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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The ISIS Apocalypse

The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

William McCants

Picador

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

PREFACE TO THE 2016 EDITION

As I finished writing this book early last year, I had a stylistic decision to make. What tense would I use to describe the Islamic State’s capabilities and intentions? The State’s enemies had not yet dented the group’s government in Syria and Iraq, so perhaps better to use the present tense to convey the gravity of the moment or the future tense to titillate readers with visions of a darker future. But the historian in me worried. What if the group’s behavior and priorities suddenly changed? My caution won out, and I used the past tense throughout most of the book, satisfied with explaining why the group had succeeded so spectacularly in establishing a state in 2014.

I made the right call, if only because of what followed a month after the book was published: the Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula brought down a Russian airliner by smuggling a bomb on board. The attack killed all 224 passengers. The Islamic State revealed that its Sinai affiliate had initially planned to attack a Western airliner but made a last-minute change after the Russians began bombing rebel positions in Syria.

Two weeks later, Islamic State operatives who had trained in Syria coordinated an attack in France. Nine men split into three teams and stalked the crowds enjoying the Parisian nightlife. “You could hear someone methodically reloading his gun so he could start “ring at us again,” remembers one survivor of the massacre. The attackers killed 130 and wounded 368 more using assault rifles and suicide vests. The Islamic State claimed the attack was in reprisal for Western “strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.”

The attack in Paris made many non-Muslims in the West more fearful of their fellow Muslim citizens and more hostile to Muslims fleeing violence from the East. The fear in the United States intensified to near 9/11 levels after two isolated Islamic State supporters in San Bernardino, California—a husband and wife—killed more than a dozen of the husband’s coworkers.

In Europe and the United States, politicians on the right exploited the paranoia for political gain—some went so far as to call for a ban on Muslim refugees. The Islamic State, which had been dismayed by earlier European and American openness to the refugees, gleefully watched as the “gray zone” Western Muslims inhabited between assimilation and alienation sharpened to a black-and-white choice. More alienated youth meant more potential recruits for the Islamic State.

The seeds of the Paris and Sinai attacks were planted a year before in the summer of 2014, when America first dropped bombs on Islamic State soil in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps worrying that it was too vulnerable, the State looked for ways to alleviate the pressure. In September, its spokesman publicly urged supporters around the world to attack Western countries in revenge; privately, he began organizing European operatives in Syria to return home to coordinate attacks. A month later, the Islamic State announced its expansion into new territories throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The loss of a quarter of its territory in Syria and Iraq over the following year and the death of thousands of its fighters deepened the Islamic State’s sense of urgency. Always hoping to expand its caliphate and attack the infidel West, the group had the resources and the need to accelerate its timetable.

If necessity is the mother of terrorist innovation, money is the father. The Islamic State’s $2 billion war chest, though diminished, was more than enough to fund deadly new start-ups on the battlefield that will mature and migrate if given enough time. The group reportedly has a team of scientists developing chemical weapons and it has flown surveillance drones that could be rigged with explosives. Less exotic and less expensive attacks would be no less deadly. The Paris attack may have cost as little as $10,000.

The Islamic State’s attack in Paris touched off a debate about the group’s intent. What did it hope to achieve by murdering dozens of civilians? Did it want to deter Western nations from carrying out more strikes against the Islamic State or to provoke them into a large-scale ground invasion? Unhelpfully, the Islamic State offered both explanations for the attack in its online magazine. Bin Laden had done the same after 9/11. He, like the Islamic State, wanted the United States to go all out or all in, no mushy middle. Politicians and the public don’t like the mushy middle either. They want to know for certain why the Islamic State attacked the West, and they want an equally clear response—all out or all in.

Dissatisfied with the ambiguity, some turned to the Islamic State’s apocalyptic prognostications to divine the group’s intent. A candidate for the American presidency repeatedly asserted from the debate stage that the Islamic State wanted to trigger an “apocalyptic showdown” with the West in Syria. A New York Times reporter confidently cited the Islamic State’s love for the prophecy as evidence that it wants “the United States and its allies to be dragged into a ground war.” But prophecy is not a reliable guide to the group’s intent—it has also cited other prophecies of a truce with the “Roman” West as another possible outcome of the current conflict. The future is written but it depends on what prophecy one reads.

Though reluctant to use the future tense when writing the book, I ventured my own predictions about the fortunes of the Islamic State. I anticipated its government in Syria and Iraq would collapse and its “provinces” abroad would multiply and spread. Both are proving true, and I derive some small satisfaction that I was right to go against the prevailing skepticism of the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But my accurate guess about the spread of the Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa is not a testament to my predictive prowess. It was obvious to anyone who has watched how capably the Islamic State capitalizes on the chaos roiling the region.

If I am right that the Islamic State pushed to expand its territory and terror network abroad in response to Western nations attacking its lands in Syria and Iraq, then we should anticipate more expansion to compensate for fresh setbacks on the battlefield. As of this writing, its strongest province in Libya already has an estimated 6,500 fighters, controls 173 miles of coastline, and governs a city and several towns. And an Islamic State defector disclosed that the group is urging would-be jihadist immigrants to stay home—they are more useful building cells abroad than dying in battle. The more the United States and its allies succeed in destroying the Islamic State’s government, the more terrorism it will face. That is not an argument to do nothing but rather an acknowledgment that success will come at a bloody price.

I look forward to the day that I can write about the Islamic State in the past tense alone. But that day is far distant.


CHAPTER ONE

RAISING THE BLACK FLAG

On a mild August morning in 2014, a passerby noticed a black flag hanging outside a rundown duplex in suburban New Jersey. He could not make out the flag’s black-and-white Arabic, but he recognized the design from the news. All summer, American televisions and computer screens had been filled with reports of horrific acts committed by a renegade al-Qaeda group in Syria and Iraq, accompanied by foreboding images of masked jihadists waving the flag. From Morocco to Mindanao, jihadists were fighting under the banner to realize their dark vision of God’s rule on earth. Alarmed, the passerby sent a picture of the house and its flag to his friend Marc Leibowitz, a former Israeli paratrooper working as an investment manager in New Jersey, who promptly tweeted the picture and the address with the caption “Scary!” The prospect of a jihadist proudly displaying his colors in America guaranteed the tweet went viral. Leibowitz also informed Homeland Security.

