How the Islamic State group justifies brutality with an apocalyptic vision

GWEN IFILL: Now another addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

As the U.S. steps up military efforts against the Islamic State in Syria, a question persists: How did this extremely brutal group emerge so rapidly? A new book offers one answer, "The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State." Its author is early Islam historian William McCants, senior fellow and project director at the Brookings Institution.

He spoke recently with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Will McCants, welcome.

You suggest right at the beginning of the book that it was triggered in a way by a question your father asked, which is, why do they do that? Is that what this book is, an answer for that?

WILLIAM MCCANTS, Author, The ISIS Apocalypse: That's right.

My dad is 85 years old. And like most Americans, he watches the news and he can't understand why a group like the Islamic State is so brutal to people and why they would be so extreme in their actions. So, it's for him that I — and people like him that I wrote this book.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you, as your title says, chalk that up to its apocalyptic vision. What is that vision?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right.

The Islamic State believes that the end of the world is approaching and it believes that it has also reestablished God's kingdom on Earth. And that kingdom is going to wage an epic battle against the infidels before it all comes tumbling down.

MARGARET WARNER: And that drives them, what, with a special sense of urgency?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: Gives them a special sense of urgency, but also has been terrific for recruiting.

They have been able to attract a lot of foreigners to their cause and many of the foreigners, based on interviews with journalists, say that the main reason they're there is because they believe that the world is coming to an end and the Islamic State is a fulfillment of prophecy. So, they're traveling there to do their bit.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, many of these recruits, at least — especially the Westerners, those I have reported on, they aren't religious at all. And they certainly aren't scholars of Islam. Why would this prophecy of the end of days be appealing to them?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: No, many of them don't know much about Islamic scripture. And they are not particularly religious, many of them, but they are intoxicated by the idea of fighting an end-times battle and absolving their own sins.

The first crusaders that set out to take over Jerusalem were also fired by the same sort of visions, even though many of them weren't very religious.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how does the really horrific brutality and way they publicize it in these videos, how does that play a part, or why is that part of it?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: For many apocalyptic groups throughout history, not just Muslim ones, the apocalypse can be excuse for very extreme violence, because the normal rules don't apply.

So, in a number of these videos of members committing horrible acts, they will make reference to the fact that they are fulfilling prophecy.

MARGARET WARNER: They even talk about a small town in Syria near the Turkish border named Dabiq?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: What is that?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: Yes. There's a tiny town just north of Aleppo that one Muslim prophecy says will be the site of a massive battle with the infidels.

And so the Islamic State last year made sure to take over the town in preparation for that battle.

MARGARET WARNER: You also say that the turmoil in the Middle East over the last 15 years has given evidence at, least to the leaders of the Islamic State, that the end of the days is near.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right.

Extreme violence, political upheaval invites this kind of apocalyptic framework, where more stable times wouldn't. It also provides the opportunity for groups like the Islamic State to take advantage of the chaos in order to try and fulfill prophecy.

MARGARET WARNER: And so both invasions by the United States would count as part of that, civil and sectarian conflicts, like we're seeing in Syria, Iraq?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right. That's right. And particularly Sunni Muslims, apocalyptic thinking became much more popular after 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have translated a lot of original documents both from the Koran and from the Prophet Mohammed's prophecies.

To what degree is this apocalyptic vision really supported by those?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: There are some prophecies mentioned in the Koran, but mainly these come from statements that are attributed to Mohammed, which many conservative Muslims regard as a scripture second only to the Koran.

So, early Islamic scripture is filled with these kind of prophecies.

MARGARET WARNER: And they really are at the heart of it?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: They are. And for many Muslims, they are very important, particularly when there is political upheaval in the countries in which they live.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what about the leader of this Islamic State, the caliph, he's proclaimed himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Did you get a sense of whether he really believes this or is it just a ticket to power?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: He is a religious scholar by training. From his early days, his nickname was the believer, because he had a very strict type of piety. And there has been nothing that's come to light so far to suggest that he's using these prophecies cynically.

MARGARET WARNER: This represents really a sea change. I think you called it a changing of the guards in the jihadist movement.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right.

Al-Qaida used to downplay these kind of prophecies. And they would put off state — the kind of state-building that the Islamic State is engaged in. The Islamic State plays up these prophecies and uses them to motivate fighters for the exact task of state building. And given the political instability in the Arab world, I think we are going to see much more of it.

MARGARET WARNER: So there's no going back?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: No, there's no going back. It's an idea whose time has come for the jihadist movement.

MARGARET WARNER: Then what recourse is there for the U.S. and its allies?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: They have to contain the problem. It's not going to be possible to put this genie back in the bottle.

MARGARET WARNER: And what would it take to resolve these sectarian conflicts?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: Well, fundamentally, it's going to require some tough political deals.

The disenfranchisement of the Sunnis is what the Islamic State thrives on. And until those Sunnis are brought back into the political process, groups like the Islamic State will continue to thrive.

MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S. will play very little role in that?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: That's right, because most of the Americans' partners in the regions have higher priorities than the destruction of the Islamic State.

MARGARET WARNER: Will McCants, thank you.