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What Isis lost in Dabiq

The loss of a tiny Syrian town is a bitter blow for the fanatic militants.

It might seem strange for Barack Obama’s special envoy for countering Isis to tweet an obscure prophecy about the supposed location of the apocalypse. Dabiq is a small village in northern Syria of no strategic value. But it is also the namesake of Isis's infamous propaganda magazine, and has been the frontline of the ideological battlefield against the group for the last three years.
 
While the long-awaited start of the military campaign against Mosul currently takes centre stage, Dabiq’s fall to Turkish-backed rebels over the weekend represents a major blow to Isis’s propaganda efforts. The loss undermines the fanatical certainty the group have in their own apocalyptic message, as well as their conventional military power. So far, the group’s notorious propaganda machine seems uncharacteristically overwhelmed by events on the ground.
 
Dabiq derives its importance from a hadith tradition, a reported saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which places the town as the location of a final apocalyptic battle between the Crusader Christian armies and the Muslims. This strand of prophecy was drawn to prominence by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal leader of one of Isis's predecessor organisations, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite being dead for ten years, his quote - “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" - has adorned the inside cover of the group’s English-language propaganda magazine throughout its fifteen issues.
 
Apocalyptic imagery plays a crucial role in Isis’s propaganda output. References to the end times provide a sense of purpose and urgency to the jihadi cause. They also build in an often under-estimated utopian element to the group’s purported establishment of a caliphate, the system of government that will usher in the Day of Judgment.
 
A report by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics last year found that 48 per cent of jihadi propaganda centred on apocalyptic imagery, a feature of their output that is only increasing. This theological preoccupation might seem strange to Western ears. Yet, in the crumbling and burning cities of Iraq and Syria, talk of the end of days rings loud. It also has reverberations outside the extremist echo chamber; a 2012 Pew survey found that over half of Muslims in nine countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa believed that the apocalypse will commence in their lifetime.
 
However, as Isis faces mounting pressure from multiple fronts, leaders must not underestimate the resilience of the group’s ideology, which has shown its ability to respond to changes in situation or fortune. After the loss of Dabiq, supporters of Isis have already begun denying the importance of holding land in Iraq and Syria, emphasising instead their operations in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. With continued military setbacks, the caliphate will likely revert back to an idea again, rather than a physical reality, the view held by al-Qaeda.
 
This propaganda shift has already been seen manifested in the release of a new shorter propaganda magazine Rumiyah, seemingly intended to replace Dabiq. The naming of Rumiyah ("Rome" in Arabic) appears to reveal something about the group’s shifting priorities. Not only does it emphasise the continuity between jihadi struggles today with ancient battles from Islamic history, but also an increased focus on directly attacking western countries, rather than encouraging recruits to migrate to Iraq and Syria.
 
But this new format is also symptomatic of a general slowdown in output. In August 2015, Isis internationally produced over 700 official media items. Yet in August this year, there were only 200. With a more effectively coordinated air campaign, the group has fewer resources for its grandstanding, whether in films, magazines and songs, particularly after the death of propagandist-in-chief Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.
 
As the Mosul offensive kicks into gear, the international coalition should remain focused on reducing the appeal and ideological draw of Isis, not just its territorial control. Isis will already be planning for its next phase, including likely exploiting any reciprocal sectarian violence emerging from the removal of the group from its northern Iraq stronghold. Baghdad has promised that Shia militias will be kept from the fray, but ISIS will be quick to seize on any behaviour during the offensive that points to an "ancient hatred" between Sunni and Shia, rather than a plural and inclusive future Iraq. In this battle of ideas, the Dabiqs are as important as the Mosuls.

Milo Comerford is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics.

 

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.