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The Islamic State is arguably the largest and most powerful terrorist organization in human history. In late 2015, it controlled a vast swath of land on which up to 8 million people live and has affiliates in Nigeria, Libya, and Afghanistan. More recently, terrorists have carried out numerous attacks in the Islamic State’s name, such as the November 2015 massacre in Paris and the June 12 Orlando nightclub shooting, perpetrated by Omar Mateen.
Yet the average American is more likely to get struck by lightning than die in a terrorist attack. Even more, the Islamic State is a crumbling organization: It recently lost 12 percent of its territory, and the number of foreign fighters joining the group has declined considerably. It’s only a matter of time before the group collapses entirely.
Despite these facts, the Islamic State is nonetheless very worrisome. Not because of what it is or could become at this point, but because of what it indicates about the future of terrorism.
Consider the evolutionary trajectory of terrorism in the past few centuries: During the 19th and 20th centuries, most terrorist groups were motivated by political ideologies like anarchism, nationalism, and Marxism. This began to change by the end of the 20th century with the rise of religious groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida, the latter of which was founded in 1988.
After the U.S.-led preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, terrorism in the region underwent yet another transformation: It became more apocalyptic. This “apocalyptic turn” is evident in the evolution of the Islamic State from its parent organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. While al-Qaida’s leaders, including bin Laden and its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, definitely believed in Islamic eschatology (that is, its end-times prophesies), they weren’t explicitly motivated by their eschatological beliefs. They saw themselves as God’s instruments in the world but not as active participants in an apocalyptic narrative that’s unfolding in real time.
In contrast, the grandfather of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was deeply animated by his apocalyptic convictions. As he once declared, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” This implies a direct link between the conflicts raging in Iraq and Islam’s version of Armageddon, which is prophesied to take place between the Muslims and the “Romans” (i.e., the West) in the small Syrian town of Dabiq. Once the Muslims win this battle, the remaining one-third of the army will proceed to conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul) through supernatural means, after which the Antichrist will appear and Jesus will descend over the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
In 2006, the United States dropped a bomb on al-Zarqawi. The Islamic State’s leadership was then given to another radical apocalypticist, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. As Will McCants observes, al-Masri believed that Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure, the Mahdi, would soon appear in Iraq. Consequently, al-Masri made a number of “strategic decisions on an apocalyptic timetable” — decisions that ended up backfiring for the group.
Following al-Masri’s death in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former U.S. prisoner with a PhD in Quranic studies, rose to power within the organization. Although al-Baghdadi was less obsessed with the Mahdi than his predecessor, he was no less apocalyptically motivated. Under al-Baghdadi’s direction, the Islamic State began to focus on building a permanent caliphate in Iraq and Syria, with the aim of expanding it around the world. According to a prophetic hadith, the caliphate will be restored at the end of history, before the Last Hour.
The apocalyptic turn from al-Qaida to the Islamic State is troubling because apocalyptic terrorism is the most dangerous form of religious terrorism, and religious terrorism has proven itself to be more lethal and indiscriminate than the “secular” terrorism of the previous two centuries. As Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger wrote, “violent apocalyptic groups are not inhibited by the possibility of offending their political constituents because they see themselves as participating in the ultimate battle.” As a result, they are “the most likely terrorist groups to engage in acts of barbarism, and to attempt to use rudimentary weapons of mass destruction.”
But the Islamic State isn’t the only extremist group to embrace a more apocalyptic outlook in recent years. Consider the case of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist organization whose ideological roots were, as David Cook notes, “rather secular and even Marxist.” This changed around the 2006 Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel, when the group began to prominently feature the Mahdi in its propaganda for the first time.
Meanwhile, a number of Shia militias began to proliferate in Iraq after 2003, motivated by apocalyptic ideologies. For example, the influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr founded the Mahdi Army shortly after the Iraq War commenced. As David Cook, associate professor of religious studies at Rice University, points out, this group “likely” saw its goal as protecting the Mahdi from the U.S.-led invasion.
Although al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is now defunct, it spawned several other Shia militias, such as the Promised Day Brigade located around Baghdad. This group’s primary objective “is to disrupt U.S. security operations and further destabilize the nationalization process in Iraq,” and it has been reported to receive funding and training from Iran’s elite Quds Force. According to the former CIA director David Petraeus, Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq constitute the greatest long-term threat to regional stability, even more than the Islamic State.
