McCants: With great difficulty. It immediately put the group on the defensive. They said, “Look, you obviously start small, just like the prophet did, and then you go from strength to strength.” It still brought a lot of criticism from the rest of the jihadists because they rightly said: “How can you be a state without land?” So [ISIS has] been in this place before, intellectually—of trying to explain how they’re a state without actually having a state.
They’re going to be in a much more difficult place this time around of explaining how you can have a caliphate without a caliphate, because it’s an even bolder claim than just proclaiming a state within the borders of a contemporary nation-state. They can try to say, “Well, we control territory in other parts of the Muslim world [through the group’s smaller affiliates in countries such as Egypt and Libya] and therefore we’re a caliphate,” but if that territory is also denied to them, what can they say?
Friedman: What is your sense of why Zarqawi emphasized territory so much?
McCants: Because it’s essential if you are going to resurrect the caliphate, which is the early Islamic empire. This isn’t a virtual connection between believers—you already have that, it’s called the ummah. This is meant to be an actual governing structure, and you simply can’t have it without territory.
Friedman: Did Zarqawi have a different sense of immediacy about establishing the caliphate than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders did?
McCants: Oh yeah. Most jihadists see the caliphate as something that will be resurrected in the far future, and it will be brought about by Muslim nations coming to terms with one another and forming some larger political unity. Zarqawi saw it in exactly the opposite terms: You establish [the caliphate] as fast as possible, and then you go from strength to strength.
Friedman: How do you think control of territory in Iraq and Syria post-2014 transformed ISIS as a group? How did its theology and ideology change?
McCants: One thing that happened intellectually is that they downplayed in the apocalyptic part of their ideology the coming of the messiah, whereas their early leaders had really played it up and the state was almost incidental. Under [current ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi they played up the creation, the resurrection of the caliphate as the fulfillment of prophecy. They put their political program on a more stable footing, because messianism is messy. If you get people focused on institution-building and building a state, that’s more durable. This is the same kind of thing that happened in the Middle Ages with other Muslim revolutionary groups with an apocalyptic tinge; they often made the same transition once they began to take and hold territory.
It’s also the case that they got a lot of experience actually running a state. They had to put all this theory into practice, so they learned to govern. Their problem is they didn’t govern well because they were fighting a war on all fronts.