Briefing Note: Plots, Conspiracies and Misinterpretations
22 May 2015
The latest edition of ISIS' propaganda magazine, Dabiq, includes an unapologetic defence of its actions, including the sexual slavery of Yezidi women, and emphasises a 'duty' to migrate to the 'caliphate.'
In the ninth edition of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS is intent on dispelling the rumours and conspiracy theories that the group deems to be held by many of its potential recruiting base. ISIS instead embraces its responsibility for its actions and strategies, claiming they are religiously ordained. The group rejects such theories as that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the United States, and that ISIS is a creation of the West and its Arab allies to justify their "continued interference in Muslim affairs," comparing these to the suggestion that the Rightly-Guided Caliphs of the 7th century were only able to capture the lands of the Middle East and North Africa because of support from either the Roman or Persian empires.
The prevalence of such conspiracy theories is also demonstrated by the claims of figures such as Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, that the CIA and Mossad "stand behind" groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, a claim that continues to cause damage to ISIS' claims to legitimacy.
However, such conspiracy theories, according to the magazine, are not just deviant and mistaken, but an example of shirk (idolatry), an accusation that ISIS frequently makes to provide religious support to its criticisms. According to the group's logic, the conspiracy theories circulating about ISIS are beyond the capacity of kuffar (non-Muslim) nations, as their complexity would require attributes that only belong to God, such as knowing "the minutest details of everything" and "control[ling] all events." Therefore, to accept such theories would be tantamount to putting those nations on a level with God.
ISIS is intent on dispelling rumours harmful to it.
The magazine claims that such "conspiracy theories have thereby become an excuse to abandon jihad... in the name of 'political awareness'," which causes potential recruits to become "paralysed by analysis of current events." To counter the threat that it believes this poses to its recruiting pool, ISIS therefore uses this issue of Dabiq to justify its actions, not as inchoate brutality, but as correct and proper. Indeed, it claims that they are a requirement laid out by (its interpretation of) Islamic scripture. Concerns over ISIS' actions or motivations caused by such theories blurs the black-and-white paradigm ISIS presents of a cosmic struggle that will culminate in an impending battle between 'Crusader' and Muslim armies in the fields of northwest Syria.
The theme of a great plot against Islam runs throughout the magazine, titled "They Plot, and Allah Plots." Coalition military operations against ISIS are presented as a 'crusader' plot against the entire religion of Islam, borrowing from and expanding on the themes of an audio recording purporting to be from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a week before this issue of Dabiq.
Addressing these shirk conspiracy theories is just one example of ISIS' attempts to correct 'misconceptions' that may prevent potential recruits from supporting the group. One article, following on from similar arguments in a previous issue, attacks those supporters who denied that ISIS had seized women as sex slaves in some of its attacks. The author, purportedly a woman who also appeared in a previous edition of the magazine, tells the reader that sexual slavery (particularly that of Yezidi women) does not constitute bloodthirsty hedonism but rather a religious duty: "a great prophetic Sunnah." She states that the women and children that ISIS captures are legitimate war booty, according to its narrow interpretation of Sharia, and are better off than prostitutes who "sell their honour" in the West. However, her repeated emphasis is that such practices are a result of ISIS acting "upon the prophetic methodology."
ISIS embraces accusations of imposing slavery, describing it as a religious duty.
Again echoing a theme of the audio recording released a week earlier, this edition of Dabiq emphasises the significance of the duty of ribat (life on the frontier), presenting it as a crucial stage on the "roadmap" to "maximize the fruits of jihad," which starts with hijrah to the land of jihad, pledging allegiance to the caliph, guard duty (hirasah), fighting and killing, and ends finally with martyrdom. This imagery has special significance as it echoes the development of jihad in early Islam whereby fighter-scholars battling for the faith on the frontiers were depicted as an elite vanguard fighting the battles of the end times.
Despite rejecting conspiracy theories ISIS deems harmful to its own ideology and advancement, the magazine goes on to offer an alternative historical narrative of the formation of modern Middle Eastern countries. It returns to a running theme that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a concerted effort by Western nations to divide, conquer and subjugate Muslims. It also dwells on the supposed influence of Iran in Yarmouk refugee camps. These attempts to revise the historical narrative shows that ISIS to be engaged in a revolutionary cultural project, driven by Salafi-jihadi principles. This can also be witnessed, in a manner similar to such ideological revolutions in Iran, Russia and China, in ISIS' overhaul of the entire education system to ensure the indoctrination of the next generation of 'mujahidin.' Such propaganda shows ISIS as highly ideologically motivated, rather than being driven by power and violence.
The focus of this edition represents a shift in tone for Dabiq. The magazine is attempting less to attract those drawn to blood and adventure through imagery of shock and awe, and more to emphasise the obligation – and ease – of hijrah for all Muslims. The magazine chastises Muslims for training in the West and remaining there "chasing worldly pleasures." This shows that the underpinning logic of ISIS (that it represents all Muslims as the 'caliphate') remains important to the group – but that this logic will come under threat if its stream of recruits dries up.
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