The apocalyptic turn is thus found among both the Sunni and Shia populations in the Middle East. It constitutes the religious zeitgeist of the past decade and a half. In fact, a Pew poll from 2012 found that “[i]n nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime.” This confirms that apocalyptic belief is indeed widespread among contemporary Muslims.
But what is driving this phenomenon? A primary cause, as alluded to above, was the preemptive war initiated by the United States. As McCants wrote in an interview I conducted with him, “Prior to the U.S. invasion, the modern Sunni world was uninterested in apocalypticism.” Similarly, a Shi’ite preparing to join the fight in Syria told Reuters in 2014 that the Iraq War “was the first sign and then everything else followed,” adding, “I was waiting for the day when I will fight in Syria. Thank God he chose me to be one of the Imam’s soldiers.”
The connection between apocalypticism and the Iraq War can also be seen in the aforementioned Pew poll, which indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are most pervasive in the two Middle Eastern countries directly affected by Western intervention in the 2000s, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. Of respondents in those two countries, 83% and 72%, respectively, believe the Mahdi’s return is imminent. The fact is that when the world looks like its about to end, some religiously inclined people will come to believe that it really is ending. And once this belief is lodged deep within one’s psyche, it can influence a person to engage in acts of cruelty and violence, spurred on by a sense that the present moment is genuinely unique in human history.
But another factor has also contributed to the apocalyptic turn in the region, one that has ominous implications for the future of religious extremism. This factor is climate change. On the one hand, the heat waves, megadroughts, famines, malnutrition, mass migrations, infectious disease, and so on associated with climate change will likely be interpreted as fulfillments of prophecy. Since many religions predict natural disasters — as well as wars initiated by Western “Roman” forces — as harbingers of the end, climate change could reinforce people’s religious beliefs relating to eschatology.
On the other hand, the societal stress caused by climate change will almost certainly exacerbate existing tensions in the world and foment entirely new struggles. In other words, climate change could increase the probability of conflicts between state and nonstate actors. This has been affirmed by U.S. government officials, U.S. governmental departments, and climate scientists.
For example, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” with “the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.” And former CIA Director John Brennan asserts that “the impact of climate change” is one of the “deeper causes of this rising instability” in countries like Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
Similarly, the Department of Defense published a report in 2015 that states: “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” In other words, climate change has significant “national security implications” for the United States.
These statements comport with a 2015 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that argues that climate change was behind the record-breaking Syrian drought that lasted from 2007 to 2010. This caused a large-scale migration of farmers into urban centers, which in turn fueled the 2011 Syrian civil war. Even more, the Syrian civil war was the petri dish in which the Islamic State grew into a juggernaut of terror by the summer of 2014. As an anti-Assad fighter told Reuters in 2014, “If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken. They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised — it is the Grand Battle.”
What’s especially worrisome about the link between climate change and conflict/terrorism is that, if current projections are accurate, the effects of climate change will be not only “severe” and “pervasive” but also “irreversible.” A 2016 article in Nature Climate Change makes the point that climate change’s consequences “will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.” This article proceeds to affirm that the next few decades are a closing window of opportunity to avert a catastrophe lasting literally hundreds of human generations and affecting more humans than have ever before existed.
The 51 percent of Americans who live in fear of terrorism should reconsider their priorities. Dying in a terrorist attack is, statistically speaking, extremely unlikely. But this could change in the future. The conflict in Syria doesn’t appear likely to end anytime soon, and in fact some observers have suggested that it could be the beginning of World War III. What’s more, climate change is a “conflict multiplier” that will have millennia-long consequences for human civilization on Earth.
Given the apocalyptic turn of the 2000s and the societal instability caused by environmental degradation, the Islamic State could be a mere preview of the sort of apocalyptically driven terrorism that we should expect in the coming decades. The first step toward combating such terrorism is to understand that, to paraphrase Mark Juergensmeyer, extreme conditions breed extreme religion. If we can manage to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the antecedent conditions, then we have a shot at reducing the prevalence of radical apocalyptic terrorism.