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Sunday, February 14, 2016
Robert Spencer and William McCants on ISIS
Last September at Ace's book thread I posted a review of The Complete Infidel's Guide to ISIS. Recently I've bought William McCants's The ISIS Apocalypse as well. I have just now finished the latter [2/21/2016: and reviewed it] and have been returning to the former.
McCants appears to have finished his writing at the middle or the end of 2014. The result, therefore, stops short of Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis, and the Ramadi takeover. There is also not much on Libya: Derna is noted, but not Sirte. Spencer brings us more up to date although he also does not have much on Libya.
McCants gives more detail on the career of Zarqawi, and also relates about the bridges between Zarqawi and the Caliph: Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Umar (not Abu Bakr!) al-Baghdadi, passed over by Spencer. McCants also knows, or thinks he knows, more about the caliph Abu Bakr Ibrahim's biography; on these points Spencer pleads ignorance.
McCants is at his best at understanding Islamic history and apocalyptic, which is where Spencer falls short. McCants tells us about the Islamic provenance of the trademark black banner. This appears to have been an IS design, before the group controlled any real territory. That flag is important for what McCants has to say about the 'Abbasids, and would have been helpful to Spencer as well who also presents a caliphal history. Perhaps most valuable to me personally are McCants's appendices wherein he has translated some of ISIS's mediaeval apocalyptic sources.
McCants is, however, a fellow from Brookings, a nonpartisan institute in DC. (That means that Brookings is progressive.) McCants is tolerant of Islam as a faith; Spencer does not have this problem. As a result Spencer tells us when and whom Zarqawi was beheading (Nicholas Berg, among others), which McCants does not (directly). Spencer also presents to his readers the arguments Zarqawi had made for what he was doing, in 20 May 2005, where McCants gives only Zawahiri's rebuttal the following July. It was a little weird to read in McCants the aftereffects of events and not the events themselves.
Most differences seem to derive from a difference in focus. Spencer cares mostly about ISIS propaganda to non-Arabs, mainly to Anglophones; although he does provide some Arab propaganda as well as I've noted above. McCants has dug up correspondence between ISIS and the Arabophones. Since McCants has his finger on the pulse of ISIS, where Spencer just has his ear to the wall, McCants can offer more nuance. For instance: Assad, the villain, had let many of these dogs out of their Syrian kennels so that they could harry the eastern flanks of his own (al-Qaeda) enemies. For another instance: McCants finds that al-Qaeda or at least Bin Laden had genuine concerns for the welfare of the Muslims under Islamic rule.
But even McCants has to admit that all this nuance just led al-Qaeda to vacillation and indecision. When the Islamic State declared itself the Caliphate, al-Qaeda couldn't do a lot of much. And the Islamic State is steeped in Wahhabite scholarship. McCants cannot say that the Islamic State is unIslamic; to his credit, he does not.
So the two books are complementary in understanding ISIS. McCants is better at ISIS's origins and at defining ISIS's brand of Islam. Spencer is better in what ISIS has been doing abroad, and offers more of ISIS's current propaganda. As for policy, what we infidels do about all this...
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