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.