When the police arrived, the flag’s owner, Mark Dunaway, had no idea anyone had tweeted a picture of it. Dunaway had converted to Islam a decade ago, he explained, and flew the flag to mark Muslim holidays. “Every Muslim uses that black flag,” he said. “You’ll find it in any mosque in the world. I am an American citizen and I love my country, but I am also a Muslim and I use that flag to say I’m a Muslim.” Still, Dunaway could see why people would be concerned, and he took down the flag. “I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that’s not the intention of that flag at all. It says ‘There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Muhammad is his messenger.’ It’s not meant to be a symbol of hate. Islam is all about unity and peace. I am not a part of any group like that, and I’m not anti-American. I love my country, but I am a Muslim.”

Doubtless, Dunaway sincerely believed he did not support a militant group by flying the flag, as attested by the police’s disinterest in the case and his neighbors’ testimonials. Dunaway, like many Muslims and even Middle East experts, did not know the flag was designed by an al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State, after it proclaimed its statehood in 2006. It certainly wasn’t in every “mosque in the world” as Dunaway thought. He and others were confused because the Islamic State had used terror and Twitter to advertise its brand and Islamic tradition to obscure its meaning.

Before the Islamic State declared itself the caliphate reborn that summer, it had been ambiguous about the flag’s meaning and the cause it represented. Was it the flag of an Islamic state or the flag of the Islamic state, the caliphate that had once ruled land from Spain to Iran and whose prophesied return would herald the end of the world? The Islamic State encouraged the second interpretation but let the global community of jihadists read into the flag and the “state” what they would.

And read into them they did, with many taking up the flag and promoting the Islamic State as the fulfillment of prophecy long before it declared itself as such. The Islamic State’s cause proved so compelling among jihadists that in 2014 the organization supplanted its former master, al-Qaeda, to lead the global jihadist movement. The spread of the flag, then, traces the spread of an idea and chronicles a major changing of the guard in the global jihadist movement over the past nine years. It also represents a revolution in how jihadists think about acquiring power and holding onto it.

Although it took nearly a decade to play itself out, the Islamic State was destined to fall out with al-Qaeda from the start. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to build popular Muslim support before declaring the caliphate. The Islamic State wanted to impose a caliphate regardless of what the masses thought. The dispute that divided parent from child was there from the Islamic State’s conception

PROBLEM CHILD

In 1999, a hotheaded Jordanian street-tough-turned-jihadist, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, arrived in Qandahar, Afghanistan, seeking an audience with al-Qaeda’s leaders. The young Zarqawi wanted to foment revolution in the Fertile Crescent, the land stretching from the eastern Mediterranean through Iraq. Zarqawi had been to Afghanistan before, just after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989. Too late to fight in the war, he soon returned to Jordan, where he failed as a terrorist and spent time behind bars for his effort. Now out of prison, Zarqawi had come back to Afghanistan to gather money and recruits for his cause.

Al-Qaeda’s man in Qandahar, Sayf al-Adl, did not contact Zarqawi immediately. A former special forces colonel in the Egyptian military, Sayf had learned to watch and wait. He had Zarqawi followed.

Sayf’s spy reported that Zarqawi frequently argued with other jihadists because of his extreme views on who should count as a good Muslim. Zarqawi especially disliked the Shi’a, one of the two major sects in Islam. Zarqawi, a Sunni, disagreed with the Shi’i doctrine that Muhammad’s son-in-law and some of his male descendants were infallible and the only legitimate political and religious leaders of the early Muslim community. He also believed the modern Shi’i state of Iran colluded with the West to oppress Sunnis. When Sayf finally met Zarqawi, he found him a man of few words who sincerely wanted to bring Sunni Islam back to “the reality of human life.” But Zarqawi did not have a lot of specific ideas for how to do it.

Sayf relayed his impressions of Zarqawi to his bosses in al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Bin Laden, was the son of a wealthy Saudi building contractor, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a surgeon who had run an Egyptian terror group before merging part of it with al-Qaeda. Both men would oversee the 9/11 attacks, which were premised on their belief that the American infidel should be killed wantonly. But when it came to Muslims, Bin Laden and Zawahiri were more cautious. They believed Muslim support was crucial for driving the Americans out of the Middle East and establishing Islamic states. It wouldn’t do to make enemies on all sides, especially over theological differences. Some have even speculated that Bin Laden’s own mother grew up in a small Shi’i sect. Unity of mission rather than unity of mind was what was needed.

Despite their misgivings about Zarqawi’s extreme views, Sayf recommended his bosses support the Jordanian hothead because they had so few Palestinian or Jordanian allies. They consented but would not invite Zarqawi to join al-Qaeda; he would have refused anyway. Rather, they coordinated and cooperated with him “in serving our common goals.”

Sayf and his companions came up with a plan for Zarqawi to establish a training camp in Afghanistan to attract jihadists from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Herat was chosen because of its proximity to the Iranian border, where it was easy to move men and materiel across. Over time, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iraqis arrived. Zarqawi also reached out to the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam organization in northern Iraq.

By the beginning of 2001, Zarqawi was no longer a jihadist neophyte in the eyes of Sayf. He had “begun to think and plan strategically for the future.” Reading widely about world events and Islamic history, Zarqawi was struck by the figure of Nur al-Din Zengi, the ruthless medieval ruler of a dominion stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq who had driven the crusaders from Syria.

Zarqawi undoubtedly admired Nur al-Din’s ambition and remorseless efficiency. In one account, Nur al-Din had besieged a crusader citadel in Syria. The crusaders finally capitulated and approached Nur al-Din to discuss terms. “He would not consent to their request,” as a medieval Muslim historian euphemistically put it. When crusader reinforcements arrived to lift the siege, they saw the citadel wall “and the dwelling of its inhabitants were entirely in ruins.”

