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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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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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