordanian “apostate” on fire in retribution for Jordan’s bombing of Islamic State positions. The Islamic State argued that the scriptural prohibition on burning apostates was superseded according to the principle of lex talionis (eye for an eye).
The history of Western intervention in the Middle East is extensive, to be sure. Do you think that, as Noam Chomsky has argued (among others), the 2003 U.S.-led preemptive invasion of Iraq is to blame for the current crisis? To what extent did Sunnis in the region interpret the Iraq War as a fulfillment of prophecy, and thus a call to fight against the invading forces?
The Islamic State would not be with us today if the United States hadn’t invaded Iraq, so in that sense Chomsky is right. Jihadists take advantage of any disorder to advance their cause. They move into security vacuums to build states, they recruit among the aggrieved parties, they grab loose weapons, etc.
Prior to the U.S. invasion, the modern Sunni world was uninterested in apocalypticism. We know this from the work of Jean-Pierre Filiu, who documented the poor sales of Sunni books about the apocalypse before 2003. After 2003, sales of books about the apocalypse soared among Sunnis. Islamic prophecies of the End Times say that Iraq and Syria will be the sites of the final battles, so when there’s major upheaval in either country, it invites an apocalyptic interpretation.
Interestingly, the Islamic State is one of the very few jihadist groups to recruit on the basis of the apocalypse. I argue in the book ["The ISIS Apocalypse"] that it gave them an edge over the other jihadist groups when recruiting foreign fighters. Few things fire the imagination of foreign youth than a chance to rebuild God’s kingdom on Earth. Many of the fighters who took part in the First Crusade joined for the same reason.
Do you believe that it’s a strategic mistake for political leaders like President Obama and Hillary Clinton to refrain from using the term “Islamic terrorism”? How important is naming the real problem, rather than tiptoeing around the issue?
I don’t mind that they avoid its use so long as the reason is the right one. The right reason is to avoid playing into the jihadist story that the United States is waging a war against Islam. The wrong reason is to deny that jihadists have anything to do with Islam. We can argue over whether they cite scripture properly or whether their beliefs cause their behavior. But to deny that jihadists have anything to do with Islam is untenable.
Along these lines, is it unreasonable to suggest that Islam might be inherently more violent than other religions? After all, the Global Terrorism Index reports that Islamic groups, most notably Boko Haram and the Islamic State, are the greatest engines of global terrorism today. As a thought experiment: If Middle Eastern conditions were held fixed (ceteris paribus) while the religion of Islam were replaced with, say, Jainism, would we see the same kind of violence in the wake of the Iraq War?
Perhaps it’s useful to separate two things here: scripture and behavior. The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an call for more violence than the New Testament does. But did that lead Christians to be less violent than Jews and Muslims? It depends on which slice of history you’re considering. In the Middle Ages, Europe was far more violent than the Middle East and much of that violence was justified on religious grounds.
That said, if you look at the world today, most of the violence justified in religious terms is committed by Muslims. Can they cite scripture to justify some of the violence? Sure — as I said, they have plenty to draw on. But the historian in me wants to know why they feel compelled to do so now more than at other times. What’s going on politically and socially that invites these sorts of justifications? That’s not to sidestep the issue of scripture and violence or to say it’s purely a function of deeper structural issues. But there’s an interplay between culture and context that’s missed when we talk about one to the exclusion of the other.
Your question about Jainism is interesting. We don’t have many world religions that repudiate violence to the extent the Jains do. Even so, the Jains recognize the legitimacy of self-defense, a notoriously malleable doctrine that can be used to justify anti-colonial violence. When Muslims destroyed Jain temples in the twelfth century, for example, Jain leaders like Jinadatta Suri said fighting back was not only justified but meritorious. So while it may be tough for Jains to reformulate their doctrines enough to justify the kind of nasty insurgency we saw in Iraq, it’s not inconceivable.
Some observers have suggested that we give the Islamic State exactly what it wants: to meet them in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, where the Islamic State expects a grand battle — essentially Armageddon — to occur between the Muslims and the “Romans.” We should then use our superior military might to decimate their forces, thereby proving that the Islamic State’s apocalyptic vision is, in fact, a mere delusion. Do you think this is advisable? Could it offer a long-term solution to the problem of extremism?
What I’ve learned studying the Islamic State and other apocalyptic militias throughout history is this: prophecy is always right. If the Islamic State’s soldiers are annihilated at Dabiq, they will say that wasn’t the real battle of Dabiq.
I know it sounds strange coming from the guy who wrote a book about the Islamic State’s apocalyptic beliefs, but I don’t think we should pay those beliefs much mind when we contemplate our battlefield response to the Islamic State. Yes, the Islamic State believes there will be an apocalyptic showdown in Dabiq. But it also believes — again based on prophecy — that the “Romans” will make a truce with the Muslims (which the Romans will eventually violate). The Islamic State will rewrite the apocalyptic script to fit whatever we do, so we should do what’s best and not pay the scriptwriting much mind.
I see. On a similar note, the Republican candidate Ted Cruz has suggested that we “carpet bomb” the Islamic State, and Donald Trump has (in certain moods) proposed killing the family members of terrorists. My sense is that military action in general, and these strategies in particular, would significantly exacerbate the problem of anti-American extremism overseas, thereby fueling more Islamic terrorism. If this intuition is correct, what other options are there? How can we mitigate the threat of terrorism?
Jihadism thrives in chaos, so the first order of business is to end the multiple civil wars raging in the Middle East. This is a tall order and it will take years, but it’s what will hurt the jihadist cause most. Pressing our regional partners to provide better services in urban areas with high youth employment will also go some way toward curbing jihadist appeal.
I know this is not a ringing call for exporting democracy or warring with ideas but I’m skeptical of both. With few exceptions, countries in the Middle East don’t have the strong middle class and non-governmental organizations necessary to transition to democracy successfully. That doesn’t mean we should stand in the way of people who want democratic change, but we also shouldn’t be naïve about their chances for success.
As for the war of ideas, or, more accurately, promoting Western liberalism, I don’t think it will have much effect on the jihadist movement. Jihadists draw recruits from a very small sliver of society, and it’s hard to imagine a time when there won’t be a few angry youth who want to kick some ass and save the world. Nazism is still with us and still attracts fans despite the triumph of Western liberalism and the fall of the Third Reich. Why do we suppose jihadism will fare any worse? We should promote Western liberal values but we should also be clear-eyed about the limited effect they will have on jihadist recruiting.
The contemporary world is witnessing the exponential development of increasingly powerful “dual-use” technologies, especially in the fields of biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and even artificial intelligence. In some cases, these technologies are not only becoming more powerful, but more accessible as well. Do you think that active apocalyptic groups à la the Islamic State will pose a growing threat because of this? If new technologies make it possible for small groups to wreak unprecedented havoc on civilization, could apocalyptic ideologues emerge as a preeminent “agential threat” to humanity in the future?
I can’t prove this quantitatively but my intuition is that apocalyptic militias make riskier decisions than non-apocalyptic groups. If you think the world is going to end soon, you’re more likely to engage in risky behavior. If you believe that your actions can and should hasten the end of the world, then you’re more likely to do something catastrophic. So yes, I think apocalyptic groups like the Islamic State are less risk-adverse and thus more likely to use devastating new technologies to further their aims.