“[Zarqawi] was always asking for any book available about Nur al-Din and his protégé Saladin,” Sayf recalled, referring to the ruler of Egypt who battled Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades. “I believe that what he read about Nur al-Din and his launch from Mosul in Iraq played a big role in influencing Abu Mus’ab [al-Zarqawi] in his decision to go to Iraq after the fall of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan” in 2001.

The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” had been established in 1996 by the Taliban, conservative Sunnis who swept to power in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989. In medieval Islamic thought, an “emirate” (imara), or government of a region, is subordinate to the “state” (dawla), the empire ruled by the caliph. But in the absence of a caliph, jihadists today sometimes use “state” and “emirate” interchangeably when talking about the government of a country they’d like to create. The Taliban’s emirate brought order to Afghanistan by strictly enforcing Islamic law. It also gave shelter to like-minded jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Zarqawi’s outfit.

After the fall of the Taliban, Zarqawi and Sayf fled Afghanistan for Iran. There they discussed where Zarqawi should go next. After “long study and deliberation,” Sayf later wrote, Zarqawi’s group decided to relocate to Iraq, where their “appearance” and “dialect” would help them blend in. Zarqawi and Sayf anticipated that the Americans would “invade Iraq sooner or later” to overthrow the regime. “It was necessary for us to play a major role in the confrontation and resistance,” Sayf recalled. “This is our historical opportunity . . . to establish the state of Islam, which would play the greatest role in lifting injustice and bringing truth to this world, by God’s permission. I was in agreement with brother Abu Mus’ab [al-Zarqawi] in this analysis.”

For Sayf and presumably for Zarqawi, the “state of Islam” was the caliphate itself. Sayf used to believe that “the Islamic state of the caliphate” would develop from the Taliban’s Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. But the American invasion in 2001 had ended that dream. Iraq was a second chance.

In 2002 and early 2003, Zarqawi set about building his clandestine network in Iraq. When the Americans invaded in March 2003, Zarqawi’s cells in Baghdad were ready to greet them. Zarqawi himself arrived in June. By the end of August, his new group, Monotheism and Jihad, had bombed the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, as well as the mosque of Imam Ali, one of the holiest shrines of Shi’i Islam. The subsequent departure of the UN mission and rising fury of Iraq’s majority Shi’a signaled the beginning of a bloody sectarian civil war.

Zarqawi’s group had not pulled off the attack alone. It had help from former security officers in Saddam Hussein’s government, casualties of the Bush administration’s purge of Saddam party loyalists. They, like other disenfranchised Arab Sunnis, feared the rise of the country’s Shi’i population who had lived under the yoke of Saddam and minority Sunni rule for decades. There was a reckoning coming, and Sunni jihadists and nationalists were willing to put aside their ideological differences for the time being to unite against a common foe: the Americans and the majority Shi’a who stood to benefit from the occupation.

Zarqawi’s hatred of the Shi’a was all-consuming. To his mind, the Shi’a were not just fifth columnists, selling out the Sunnis to the Americans. They were servants of the Antichrist, who will appear at the end of time to fight against the Muslims. The Americans served the same master.

Zarqawi’s hatred of the Shi’a made him lose sight of his long-term political goals. When he applied for membership in al-Qaeda in February 2004, he did not mention an Islamic state or a plan for achieving it. Rather, he explained his strategy for winning over the Sunnis, defeating the transitional government, and driving the infidels from Iraq: Provoke the Shi’a. “If we are able to strike them with one painful blow after another until they enter the battle, we will be able to reshuffle the cards. Then, no value or influence will remain to the Governing Council or even to the Americans, who will enter a second battle with the Shi’a. This is what we want, and, whether they like it or not, many Sunni areas will stand with the mujahidin.” (Mujahidin, or “those who fight in a jihad,” is how jihadists refer to themselves.)

Zarqawi knew he would be criticized as “hasty and rash,” “leading the Muslim community into a battle for which it is not ready, a battle that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled.” So be it. “This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation. The Shi’a have destroyed all those balances.”

If al-Qaeda’s leaders would assent to his strategy, Zarqawi offered to swear allegiance to them, joining his group to theirs: “If you agree with us on it, if you adopt it as a program and path, and if you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy, we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media, vexing the infidels and gladdening those who preach the oneness of God.”

Al-Qaeda’s leaders were wary. Bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted to compel the U.S. military to leave the Middle East and to stop supporting local autocrats. Their strategy was to attack the Americans and stir Muslim resentment against them. Building popular Muslim support for their cause was vital; the caliphate could not be established without it. In contrast, Zarqawi wanted to first overthrow local autocrats and eliminate the “traitorous” Shi’a, whom he believed were collaborating with the Americans to subjugate the Sunnis. His strategy was to ignite a sectarian civil war. Popular support mattered far less to Zarqawi than it did to Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He could will a caliphate into being regardless of what its subjects might say.

Despite their reservations, Bin Laden and Zawahiri accepted Zarqawi’s oath of allegiance, joining his Monotheism and Jihad group to their own in October 2004. Al-Qaeda had just mounted a disastrous terror campaign in Saudi Arabia and was desperate for a role in the growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Zarqawi may have wanted to tap into al-Qaeda’s network of private Gulf funders, operational expertise, and recruitment apparatus. Thus, al-Qaeda in Iraq was born.

Zarqawi was elated. “Our noble brothers in al-Qaeda understand the strategy of the Monotheism and Jihad group in the land of the two rivers, the land of the caliphs,” he declared in his pledge to al-Qaeda’s leaders, “and their hearts are overjoyed by its method there.” “Perhaps,” wrote Zarqawi, the group would establish the “caliphate according to the prophetic method.” As we will see later, Zarqawi was alluding to an Islamic prophesy of the caliphate’s return shortly before the End of Days.

Although Bin Laden and Zawahiri shared Zarqawi’s desire to re-establish the caliphate, they advised him to proceed slowly and build popular support. In July 2005, Zawahiri wrote Zarqawi, urging him to establish an Islamic “emirate” only after the jihadists had expelled the United States from Iraq. The jihadists were to then “develop” and “consolidate” the emirate as far as they could inside the Sunni areas of Iraq until it reached “the level of the caliphate.” The mission of the jihadists thereafter was to protect the caliphate’s domain and expand its borders until the Day of Judgment.

