To the Islamic State, the town of Dabiq in northern Syria was never of real strategic significance. And yet, symbolically, there were few places that were deemed more influential by the group's own leaders. Dabiq was the town where ISIS believed the beginning of the end would take place: an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and the “Romans,” fulfilling a historic prophecy that would lead to the group's victory over the West, according to its propaganda.
That battle, however, has now at least been postponed. On Sunday, ISIS surprisingly withdrew from the highly symbolic town, as its adversaries prepared an offensive against its stronghold Mosul far to the east in Iraq.
ISIS's willingness to give up the little town of once 3,000 inhabitants is a stunning development that's worth taking a closer look at. The 7th century prophecy of Dabiq was one of its most frequently used arguments to recruit foreigners. It was in the English-language Dabiq magazine that the group praised the attacks it had organized or inspired in Europe and North Africa. American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig was executed in that town, as well. “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” his executor was heard saying in a video at the time.
Dabiq used to be a metaphor for the threat ISIS posed. Now, it could signalize the group's demise.
But apart from showing that the militants are under intense pressure, experts are uncertain what the willingness of ISIS to give up the town so easily tells us about its inner workings. Did ISIS leaders ever truly believe in the prophecy of Dabiq and are they willing to further rely on it or did they use it simply as a recruitment strategy?
It is without doubt that Dabiq was crucial to the Islamic State's propaganda apparatus. Data from Google shows how its attacks in the West fueled the apocalyptic rhetoric, and the reverse.
Search interest in the term “Dabiq” first spiked in December 2014 when the magazine under the same title published strong criticism of al-Qaeda, referring to the apocalyptic battle that was assumed to be ahead. From that point onward, search interest always spiked when terrorist attacks in Western countries occurred: the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the Copenhagen attacks, and finally the devastating Paris attacks with more than 130 victims.
“It’s easy to conclude that ISIS’ leaders cited the prophesy cynically. They played it up when it was to their advantage and downplayed it when it was not,” wrote William McCants, author of “The ISIS Apocalypse” which was published last year. “But another theory I offered is that ISIS, like other apocalyptic groups, changes its understanding of prophecy’s fulfillment based on circumstances,” McCants continued.
Other researchers have voiced similar doubts whether Dabiq's loss implies the end of its prophecy being used in ISIS propaganda. Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at London's Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, wrote that the apocalypse narrative had stalled, but was “not undermined.”
So, how does ISIS still rely on the Dabiq prophecy, despite the apparent setbacks? Does it really believe in it?
For Europe and North America, the answer to that question could make a significant difference. In the early days of the Islamic State in 2014, many argued that the group was less dangerous to the West because it was focused on gaining ground in Syria and Iraq — and had no interest in provoking the anger of Western countries, like France or the United States. In other words, having more enemies would also mean having more problems for ISIS — making attacks elsewhere less likely. ISIS was seen as a rational force, acting with its long-term interests in mind. But a group that truly believes in the apocalypse changes the calculation.
The latter possibility gained ground amid the recent wave of attacks in the West that were claimed by ISIS, which is why search interest in Dabiq spiked after the Paris attacks. Was the Islamic State serious about its propaganda? Why did it plan attacks in the West despite the repercussions on its territory in Syria?
Following the Paris attacks, Yale University's Abbas Milani argued that ISIS's ultimate goal was to draw the West into a confrontation similar to the Dabiq prophecy. “There’s a lot of method to this madness,” he said, referring to the prophecy.
Whereas few had probably heard of Dabiq before 2014, the small town has been pushed into the spotlight by ISIS. For the group, that has both been beneficial as well as risky: Losing it could easily be interpreted as a sign of weakness, as is now the case. With ISIS on the defensive, the prospect of an apocalyptic battle has become less attractive for a group that would be likely to lose.
The group's magazine Dabiq last appeared in July, for instance. It is now published under a different name, Rumiyah.
Declaring ISIS's apocalyptic vision as dead could be a mistake, however. “The fall of Dabiq may be less a classic example of prophecy failing, and more adherents running away from the prophecy, for fear of failure,” wrote J.M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
In a written exchange with Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at George Washington University, one ISIS fighter implied on Sunday that giving up Dabiq was not an acknowledgment of defeat. Their prophecy referred to Western troops fighting, rather than the Syrian rebels who have now taken over.
In its Arabic-language newspaper al-Naba, ISIS recently discussed the possible fall of Dabiq, arguing it was not the prophesied battle. Dabiq is still very much in the minds of ISIS fighters and leaders, it appears.