Photo: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.
Turkish-backed rebels have captured the town of Dabiq, continuing their gains across northern Syria. Located six miles from the border with Turkey, the town is a symbolically important following its widespread use in Islamic State propaganda as the staging ground for an apocalyptic showdown.
The origin of the showdown is an hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. He is believed to have said the “the last hour will not come” until the Muslims vanquished the Romans at “Dabiq or Al-Amaq”. The prophecy included further statement that the infidel forces would be composed of eighty nations, each contributing ten thousand soldiers, and that two-thirds of Muslims present would flee or die. The remainder would continue on to conquer the eastern Roman capital of Constantinople.
The foundations of Dabiq’s symbolic importance to IS were laid by progenitor Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. In September 2004 he left an audio clip, now frequently used by IS, stating “the spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify…until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq”. The Islamic State cemented the importance of Dabiq’s symbolism by naming its English-language magazine – designed to reach out to an international audience – after the town.
As the group expanded into Syria from Iraq in 2013, Dabiq began appearing in propaganda designed to invoke religious credibility. Despite its lack of strategic importance, the fall of the town to extremist forces in August 2014 was celebrated.
Islamic State frequently goaded its adversaries to engage in battle and confront them in Dabiq, in rhetoric promising the fulfilment of the prophecy. The most provocative use of the town came in the execution video of American aid worker and former army ranger, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter Kassig. With the town of Dabiq in the background and the severed head of Kassig at his feet, infamous IS-executioner Jihadi John, also known as Mohammed Emwazi, states “here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly awaiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive”. The video was part of the strategy to terrify the American homeland with a series of gruesome hostage executions. The choice to invoke Dabiq in what were some of IS’s most important external propaganda videos, and certainly the most well-known outside of the Middle East, is significant and cements the centrality of the town.
Strategically, the events in Dabiq are of no great consequence for anti-IS forces. It completes another victory for Turkish-backed forces seeking to secure northern Syria from both IS and Kurdish forces. However the manner in which the town fell may disgruntle some extremist followers.
Despite the value placed on Dabiq by IS, the group withdrew most of its forces to the larger town of Al-Bab to the south of Dabiq. In fact, the battle for Dabiq was relatively minor, lasting only a few hours and incurring few casualties.
In the face pressure on its territorial gains, IS has previously sought to decouple the important of Dabiq from the recent battle. As early as the Spring 2015 issue (number 8) of Dabiq, the group cited the lack of coalition forces on the ground fighting as evidence why the prophecy may not be fulfilled.
In recent weeks the group has rolled back on the prophetic vision, and sought to manage expectations by proclaiming that this battle for Dabiq didn’t constitute the battle for Dabiq. IS again cited the failure of the battle to meet the prophecies expectations – 80 nation coalition with significant boots on the ground and appearance of the Mahdi – to justify. The group has sought to assuage concerns by declaring that the great battle will take place – as it has been willed by God – but not yet, failing to mention the previous hyping of conflict in Dabiq.
The withdrawal from Dabiq and unfulfilled prophecy leads to questions about whether IS leaders sincerely believe the prophecies they tout, or whether they are exploited at convenient times. The proximity of Dabiq to Iraq, IS’s host state, made it a more plausible prophecy to lean on for propaganda purposes, particularly after the expansion into Syria strategy took place. Losing the town will damage moral in an organisation currently on the back foot and losing territory rapidly.
In stark contrast to the previous importance placed on the achievement of territorial gains to serve as the caliphate, the group is reverting back to previous messaging. In the face of offensives by anti-IS forces, the group has spent several months circulating messages that lionise the struggle of the fighters forced out of cities and towns and into the desert. It is clear they have been preparing their followers and fighters for a period of military defeats. The change of tact in messaging, in combination with the likely loss of Mosul, serves as an obvious point to consider the point at which IS transitioned from a proto-state back into an insurgent organisation.
In the exchange below, between George Washington University Fellow Amar Amarasingham and IS fighter, is revealing of fighter thought. At first denying the centrality of territory in IS strategy, the fighter is later certain the battle for Dabiq will take place.