Despite encouraging Zarqawi to establish an emirate after the American withdrawal, Zawahiri warned him not to attempt it before securing the support of the Sunni masses. Al-Qaeda’s “two short-term goals” of “removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate or caliphate in Iraq” both required “popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and the surrounding countries.” “In the absence of this popular support,” Zawahiri predicted, “the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows.”

Zawahiri counseled Zarqawi to overlook the heresies of Sunni religious scholars, whose support al-Qaeda needed, and to cooperate with Sunni community leaders. Zarqawi should also stop broadcasting hostage beheadings. The beheadings may thrill “zealous young men,” Zawahiri chided, but the Muslim masses “will never find them palatable.” In general, the jihadists “shouldn’t stir questions in the hearts and minds of the people about the benefit of our actions . . . we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim] community.”

Zawahiri even went so far as to question Zarqawi’s attacks on Shi’i civilians, the cornerstone of Zarqawi’s strategy to provoke a sectarian civil war. “My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.” In addition to jeopardizing public support, Zawahiri doubted the morality of these sectarian attacks. “Why kill ordinary Shi’a considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shi’a?”

Another al-Qaeda leader in Bin Laden’s inner circle, Atiyya Abd al-Rahman, was blunter in a December 2005 letter to Zarqawi. Echoing the nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Atiyya reminded Zarqawi that “policy must be dominant over militarism. This is one of the pillars of war that is agreed upon by all nations, whether they are Muslims or unbelievers.” Atiyya cautioned that unless the jihadists’ “short-term goals and successes” serve their “ultimate goal and highest aims,” they would simply exhaust themselves to no effect.

Atiyya reminded Zarqawi of the fate of the Algerian jihadists in the 1990s. After Algerian Islamists had won the first round of voting for parliament in 1991, the military had cancelled the elections. Some Islamists turned to violence and, as the civil war dragged on, a jihadist faction began to murder civilians. Their short-term tactical successes won through brutality blinded them to how much they had alienated the Muslim masses. As Atiyya reminded Zarqawi, “They destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delusions, their ignoring of people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance, and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy, and friendliness.” It was not their enemy that defeated them; “they defeated themselves.”

Atiyya knew what he was talking about. In 1993, al-Qaeda had sent the young Libyan to Algeria to liaise with the jihadist groups there. Rather than welcoming Atiyya, the worst of the groups imprisoned him. Atiyya managed to escape months later, but he was haunted by the experience. “I think [he] is still having nightmares about it,” recounted someone who knew Atiyya’s story.

Like Zawahiri, Atiyya reminded Zarqawi of the long-term objective he was fighting for: the establishment of the caliphate. “My brother,” Atiyya wrote, “what use is it for us to delight in some operations and successful strikes when the immediate repercussion is a defeat for us of our call, and a loss of the justice of our cause and its logic in the minds of the masses who make up the people of the Muslim nation?” “You need all of these people,” Atiyya observed, if you want “to destroy a power and a state and erect on its rubble the state of Islam.”

“What am I commanding you to do?” Atiyya asked rhetorically. “Remedy the deficiency.”

Atiyya detailed what he and other al-Qaeda leaders expected of Zarqawi. He should make no major strategic decisions without first consulting Bin Laden and Zawahiri. And he was to win over and work with influential Sunnis in Iraq, even the heterodox. Stop killing them, “no matter what.”

Atiyya also counseled Zarqawi to stop insisting Sunni rebels join his organization and leave other jihadist groups: “Whether they come into the organization with us or not . . . they are our brothers.”35 Zarqawi initially agreed with Zawahiri and Atiyya that expelling the Americans was the priority. “First, we will expel the enemy,” he explained in an interview. “Then we will establish the State of Islam.” After that, the jihadists would “embark on conquest of Muslim lands to reclaim them,” and then set their sights on the infidels.

But by April 2006, Zarqawi had changed his mind. When he announced a consultative council composed of several jihadist groups including al-Qaeda, he described it as the “nucleus for establishing an Islamic state.” That state, he proclaimed, would be established in three months.

After the United States killed Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq carried out its leader’s dying wish. Rather than wait to establish the Islamic state until after the Americans withdrew and the Sunni masses backed the project, as Bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted, the Islamic State was proclaimed on October 15, 2006. As we will see in the following chapter, the timing of the Islamic State’s announcement was based on an apocalyptic schedule. The al-Qaeda front group that made the announcement insisted that Muslims in Iraq pledge allegiance to a certain Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and acknowledge him as “commander of the faithful.” No one had ever heard of him, not even other jihadists.

STATE OF CONFUSION

The Islamic State called its mysterious leader the “commander of the faithful” to encourage jihadists to think of him as the caliph without explicitly saying so. Historically, Muslims reserved that title for the early Islamic caliphs, the spiritual and temporal heads of a vast empire. Abu Umar al-Baghdadi’s alleged descent from the Prophet’s tribe, which many Muslims consider a prerequisite for the caliph, hinted at his entitlement to the position. Abu Umar even claimed descent from one of the Prophet’s grandsons, Husayn, in an attempt to appeal to those who would confine leadership of the Muslim world to descendants from Muhammad’s family, just as medieval caliphs had done.

The name of the Islamic State was equally ambiguous. The group had called itself a state rather than an emirate, the latter a more common word used by jihadists to describe small territory ruled by an emir. The word “state” in Arabic, dawla, can either mean a modern nation-state or evoke the memory of medieval caliphates like the Dawla Abbasiyya, which spanned Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa. The Islamic State played on this ambiguity to encourage its followers to view it as the protocaliphate, sometimes
calling itself “the Islamic State in Iraq” rather than its official name of “the Islamic State of Iraq.”

Although most of the Islamic State’s members at this time were part of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State made no mention of al-Qaeda or of members’ preexisting oaths of allegiance to Bin Laden or to Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. Only four months earlier, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi and later the founder of the Islamic State, had proclaimed his undying loyalty to Mullah Omar as “commander of the faithful” and to Bin Laden as the head of al-Qaeda. “We . . . are an arrow in your quiver. Shoot us where you wish for we are naught but an obedient soldier.”

