The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The apocalyptic magazine the Islamic State uses to recruit and radicalize foreigners

A member loyal to the Islamic State waves the flag in Raqqah, Syria, in June. (Reuters)
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This is not the beginning, the magazine says. It is the end. It is the culmination of a centuries-long war that has burned and simmered but never been extinguished — that will soon grow to consume everything. It is the apocalypse. And it is coming.

This is the chilling vision set out in the Islamic State magazine called “Dabiq,” published in several European languages including English. In a reel of slick graphics and chapters, it frames the war against the Islamic State not as a singular event but as the continuation of a battle of civilizations.

“You will invade the Arabian Peninsula, and Allah will enable you to conquer it,” says the second issue of Dabiq, called “The Flood.” “You will then invade Persia, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. You will then invade Rome, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. Then you will fight the [false messiah], and Allah will enable you to conquer him.”

Understanding the allure of that message, analysts say, is key to understanding the incredible recruiting successes of the Islamic State, which is estimated to have drawn at least 12,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries and sent nations from Britain to Tunisia scrambling to stem the flow. The movement has done so by highlighting vulnerabilities in many of its troubled recruits.

The narrative described in Dabiq casts the West as “Romans” or “crusaders” and symbolizes them with images of, among others, President Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). It “employs [an] Islamic apocalyptic tradition — with the West as the modern day Romans — to mobilize followers,” wrote Ella Lipin, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, in Robert M. Danin’s Middle East Matters blog. “Both the organization and its new recruits understand this script, made all the more relevant and compelling by the recent debate about U.S. airstrikes in Syria.”

The ideology starkly divides the world into two camps. There is “no third camp present,” Dabiq says, only “the camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy — the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia.”

The magazine derives much of its symbolism from its name, which comes from the northern Syrian city of Dabiq. Despite the city’s small size, it is of great historic and religious importance,

to the Institute for the Study of War. It’s there that “

” battles between the West and the forces of Islam will occur. It will be the Armageddon.

“The Hour will not be established until the Romans land at … Dabiq,” the first of three issues of the magazine says, quoting the Hadith, sayings and actions attributed to the prophet Muhammad. “Then an army from al-Madinah of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them…. So they will fight them. Then one third of [the Islamic fighters] will flee; Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with [distress]. Then they will conquer Constantinople.”

The region of Dabiq also hosted the seminal battle of 1516 between Ottomans and the Mamluks that the Ottomans ultimately won, solidifying the last recognized Islamic caliphate.

The historical allusions accomplish two things. They first evince the Islamic State’s commitment to theological study — important to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, who reportedly holds a doctorate in Islamic studies. And they also show the power that such a message would have over Western recruits, whom intelligence experts call “disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging.”

The magazine severely criticizes secular society, deriding employment and wages as “modern day slavery.” Such messages are, of course, nothing new.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the ideological founders of the Islamic State who ran the Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda during the Iraq War, invoked the same sentiment. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq,” he once said, “and its heat will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

But it has never been presented like this. In nearly 100 pages spanning three issues, the magazine teems with slick imagery and snazzy graphics. Images show a masked militant against a backdrop of flames and an ark in a rough sea. In all, the presentation seems like something out of a science fiction movie or video game.

Violence, however, is also important to the Islamic State ethos — and Dabiq features plenty of that, too, in image and verse. Such brutality, analysts suggest, is another potent tool in its recruiting strategy. There are pictures of bloody corpses, destroyed buildings and, perhaps most disturbing of all, a large section dedicated to the beheading of American journalist James Foley. The group defended his murder as retribution for “the countless accounts of American soldiers executing families and raping women under the sanctity of the U.S. military and Blackwater.”

“Muslim families were killed under the broad definition of ‘collateral damage,’ which the US grants itself alone the right to apply,” the magazine says in its third issue. “Therefore, if a mujahid kills a single man with a knife, it is a barbaric killing of the ‘innocent.’ However, if Americans kill thousands of Muslim families all over the world by pressing missile fire buttons, it is merely ‘collateral damage.'”

The magazine presents the Islamic State as the sole Muslim voice and, as such, the West’s inevitable enemy in the approaching end-of-days clash, wrote the Council of Foreign Relations. This may have particular resonance in neighboring Muslim countries, which are populated by many residents who think Armageddon will occur in their lifetime. According to Pew research, more than two-thirds of people in Tunisia, which has sent hundreds if not thousands to Syria, believe this. And Iraq itself? It has one of the highest percentages of believers, with 72 percent of its residents saying they will see the return of the messiah.

“A day will come,” one issue of the magazine says, “when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved.”