Fourteen years ago — on September 11, 2001 — America was blindsided by the forces of radical Islam. Pre-9/11, American leaders rightly understood that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims were generally peace-loving people who posed no threat to our homeland. But they failed to adequately comprehend, much less counter, the theology, political ideology, and operational strategy of men like Osama bin Laden.
The results were devastating. The attacks against the World Trade Center, against the Pentagon, and over Shanksville, Pa., killed nearly 3,000 Americans, along with individuals from 93 other nations, in the most devastating sneak attack since we were blindsided by the Imperial Japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Today, President Obama and members of his administration still refuse to use the term “radical Islam,” even as Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, candidly admits that the West is engaged in a “third world war” against Islamic terrorism. Abdullah adds that, at its core, “this is a Muslim problem. We need to take ownership of this. We need to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong.”
The king is right. The threat of radical Islam to the U.S. and our allies is serious and ongoing.
That said, there is a dramatic shift underway in the Muslim world. The most serious threat we face in the Middle East and North Africa is no longer radical Islam but apocalyptic Islam.
We face not just one but two regional regimes whose rulers are driven not merely by violent political ideology, or by extremist theology, but by apocalyptic, genocidal eschatology, or End Times theology.
The first is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The second is the Islamic State, or ISIS. The leaders of the former are Shia. The latter are Sunni. Both believe that we are living in the End of Days as predicted in their ancient prophecies. Both believe that any moment now their messiah, the Mahdi, will be revealed on Earth as he establishes his global Islamic kingdom and impose sharia law. Both believe that Jesus will return not as the Savior or Son of God but as a lieutenant to the Mahdi, and that he will force non-Muslims to convert or die.
What’s more, both believe that the Mahdi will come only when the world is engulfed in chaos and carnage. They openly vow not simply to attack but to annihilate the United States and Israel. Iran and ISIS are both eager to hasten the coming of the Mahdi. Both believe that the Day of Judgment is coming soon, when they will be either rewarded for their actions or condemned to hell for eternity. And both are receiving relatively minimal international opposition. Consequently, both believe that Allah is on their side, that the wind is at their back, and that victory is both assured and imminent.
Some in the West first became aware of the apocalyptic beliefs inside Iran through the speeches of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long held similar beliefs and openly expresses them.
“The coming of Imam Zaman [another name for the Mahdi] is the definite promise by Allah,” he declared in 2014. “The caravan of humanity from the Day of Creation has been moving . . . to the time of The Coming of Imam Mahdi. The awaiting for The Coming is a hopeful and powerful wait, providing the biggest opening for the Islamic society.”
But he adds that the “battle” to establish the Mahdi’s kingdom “will only end when the [Islamic] society can get rid of the oppressors’ front, with America at the head of it.”
As recently as July 18, 2015 — just four days after President Obama hailed his nuclear deal with Iran as a great achievement for world peace and security — Khamenei publicly reaffirmed Iran’s long-standing policy of destroying the U.S. and Israel. “The slogans of the Iranian nation on Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Day show what its position is,” he said in a speech. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’ have resounded throughout the country, and are not limited to Tehran and the other large cities. The entire country is under the umbrella of this great movement.”
“Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant U.S. will not change,” he added.
Even Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, widely hailed in the West as a “moderate,” has urged Iranians to act on that policy. “Saying ‘Death to America’ is easy,” he said when running for office in 2013. “We need to express ‘death to America’ with action.”
Consider, too, the words of the various leaders of ISIS.
“We perform jihad here [in Iraq] while our eyes are upon al-Quds,” declared Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the al-Qaeda division that morphed into ISIS. “We fight here, while our goal is Rome with good expectations concerning Allah that He makes us the keys for the prophetic good tidings and godly decrees.”
“The Mahdi will come any day,” Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the ISIS leader after Zarqawi’s death, constantly told his people, recruiting new followers with the promise of being glorious fighters in history’s Final Hour.
“Our last message is to the Americans,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, another ISIS leader, declared in an audio recording on January 21, 2014. “Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day.”
In the near term, ISIS is more dangerous because it is on a jihadist rampage now. In the longer term, Iran’s leaders are more dangerous.
By summer of 2014, Baghdadi, a fervent apostle of Sunni apocalyptic eschatology, had officially declared the caliphate, laying the groundwork for the Mahdi’s return. “Rush, O Muslims, to your state,” he said in July 2014. “This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.” From his reading of Sunni End Times prophecies, Baghdadi saw Rome not only as the historic center of Christendom but as a symbol of the apostate Western powers, led by the United States, which would soon be vanquished by Muslim forces.
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” vowed an official ISIS spokesman in Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State, named after the Syrian town where Sunnis believe one of history’s final battles will occur.
While Iranian and ISIS leaders share similar eschatological beliefs, they are by no means the same. Indeed, each considers the other “infidel.” They are warring against one another in Iraq and Syria.
They are also pursuing very different strategies. The leaders of ISIS are focused on developing the territorial, financial, and administrative infrastructure required to build the caliphate. The leaders of Iran are focused on developing the scientific, technological, and financial capacities they need to build a nuclear bomb. The leaders of ISIS believe in committing genocide now, and for them simple swords and AK-47s suffice. The leaders of Iran are preparing to commit genocide later and so are investing enormous sums of time and money on their nuclear program.
In the near term, ISIS is more dangerous because it is on a jihadist rampage now — robbing, killing, destroying, enslaving, raping, torturing, and beheading Christians, Muslims and others. In the longer term, Iran’s leaders are more dangerous. Owing to the numerous loopholes in the recent nuclear deal, they will be able to bide their time and, at a time of their choosing, build a nuclear arsenal capable of killing millions of people in a matter of minutes.
Iranian and ISIS leaders are not alone in their fascination with End Times matters. Such interest runs deep through the Muslim world. According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, “in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, most Muslims believe they will live to see the return of the Mahdi.” In Egypt, 40 percent of Muslims believe expect to see the Mahdi in their lifetime. In Jordan, it’s 41 percent; among Palestinians, 46 percent; in Iraq, a stunning 72 percent.
A large number of Muslims also believe that Jesus will return to Earth in the final battle for Jerusalem. According to Pew, 29 percent of Muslims in Jordan believe this; in Egypt, 39 percent; among Palestinians, 46 percent; in Iraq, 64 percent.
Not all Muslims who hold these views also believe in launching genocidal attacks against the West. However, it does mean that the pool from which those who do pursue apocalyptic Islam can recruit is large and growing.
While the threat of radical Islam remains high and serious, the greater threat to the United States, Israel, and our Arab allies is now posed by the forces of apocalyptic Islam, those who seek not simply to attack us but to annihilate us in order to hasten the coming of their messiah. Do U.S. policymakers and the presidential candidates understand the nature of this threat? If they do, they should explain how they would counter it before it’s too late.