Al-Qaeda’s supporters around the globe were confused. Was the new Islamic State part of al-Qaeda or something different? The jihadist pundit Akram Hijazi complained that al-Qaeda had not released an official statement and there was no sign of official coordination between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Bin Laden and Zawahiri had pledged oaths of allegiance to Mullah Omar, as had the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Were those oaths dissolved now? Who was in charge? Why, Hijazi wondered, was the hitherto unknown Abu Umar al-Baghdadi not just named a governor under the authority of the commander of the faithful, Mullah Omar?

Another jihadist Internet commentator summarized the confusion rampant in the private discussion boards where jihadists hung out before the advent of Twitter. “How can we pledge allegiance to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi when we may have pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar? What do we do with the pledge of allegiance to Shaykh Osama if we want to pledge allegiance to Shaykh Abu Umar?”

The truth was that Bin Laden and Zawahiri had been caught by surprise. “The decision to announce the State was taken without consulting the leadership of al-Qaeda,” American al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn confided in a private letter. As he saw it, the unauthorized announcement “caused splits in the ranks of the mujahids and their supporters inside and outside Iraq.” Zawahiri would later recall that “the general command of [al-Qaeda] and its emir Shaykh Osama bin Laden (God bless him) were not asked for permission, consulted, or even warned just prior to the announcement of the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq.”

Behind the scenes, the Islamic State sought to heal its rift with Bin Laden and Zawahiri. The former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the actual leader of the new Islamic State, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, assured his bosses that the “commander of the faithful,” Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, had pledged an oath of allegiance to Bin Laden in front of the jihadist brothers in Iraq. They did not announce it publicly “due to some political considerations that they saw in Iraq at that time.” Masri was attempting to preserve the Islamic State’s ties to al-Qaeda while encouraging the public to think of it as a separate entity. He wanted the world to view his group as a state and not a terrorist franchise. Ambiguity, again, was critical to the Islamic State’s early
propaganda.

Masri used the same strategy in his public statements. A month after the Islamic State’s founding, Masri hailed it as an important step in the “program of the Islamic caliphate.” In the same statement, Masri pledged his allegiance to the shadowy “commander of the faithful,” Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, announced the dissolution of al-Qaeda, and reassigned all its fighters to the Islamic State of Iraq. “All of them have pledged allegiance unto death in the path of God,” Masri assured the commander of the faithful. “You will only find us listening to what you say and obeying what you command.”

In the five succeeding months, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State hammered home the same point: Al-Qaeda in Iraq was no more. “Al-Qaeda is but one of the groups in the Islamic State,” Abu Umar declared in December 2006.” “It is more correct to say,” instructed the Islamic State’s ministry of media, “that the brothers previously in the organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq became part of the ‘army of the State,’ which includes dozens of battalions and thousands of fighters from the remaining jihadist groups that pledged loyalty to the commander of the faithful after the announcement of the State.” On April 19, 2007, an Islamic State spokesman announced that Masri was now the minister of war in the State’s first cabinet.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders were not only angered that the Islamic State had challenged Bin Laden’s authority by not seeking his approval. They were also convinced the Islamic State had declared itself too soon. In the spring of 2007, a senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu al-Walid al-Ansari, asked a string of pointed questions of the group. Why had the state been declared now rather than later? Had its appointment of the commander of the faithful followed Islamic rules? Why had the Islamic State announced that anyone who opposed it was a sinner? Ansari reminded the Islamic State that it needed the broad support of the people it wished to govern and the consent of their leaders if it was going to survive. By declaring itself prematurely, the Islamic State had taken on the burdens of governing and invited foreign intervention, both of which could prove lethal to the nascent enterprise.

Other jihadists were even more pointed in their criticisms. The Kuwaiti scholar Hamid al-Ali argued that an authentic Islamic State should be able to impose its authority over those it governs. The Islamic State did not meet that standard. The Islamic State also failed to meet classical Islamic requirements for establishing an Islamic government, at least according to al-Ali. “It is not recognized in Islam to pledge allegiance to an unknown, concealed leader who has no authority . . . [or] established state” capable of imposing Islamic law, al-Ali wrote. Mullah Omar could declare a state in Afghanistan in the 1990s because he actually ruled it at the time; Abu Umar al-Baghdadi ruled nothing. Declaring a state in Iraq under false pretenses, al-Ali charged, had divided the jihadist movement in Iraq, which should be united under the banner of jihad rather than the banner of a single group.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan looked on in shame and dread as its problem child stumbled in its first few months. Atiyya Abd al-Rahman, Bin Laden’s chief of staff who had sent the 2005 letter upbraiding Zarqawi, shared his worry with a confidant “about the brothers making political gaffes.” “You must have heard Abu Umar’s recent sermon,” he wrote, referring to the Islamic State’s nominal leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. “In my view, it was filled with obvious errors. There were things in it that a commander should never say.” The speech gave the impression that they were “extremists and gave life to the notion that they are self-absorbed and too hasty!” Atiyya worried that if “they continue in this way, they will become corrupt and . . . lose the people,” allowing the enemy to turn the populace against them. “None of the enemies scare me, I swear, no matter who they are, or how intimidating they may be. . . . But I do worry about our and our brothers’ mistakes, bad behavior, and lack of wisdom at times.” Reminiscent of the letter he had written Zarqawi, Atiyya confided that he himself had chastised the Islamic State’s leaders: “I was a little hard on them.”

Despite al-Qaeda’s private misgivings, its leaders presented a united front in public and endorsed the establishment of the State. They probably wanted to keep a hand in the Iraq game and avoid further dissension in the ranks. “I want to clarify that there is nothing in Iraq by the name of al-Qaeda,” said Zawahiri in a December 2007 question-and-answer session. “Rather, the organization of [al-Qaeda in Iraq] merged, by the grace of God, with other jihadist groups in the Islamic State of Iraq, may God protect it. It is a legitimate emirate established on a legitimate and sound method. It was established through consultation and won the oath of allegiance from most of the mujahids and tribes in Iraq.”

