Briefing Note: ISIS in Their Own Words

At a Glance

Briefing Note: ISIS in Their Own Words

20 Oct 2014

In this Briefing Note, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics examines the latest issue of the ISIS magazine, Dabiq. The magazine serves a dual-purpose: in making claims to Islamic legitimacy, ISIS seeks to rally the group's supporters to its cause and in boasting of its victories, threaten its critics. We look at the ways in which these claims fail to stand up to scrutiny.

On 12 October 2014, the so-called ' Islamic State' (ISIS) released the fourth issue of its magazine, Dabiq. Through 56 pages of articles and imagery, the group seeks to project an image that will bolster its claim to be the legitimate caliphate, deserving the allegiance of all Muslims. It portrays itself as drawing on religious foundations to justify its actions, and claims religious scholarship in its defence, as well as emphasising its state-like function in the territories it controls.

Syria's civil war has seen a fixation on apocalyptic narratives.

One of the recurring themes of Syria's civil war has been a fixation on apocalyptic narratives. In many Islamic traditions Syria (or bilad al-Sham) is the location of the great battles of the end times. ISIS is no exception to this trend, viewing itself as a Muslim army ushering in the end of days. The magazine's name is a reference to this: Dabiq is a town in northern Syria that, by some Islamic traditions, is the location of one of these great battles. In a focus on the end times that continues throughout, the magazine opens with a quote from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of one of its predecessor organisations:

"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"

It is important to read the ideological claims in this magazine in the context of the many scholarly criticisms of ISIS that have emerged, and in particular those that claim that it lacks the authority to declare a caliphate, a narrative ISIS is urgently seeking to counter.

The Religious Justification

 The first four articles of the magazine are concerned with justifying ISIS' actions. A foreword introduces the magazine, emphasising the 'certainty' of ISIS' victory. This certainty (yaqeen) of divine support for their actions is common to many fundamentalist groups and pervades Dabiq, with any notions of doubt as to the "certainty of Allah's promise" described as "weak thought". This is expanded on in the second article, written as a series of excerpts from a speech by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS' spokesman. He warns against deviance or doubt, reserving particular bile for "quasi-jihadists and mock mujahidin": jihadi groups that have not accepted ISIS' claim to universal rule.

ISIS is keen to reassure its followers that its actions are righteous.

Of particular note when considering the scale of ISIS' atrocities is an instruction that Adnani gives not to "oppress anyone" and not to become arrogant. However, the next two articles reveal just what a narrow definition of oppression ISIS holds.

The third article argues that the seizure of loot in warfare is permitted, claiming that goods seized in jihad are a gift of God. Uniquely among these articles it was not written with ISIS in mind: it is a 14th Century commentary on a hadith by the Iraqi scholar Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali.

More disturbingly, the next article attempts to justify the enslavement of Yezidi women by ISIS during operations in August. This is analysed in more detail by Matthew Barber elsewhere. ISIS claims to justify its actions on the following counts:

  • That the Yezidi are 'mushrikun', or polytheists, unrelated to Islam.
  • That slavery is commanded by Islam for women among mushrikun groups. 
  • That a hadith should be interpreted as requiring that slavery be reintroduced as a condition of the end times.
  • That having female slaves would protect ISIS fighters from sexual sin, as they could legally have sex with their slaves.

The group's apocalyptic narrative means that they adopts a Sharia code where special rules of war apply, including slavery and the taking of war booty. In the Abode of War (Dar al-Harb), no distinction is drawn between civilian and soldier and as such, readers are ordered to "Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling...".

These first four articles appear to be intended to bolster the resolve of ISIS' supporters. Amid the series of attacks coming at them from respected international scholars and fellow jihadis, the group is keen to reassure its followers that its actions are righteous – particularly those that have the appearance of evil. It seeks to draw its followers in to a bunker mentality in which any attack on ISIS is an attempt to undermine Islam.

The 'State’

While the first part of Dabiq is concerned with the ways in which ISIS' actions can be considered to be 'Islamic', the group then goes on to outline the ways in which they resemble a legitimate 'State'.

Pictures emphasise the group's delivery of social services, including cancer treatment for children, street cleaning and infrastructure being repaired, accompanied by the claim that ISIS is looking after "both the religious and worldly affairs of the Muslims".

Alongside the provision of social services, state legitimacy is associated with the groups 'protection' of civilians, military victories and pledges of allegiance from other jihadi groups. These victories are described as a defence against Shia forces (described as "safawi [Persian] dogs"), portrayed both as apostates and active conspirators against the 'true' Islamic community. Much of Dabiq's conception of 'State' is framed around the destruction of the old order. The group represents the demolishing of the Iraq/Syria border as delivering a blow to "nationalism and the Sykes-Picot-inspired borders that define it".

Dabiq's conception of 'State' is framed around the destruction of the old order.

Whilst ISIS may lay claim to looking after "the worldly affairs of the Muslims", their conception of Muslim is a very narrow one and there is no mention even of those religious minority groups that have entered into a Dhimmi pact. In their conception of al-wala wal-bara (a jihadi principle of loyalty and enmity dividing Muslims and non-Muslims), the group recognises no "greyzone", but rather those who do not support ISIS have "one foot in the trench of the hypocrites".

The Apocalypse

Dabiq's third section focuses on presenting ISIS as the fulfilment of an apocalyptic prophecy identifying Syria as the location of the final war before the day of judgement. This aspect of the conflict is heavily marketed in ISIS propaganda, aiming to recruit fighters to Syria by emphasising the end-times importance of the conflict.

The prophecy itself is based on a hadith. However, while Dabiq presents this prophecy as indisputable and literal, it is interpreted in many different ways by religious scholars. Dabiq is also highly selective in the quotations it uses to emphasise a connection between the prophecy and current events in Syria. For example, it quotes 'The hour will not be established until the Romans land at al-Amaq or Dabiq', but later explains that 'Romans' refers to the Christians of Europe, and presumably by extension all those who oppose ISIS. This reliance on metaphor to allow the prophecy to apply is in stark contrasts with the rigid literalism applied by ISIS at other times.

ISIS demonstrate their desire to make their distorted view of geopolitics fit textual prophecy.

The section continues with a discussion of what is presented as the alliance between the West, Russia, Iran, and other 'apostate proxies' against ISIS. While Dabiq attempts to explain this alliance using a quotation from the Qur'an, the connection between the text and the reality is tenuous, demonstrating their desire to make ISIS' distorted view of geopolitics fit textual prophecy.

The West

The final section of the magazine focuses its attention directly on Western governments, claiming that the blame for the execution of British and American hostages lies in the hands of Western leaders rather than ISIS. This draws on an anti-Western theme throughout, with ISIS' spokesman calling for attacks on civilians throughout the West (and particularly – for reasons that go unexplained – on the "spiteful and filthy French").

Included in the section is an article which purports to be written by the British photojournalist John Cantlie, a hostage who has appeared in a number of videos distributed by the group, which calls on the British Government to "open a channel and negotiate" with ISIS.

There is little analysis that can be applied to the horrific pictures of the victims of ISIS' beheadings that litter these last pages, except to remind the reader of the brutality ever-present beneath the group's veneer of ideology and piety.


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