By Ella Lipin
President Barack Obama’s expected announcement today of a long-term military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) follows an unusually grizzly few months of territorial conquest and seemingly barbaric behavior. To the outside world, this period of atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, such as the beheading of two American journalists, may be another defining moment in shaping the Middle East. But for many people in the region, ISIS’s message resounds and its arrival marks the end of days and the fulfillment of divine prophecy. To understand ISIS’s appeal and ultimately how to defeat it, the United States must recognize how the organization situates itself within Islamic apocalyptic tradition.
In July, ISIS released the first two issues of Dabiq, its digital magazine, revealingly named after a Syrian town believed to be the site of the future climactic battle, to be fought between Muslims and Romans, that will lead to Judgment Day. The use of Dabiq draws from hadith, revered accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or practices. The relevant passage states that the end of days won’t come until the battle at Dabiq. After the battle, the triumphant Muslims will go on to conquer the Western world (symbolized by Constantinople). ISIS reprinted this hadith in full in the first issue of its new publication.
Herein lies ISIS’s propaganda strategy: employ Islamic apocalyptic tradition – with the West as the modern day Romans – to mobilize followers. 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.
Other militant jihadists have used this approach before. A decade ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the Islamic State’s predecessor – invoked the same tradition: “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.” This quotation was recently used to adorn the opening pages of ISIS’s glossy new magazine.
This prophetic rhetoric, coupled with ISIS’s claim to establish the first Caliphate since the Ottoman Empire, aims to place the organization as the sole legitimate representative of Muslims and the inevitable enemy of the Western world. It can be a powerful message, one that has already helped bolster ISIS’s popular support.
This interpretation of events is not limited to Sunni extremists; a large number of Muslims believe these events may be imminent. A 2011-2012 Pew survey found that a high percentage of Muslims in the Middle East believe they would witness events leading to the Day of Judgment. In Iraq, where ISIS has recently expanded, 72 percent of respondents expect to experience the coming of the Mahdi, a messianic redeemer who will restore the political and religious purity of Islam. While the figures were lower in other Muslim countries—Tunisia (67 percent), Lebanon (56 percent), Morocco (51 percent), the Palestinian Territories (46 percent), Jordan (41 percent), and Egypt (40 percent)—the apocalyptic tradition clearly resonates deeply throughout the region.
By exploiting the battle of Dabiq, ISIS hopes to recruit disaffected admirers among the many who believe that the end of days is fast approaching. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS managed to recruit 6,000 new fighters, including 1,000 foreigners, in the month of July alone.
However, just because large numbers of Muslims hold a belief that the end of times is imminent does not mean they sympathize with ISIS’s radical and militant agenda. Nor does it mean that ISIS can successfully build a wider following by tapping into a commonplace apocalyptic tradition. The United States must do what it can to keep it that way.
Airstrikes may be an important tool in addressing the immediate security crisis created by ISIS’s gains in territory and popularity, but force cannot stand alone. The United States needs a comprehensive, long-term strategy to answer this prophetic narrative and prevent ISIS from broadening its allure. The first step towards crafting such a response requires an understanding by the United States and its allies of ISIS’s theological appeal.
Ella Lipin is a research associate for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.