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq may have become part of the Islamic State and the Islamic State may have privately joined al-Qaeda, but the public would not know the nature of the relationship between the two groups for years to come. The Islamic State itself never addressed the question publicly, again relying on ambiguity to imply greater power and autonomy than it possessed. The Islamic State’s ambiguous audacity would capture the jihadist imagination and become crucial in its later rise to power. Nothing embodied the propaganda strategy better than the Islamic State’s flag.


MAKING THE BLACK FLAG

When the Islamic State first announced itself on October 15, 2006, it had no flag of its own. It was not until January 2007 that al-Qaeda’s media distribution arm, al-Fajr, released a picture of the Islamic State’s new flag. Anonymous authors affiliated with the Islamic State explained its design.

Unsurprisingly, the Islamic State had turned to the Prophet’s example for inspiration, quoting passages from Islamic scripture and historical accounts. “The flag of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is a black square made of striped wool,” according to one account. Another depicts Muhammad “standing on the pulpit preaching” surrounded by fluttering black flags. “On the flag of the Prophet was written ‘No god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’” The flag even had a name: “the eagle.”

Although the authors acknowledged other reports of green, white, and yellow flags, they concluded the Islamic State’s flag will be black because most of the reports about Muhammad mention a black flag. “The commander of the faithful [Abu Umar al-Baghdadi] issued his decree, informed by knowledgeable people, that the flag of the Islamic State is black.” The authors were equally confident when explaining the banner’s text, which is the Muslim profession of faith. “What is written on the flag is what is written on the flag of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him: ‘No god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’”

The Islamic State’s design of the Muslim profession of faith is unique, different from every other attempt to replicate the Prophet’s flag: “No god but God” is scrawled in white across the top and “Muhammad is the Messenger of God” is stacked in black inside a white circle. As the authors noted, they took the circle’s design from a seal of the Prophet used on letters supposedly written on his behalf and housed in Topkapi Palace in Turkey. The seal’s design, the authors argued, comports with historical reports of what the Prophet’s seal looked like. Never mind that modern scholars doubt the letters’ authenticity. We are meant to believe the Islamic State had inherited the Prophet’s seal, just as the early caliphs had.

Why make a flag? In addition to following the Prophet’s example, the Islamic State wanted a symbol to rally people to its cause. The State quoted a nineteenth-century Ottoman historian and official, Ahmad Cevdet Pasha, to make the point: “The secret in creating a flag is that it gathers people under a single banner to unify them, meaning that this flag is a sign of the coming together of their words and a proof of the unity of their hearts. They are like a single body and what knits them together is stronger than the bond of blood relatives.”

Like all fundamentalist attempts to revive the early days of their faith, the Islamic State’s leaders had to choose among contrasting scriptures and histories from their religion’s past to paint a portrait of what they aspired to in the present and future. Their choices display the cultural biases and modern sensibilities they try so hard to displace. They selected a stark black for the flag rather than green, yellow, or white; the color suits their Manichean worldview, which permits no gray areas between the binaries of right and wrong, believer and unbeliever. The white scrawl across the top, “No god but God,” is deliberately ragged, meant to suggest an era before the precision of Photoshop even though the flag was designed on a computer. Even the Islamic State’s quotation of Ahmad Cevdet Pasha unwittingly betrays modern sensibilities. Influenced by European notions of nationalism yet desiring to hold together the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire under sovereign Turkish rule, Cevdet Pasha imagined Islam and its symbols to be the glue. The sentiment underlies his utilitarian outlook on religion. “The only thing uniting Arab, Kurd, Albanian and Bosnian is the unity of Islam. Yet the real strength of the Sublime State lies with the Turks.” Try as they might to re-create the imagined utopian era of the Prophet, the people who designed the Islamic State’s flag were still captives of their age. The quest for authenticity is a very modern pursuit.

As with its flag, the Islamic State unwittingly organized and described itself in modern ways. A jihadist pundit complained that the Islamic State used modern words to describe its bureaucracy: “[Words] in the expressions ‘Spokesman on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq’ and ‘the Minister of Education’ are found in Arab and Islamic history but their form appears closer to the reality of today than any Islamic reality.” The same pundit also griped that confining the state to Iraq was too close to modern notions of the state. The original caliphal state had been a large empire with ever-expanding borders, not a state contiguous with any particular nation like the modern nation-state.

Despite its ambiguity, the Islamic State was dropping hints that it aspired to be more than a modern nation-state. Its flag carried the seal of the Prophet, a sign of authority inherited by the caliphs. As we will see, the flag’s color also evoked a powerful early caliphate. But there was something more. The Islamic State ended its explanation of its flag’s design with a prayer: “We ask God, praised be He, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims. We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid . . . the Mahdi at the holy house of God.” The house of God is the Ka’ba in Mecca, the holiest shrine in Islam, and the Mahdi is the Muslim savior who will appear there in the years leading up to the apocalypse. The Islamic State was signaling that its flag was not only the symbol of its government in Iraq and the herald of a future caliphate; it was the harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days.

THE RIGHTLY GUIDED ONE

Legends of the black flag and the Muslim savior, the Mahdi, first circulated during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the Islamic empire from the ancient city of Damascus in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. The dynasty’s founders, the Umayya clan, had seized the caliphate from Muhammad’s son-in-law and grandsons, which infuriated many Muslims. The father of the dynasty’s founder Mu’awiya had persecuted Muhammad and his early followers before he later converted. The founder’s mother had even eaten the liver of Muhammad’s uncle.

People unhappy with Umayyad rule and the way they had seized power circulated prophecies of a man of the Prophet’s family who would return justice to the world. They called the man the Mahdi, Arabic for “the Rightly Guided One.” Many of the prophecies envision the Mahdi appearing in the End of Days to lead the final battles against the infidels. It is the Islamic version of the Christian Battle of Armageddon. The Final Hour and Day of Judgment will soon follow.

To give the prophecies added heft, they were often attributed to Muhammad. “[The Mahdi’s] name will be my name, and his father’s name my father’s name” went one. “He is a man from my family” went another.
Like most Islamic prophecies of the End of Days, those about the Mahdi are not found in the preeminent scripture of Islam, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe preserves God’s revelation to Muhammad. Rather, the prophecies are found in voluminous compendia of the words and deeds of the Prophet and his companions, known as ahadith. Because the ahadith were written down decades or even centuries after the Prophet’s death, they often re?ect later political, social, and theological developments rather than what actually happened. Muslims argue over the veracity of individual ahadith and the contradictions between them the way some Christians debate the reliability of the Gospels and their discrepancies.

