The Islamic State has been dealt a major symbolic blow in the battle for its existence.
Turkish-backed rebels, reportedly supported by United States special forces, seized the Syrian town of Dabiq Sunday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to Islamic prophecies central to the Islamic State’s radical message, Dabiq is the site of an end-of-days battle that ushers in the apocalypse.
Now, having lost control of the town, the Islamic State must scramble to change a narrative that has been a core part of its appeal.
In the short term, the Islamic State can put a positive spin on losing the town of 3,500, which has little strategic value otherwise. Simply by bringing forces and foreign armies to Dabiq, the Islamic State can claim an ideological victory.
“No matter how the battle goes, the fact that they are fighting there is a justification that their entire reason for existence is correct and is fulfilling the words of the prophet,” says Malcolm Nance, terrorism expert and author of two books on the Islamic State. “In the near-term, they can spin this to boost the morale in Raqqa and Mosul and to boost recruitment.”
But longer-term, the group will struggle to reconcile the loss of Dabiq with nearly a decade-old narrative dating back to the group’s origins as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“No matter how they try to spin it, the optics of a defeat in Dabiq are bad for ISIS,” says Mathew Lester, analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security firm.
The group will likely compare the defeat to its losses in Iraq in the late 2000s, when US-supported Sunni forces drove Al Qaeda in Iraq from its strongholds and into the desert. Just as the Islamic State rose from Al Qaeda’s ashes and reconquered western Iraq, the group will likely vow to come back to Dabiq, only stronger.
“The idea would be to essentially say, ‘Look, we’ve come back from worse before, and we’ll do it this time, too. Soon, Dabiq will be ours again,’ ” Mr. Lester says.
Dabiq in Islamic prophecy
According to a saying, or hadith, of the prophet Mohammed relayed by a 7th century companion, the “last hour” would not arrive until “the Romans would land at Amaq, or Dabiq.” Many jihadist groups interpret “Romans” to be Western powers, namely the US.
In the prophecy, one-third of the Muslim army will run away, a third will be considered “excellent martyrs” and killed in battle, and the remaining third will be victorious and “conquer Constantinople” – modern-day Istanbul.
The hadith, and several others, claim that after the seizure of Constantinople, the dajjal, or anti-Christ, would appear, setting the stage for an end-of-days battle in Syria. Jesus – a revered prophet in Islam – will return and lead Muslims in prayer before joining forces with the Mahdi, a Muslim messiah figure, for the apocalyptic battle.
The Islamic State first captured Dabiq in August 2014, a victory that was met with much fanfare in its publications and social media accounts.
In November 2014, the group released a video of the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig in Dabiq. A voice-over stated: “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”
The Islamic State even named its monthly magazine Dabiq, reinforcing the image that it was fulfilling the will of God.
In the lead-up to current battle, the Islamic State reportedly sent 1,000 elite fighters to Dabiq and has heavily mined the surrounding countryside.
How ISIS might adapt
Typically, when the Islamic State has lost territory, it has refrained from mentioning it, focusing instead on its “victories.” For instance, the loss of the strategically important Syrian city of Manbij has barely been mentioned in Islamic State propaganda, while attacks in Iraq and Bangladesh have taken precedence.
Due to Dabiq’s theological importance, the group is likely to keep it in its narrative but shift its focus to Mosul (in Iraq) and Raqqa (in Syria) – the capitals of its so-called caliphate from which it draws its legitimacy.
“It will drive home the point that the fight for Dabiq is ongoing and that they are the true protectors of Dabiq as they have achieved a pure ‘Islamic’ society in their so-called caliphate,” says Jacob Olidort, an Islamic State expert and scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“This will be the strongest hit to the group’s morale, but we should not take comfort that it won’t adapt the narrative to meet its aims.”
One way the group may adapt is switching its focus, and attacks, to Turkey, observers say. It has already ramped up propaganda against Turkey since the country’s launch of anti-Islamic State operations.
By seeking to spread terror in Istanbul, the group can argue that it is attempting to fulfill part of the prophecy.
Moreover, Islamic State defectors and current members have described the battle of Dabiq as one that would span years, “perhaps generations.”
“All the true believers and Muslim armies have not gathered in Dabiq yet,” Omar, a former Islamic State member currently on the Jordan-Syrian border, recently said through an encrypted messaging app.
“For the Islamic State, the battle for Dabiq does not have to be today or tomorrow. It will come one day and they will say they were the ones who started it.”