End-Time prophecies were an especially inviting target for fabricators. In the internecine wars that tore apart the early Muslim community, each side sought to justify its politics by predicting its inevitable victory and the other side’s preordained defeat. What better way to do this than to put the prophecy in the mouth of the Prophet? Prophecies proliferated, reaching into the thousands. When the politics evaporated, the prophetic residue remained. Throughout the centuries, new politics would give the residue new meaning, a phenomenon familiar to readers of the Christian Book of Revelation for nearly two millennia.

Over the years, the prophecies of the Mahdi have inspired many claimants. How could they resist? Whether the claimant was sincere or not, claiming the spiritual and political power of the Mahdi made a potent recruiting pitch. Think Jesus and George Washington rolled into one.

“The common people, the stupid mass, who make claims with respect to the Mahdi,” wrote the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, “assume that the Mahdi may appear in a variety of circumstances and places.” Because the masses are gullible, he observed, leaders wrap themselves in the savior’s mantel to mobilize them.

Militant messiahs are not unique to Islam. Whether in the Middle Ages or the modern world, groups that want to overturn the social and political order often use apocalyptic language. The Jewish “messiah” Bar Kokhba led an insurgency against the Romans, which the emperor Hadrian brutally repressed, reportedly killing hundreds of thousands, desecrating holy sites, and banning Jews from Jerusalem. The 100,000 European foreign fighters who flooded into Palestine under the banner of the First Crusade believed they were hastening the End of Days. In modern times, some members of the Israeli settler group Gush Emunim sought to hasten the coming of the messiah by blowing up the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam. The megalomaniacal Christian “savior” Joseph Kony still hides in the Central African Republic, leading the child soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army.

The two main sects in Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, each had numerous messianic aspirants in the Middle Ages, some of whom established caliphates. These aspirants often claimed the title of Mahdi. “I am Mahdi of the end of time” proclaimed the Sunni founder of the Almohad caliphate in Spain and North Africa. The Shi’i founder of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt claimed the same for himself and later for his son. Muslims who opposed them were apostates deserving death, a consequence of defying God’s anointed.

The first Mahdi didn’t actually claim the title himself. In AD 685, a little over fifty years after Muhammad’s death, a man named al-Mukhtar led a rebellion against the Umayyads in Iraq in the name of the Mahdi, whom he identified as a grandson of Muhammad. Al-Mukhtar claimed to be the Mahdi’s vizier. In addition to leading a rebellion, he is also remembered for prophesying in verse and parading an Ark of the Covenant around Kufa, Iraq. Many of those who rallied to his cause were non-Arab or Jewish converts to Islam who chafed at being treated like second-class citizens in the Arab-dominated government. “They used to say that only three things interrupt prayer,” records an early Spanish-Arab historian: A donkey, a dog, and a non-Arab convert to Islam.

The discontent only reinforced the Umayyads’ sense of entitlement and fueled their resentment of the new converts who supported the Prophet’s family. Were it not for us, complained an early Umayyad caliph, the entire Muslim world would be subservient to the non-Arabs rallying around the Prophet’s family. They have become uppity, he allegedly wrote his governor in Iraq, and need to be put in their place.

Supporters of the Prophet’s family loosely aligned themselves in what historians call the Hashimite movement, which believed the Mahdi would be a descendent of Muhammad’s great-grandfather Hashim. Many of the movement’s supporters were from Iran, where Zoroastrian legends prophesied the coming of a club-wielding savior who would appear at the End of Time followed by sable-clad disciples. Influenced by the prophecies, the Hashimite supporters donned black clothes, flew black flags, and carried around wooden clubs called “infidel-bashers.”

Iranians and descendants of the Arab conquerors of Iran felt alienated from the remote Umayyad clan ruling from Damascus. “These lands belonged to our ancient fathers!” protested an Arab rebel commander who had grown up in Iran. The early Arab caliphs had once ruled Iran justly, he recalled, and “helped the oppressed.” But the Umayyads had made pious people fear the family of the Prophet, so Iranians and Arabs alike had to rise up against them to restore the rule of Muhammad’s progeny.

As the revolutionaries built support for their cause, they circulated prophecies of soldiers fighting under black flags who would come from the East to overthrow the Umayyads. Some were put in the mouth of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, who allegedly foretold the coming of an army from Khorasan, the “land of the rising sun” that includes parts of modern eastern Iran and most of Afghanistan. “The companions of the black flags that will approach from Khorasan are non-Arabs. They will seize power from the Umayyads and kill them under every rock and star.” Other black flag prophecies were attributed to the Prophet himself. “The black banners will come from the East, led by men like mighty camels, with long hair and long beards; their surnames are taken from the names of their hometowns and their first names are from kunyas” or teknonyms in the form of Abu So-and-So. “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan,” instructs another, “go to them immediately even if you must crawl over ice because indeed among them is the caliph, al-Mahdi.” In early Islam, the color black was associated not just with mourning but also with revenge for a wrongful death. The pre-Islamic poet Imru al-Qays donned black when he went out to negotiate with the tribe that had murdered his father. When the Arab pagans defeated Muhammad’s army at Uhud, his supporters dyed their clothes black to signal their desire to avenge the loss. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, the opponents of the Umayyads adopted black as their color to avenge the Umayyads’ persecution of the Prophet’s family. “Their flags were black as a sign of mourning for the martyrs of their family, the Hashimites, and as a sign of reproach directed against the Umayyads who had killed them.”

Black flags were also flown by the Prophet in his war with the infidels. “Do not flee with [the flag] from the infidels and do not fight with it against the Muslims,” Muhammad reportedly told one of his generals.

When Muslims raised the black flag against the Umayyad caliphs, the caliphs understood the doubly implied threat: vengeance for the family of the Prophet against the “infidel” Muslim rulers who had usurped them.

The seeds of anti-Umayyad propaganda had been sown by a secret network of revolutionaries. The network was led by a shadowy imam, or spiritual leader, descended from the Prophet’s uncle Abbas who hoped to use the Hashimite movement to come to power. His agent, Abu Muslim, conducted the propaganda effort and eventually commanded the armed revolt. Their revolutionary agitation on behalf of the Abbasid family came to a head in the Islamic year 129 (AD 746–747), when the imam sent a black “flag of victory” to Abu Muslim in Iran. The flag arrived with a message: “The time has come.” Abu Muslim unfurled the black flag, dubbed “the Shadow,” on a lance fourteen cubits high and publicly proclaimed the Abbasid’s revolutionary call on June 9, 747, the twenty-fifth day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. After unfurling a second flag, “the Clouds,” Abu Muslim and his companions donned black robes. “As the clouds cover the earth, so would the Abbasid preaching,” the people were told. “And as the earth is never without a shadow, so it would never be without an Abbasid caliph to the end of time.”

Fighting under the black flag, Abu Muslim’s armies swept west-ward into Syria and Iraq. They overthrew the Umayyad caliph and pledged allegiance to a new one, al-Saffah, a brother of the Abbasid imam, who had been executed. The caliph proclaimed himself the Mahdi of the Muslim community, supposedly filling the world with justice and inaugurating the “blessed revolution,” dawla mubaraka, from which the new empire took its name, Dawla Abbasiyya. It’s thanks to the Abbasids that dawla came to mean “state.”

There are striking parallels between the Abbasid revolution and the Islamic State revolution. They share a name (dawla), symbols and colors, apocalyptic propaganda, clandestine networks, and an insurgency in Syria and Iraq. They also claim the right to rule as the Prophet’s descendants. The Abbasids had provided a blueprint for how to overthrow a Muslim ruler, establish a new caliphate, and justify both. Apocalypse, caliphate, and revolution were inseparable, just as they are for the Islamic State.

Apocalyptic messages resonate among many Muslims today because of the political turmoil in the Middle East. In 2012, half of all Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia expected the imminent appearance of the Mahdi. And why wouldn’t they, given the revolutions sweeping the Arab world? The signs that herald his coming have only multiplied since. A great sectarian war tears Syria asunder. Iraq is in chaos. The “infidel” West has invaded. The “tribulations” (fitan) are too awful and apparent to brook mundane explanations.

Despite the propaganda value of apocalyptic messages, al-Qaeda’s leaders were reluctant to use them. Sure, al-Qaeda held press conferences in “Khorasan,” part of which is in Afghanistan, backed by a different version of the black flag. The name of al-Qaeda’s magazine, Vanguards of Khorasan, evokes the same prophecies, and its media outlet is called al-Sahab, or “the Clouds,” perhaps alluding to the Abbasid flag.

But all these examples merely hint at the apocalypse. Al-Qaeda’s leaders rarely referred to Islamic End-Times prophecies in their propaganda and never suggested the Mahdi was just around the corner. As one scholar of modern Islamic apocalypticism observes, “al-Qaida, so far as one can judge from its internal correspondence, was for many years impervious to the apocalyptic temptation.”

Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s disdain for apocalypticism reflects their generation and class. Until the Iraq war, apocalypticism was unpopular among modern Sunnis, who looked down on the Shi’a for being obsessed with the Mahdi’s return. Sunni books on the apocalypse were commercial failures.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri grew up in elite Sunni families, who sniffed at messianic speculation as unbecoming, a foolish pastime of the masses. Their attitude is captured in an article distributed by an al-Qaeda propaganda outfit that discourages Muslims from speculating on who the Mahdi is or when he will appear: “Many people think that the State of Islam will not be established until the Mahdi appears. They neglect to take action, instead raising their hands in prayer that God will hasten his appearance.”

Bin Laden had another, more personal reason for disliking messianism. In 1979, the year he graduated from college in Saudi Arabia, a group of Sunni radicals captured the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The mosque encloses Islam’s holiest shrine, the Ka’ba. The radicals were there to consecrate one of their number as the Mahdi. Elite Saudi soldiers ended the weeks-long siege with the help of tear gas and French special forces; the Mahdi lay among the dead. The humiliating defeat became a cautionary tale among jihadists: It is too risky to claim the ful?llment of prophecy and then fail.

Although al-Qaeda’s leaders downplayed the apocalypse, some of their followers celebrated it. Group members quoted the black flag prophecies when interrogated by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join the army,” recited Abu Jandal, a former Bin Laden bodyguard, to FBI agent Ali Soufan. Soufan remembers another Bin Laden associate, Ali al-Bahlul, citing the prophecy during his interrogation in Guantanamo Bay as evidence that al-Qaeda was fighting the final battles of Armageddon.

Senior al-Qaeda officers also cited Islamic prophecies. “The Islamic armies must gather, rely on God, and support His religion and their brothers in Jerusalem” wrote Fadil Harun, Bin Laden’s man in Somalia. The “awaited Mahdi” would then appear and lead “an ideological struggle, which will continue until the [Final] Hour as long as an inch of Muslim land in the Holy Land is under the control of the enemies.”

Perhaps the most prolific apocalypticist in the al-Qaeda orbit was Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, a Syrian jihadist who devoted over a hundred pages to the End Times in his massive 2004 tome on terrorist strategy. Although the book enjoyed immense popularity among jihadists for its strategic insights, many looked askance at his taste in prophecies. Suri cited the medieval Book of Tribulations written by Nu’aym bin Hammad, which contains prophecies many Muslims consider spurious. But Suri read broadly in the canonical prophecies too and concluded that jihadists should reorient their fight toward the Fertile Crescent, which is where many prophecies locate the final battles of the Apocalypse, as we will see in chapter 5.

Given the rise of messianism in the Middle East and the historical precedent of the Abbasids, it makes sense that the Islamic State would appeal to prophecy to justify its cause. But did the leaders of the Islamic State actually believe what they were saying, or were they cynically cloaking their ambition in messianic garb? And if they were sincere, how could they reconcile the urgent imperatives of the Apocalypse with the patient care required to run a state?

Copyright © 2015 by William McCants