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Dabiq, Issue 15: A Call to Islamic State's Enemies as the Caliphate Crumbles

04 Aug 2016
Short Read by Haroro J. Ingram

The latest issue of Dabiq celebrates a summer of terror in the West, speaks directly to Islamic State’s (IS) “crusader” enemies with a mix of condemnations and ultimatums, and is filled with appeals to converts. But what Dabiq’s latest issue doesn’t say is just as telling writes Haroro J. Ingram.

The issues and events Dabiq’s authors strategically highlight, repudiate or ignore say a lot about how IS thinks it can win supporters, champion its agenda and amplify the impact of its actions. Moreover, Dabiq’s fifteenth issue offers important insights into the way that IS wants to portray itself to friends and foes at a time when it has lost so much territory, blood and treasure while seemingly growing as a global terrorist threat. Over its eighty-two pages Dabiq navigates these complex dynamics in an issue that can be summarised in three words: lionise, convert and deflect.

The core narrative of Dabiq 15 is clear from its opening pages: IS remains strong, is deadlier than ever and its enemies must understand their predicament and their limited options for survival. Accompanied by images of the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, the “Foreword” opens by proudly stating that “the martyrdom of twelve soldiers of the Caliphate” led to “the deaths and injuries of more than six hundred Crusaders”. It chastises the “cross-worshippers and democratic pagans of the West” for not trying to understand “why Muslims hate and fight them”. Indeed, much of Dabiq 15 is devoted to both condemning its “crusader” enemies and broadly outlining the circumstances in which individuals (via conversion to Islam) and nations (via the establishment of truces) can avoid becoming victims of IS’s “divinely-warranted war”.

Further building this case are inspiring conversion stories of female (“How I came to Islam”) and male IS members (“Interview: Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi” [from the Trinidad]), highlighting apparent Christian theological discrepancies (e.g. the Trinity as an affront to the oneness of God) and the celebration of martyred Christian-Muslim converts fighting with IS (“Among the Believers Are Men”). Dabiq 15’s feature article, “Break the Cross”, methodically presents the case for the inauthenticity of and contradictions within Christian doctrine in an effort to convert Christian readers. To what extent Dabiq’s architects believe this messaging will work is largely inconsequential because of the self-reaffirming effect such content would likely have on its primary readership (i.e. IS supporters).

Indeed, one of the strengths of IS’ transnational propaganda efforts is that it produces multidimensional messaging that is designed for a spectrum of potential audiences even if it caters specifically to only one or two. While Dabiq’s principal target audience are potential IS supporters, more than preceding issues, Dabiq 15 is written for IS’ enemies. It declares that Westerners are “facing the collapse of their so-called ‘civilizations’ through their wicked deeds and the righteous deeds of the mujahidin”. It is an assertion that is incessantly reinforced. For example, in “The Response to the Call of the Prophet” the historical precedence for the options facing “disbelieving Christians” are outlined, the predicament facing Western women is examined in “The Fitrah of Mankind and the near-extinction of the Western Woman” while “Why we hate you and why we fight you” lists six reasons for Muslim animosity towards the West. This narrative is central to the latest issue of Dabiq not despite IS’ potentially devastating setbacks in the field but because of them. Far from the mere rantings of zealots, these messaging patterns reflect the strategic use of propaganda to deflect the focus of supporters, neutrals and enemies away from IS’s politico-military weaknesses and towards its strengths.

With this in mind, it is significant that previous issues of Dabiq were overflowing with images of modern hospitals, bustling marketplaces and infrastructure development. Supporting narratives boasted of IS’ politico-military strengths and the comparative weaknesses of its rivals via rational-choice appeals designed to coax readers into seeing IS as better than any alternatives. Such rational-choice appeals are far less prominent in Dabiq 15. With images of smiling “martyrs”, bloodied European streets, battle scenes and executions in support, Dabiq 15s narratives call for its supporters to understand the world through the lenses of their Muslim identity and take pride in “violently applying the Law of the Lord”.

Images of happy children or a militant cradling a kitten in Dabiq 15 are neither new nor an attempt to “soften” or “diversify” IS’ image. Dabiq has consistently emphasised that a true Muslim’s only motivation is love for Allah and love and compassion for what Allah loves. The logical corollary of that is hate for what Allah hates. Accompanied by a photo of a man being beheaded with a sword, Dabiq states “jihad is the ultimate show of one’s love for his Creator… seeking to slaughter His enemies – whom he hates for Allah’s hatred of them.”  Dabiq 15 could not be clearer on this point.

To reinforce an image of strength and lethality, Dabiq revels in the actions of so-called “soldiers of the Caliphate” in the West particularly in its “Foreword” and “Islamic State Operations” section. This messaging is designed to not only glorify individual actions in the United States (Orlando), France (Les Mureaux, Nice and Normandy) and Germany (Würzburg and Ansbach) but strategically place these “operations” within the context of IS’s transnational struggle and demonstrate its global reach. By highlighting a spectrum of operations – from guerrilla warfare in the Philippines and “West Africa Wilayah” to raids on military bases in “Homs Wilayah” and mass casualty terrorism in “Baghdad Wilayah” and “Khurasan Wilayah” – IS portrays itself as a capable and dynamic fighting force.

Regarding the legitimacy of terrorist attacks in the West, Dabiq is unequivocal: “Just as they terrify the Muslims in the lands of Islam, so should you terrify the disbelievers in their homelands. But unlike them, your terror shall be justified, an equitable response to their crimes.” Indeed, Dabiq emphasises the inherent legitimacy of targeting citizens of democratic governments via a photo of voters with the caption: “Crusader citizens line up to share in their leader’s crimes against Muslims.” Framing and contextualising acts of terrorism in this way is undoubtedly designed to encourage prospective “lone wolves” to participate in IS’ global and cosmic war.

There are a range of messaging trends and strategies that Dabiq 15 shares with previous issues of the magazine (for analyses of earlier Dabiq issues see here and here) that are important for understanding how its architects try to appeal to and radicalise its readers. Stylistics, for instance, play a subtle but potentially important role in these dynamics. Many Dabiq articles almost read as a succession of quotations, typically hadiths but also suras, that gives its message a sense of not just being inherently credible but even foretold. This is further augmented by the fact that Dabiq rarely identifies the authors of its contents. It is a powerful strategy especially for a readership that is likely unaware of the nuances of Islamic jurisprudence.

In fact, when an author is identified in Dabiq it is usually for a strategic purpose. For example, Dabiq may use the author’s name or a pseudonym to highlight their country of origin or, in the case of its contents for women, to underscore their gender. In Dabiq 15’s second article “For Women” titled “How I Came to Islam”, Umm Khalid al-Finlandiyyah is identified as the author to highlight both her gender and country of origin.

In another emerging trend, Dabiq advertises video releases by its other media units to cross-promote its propaganda messaging. Dabiq 15 opens with a full page advertisement for its Al-Furqan produced video “The Structure of the Khilafah”. Two other “Selected 10” full page advertisements promoting “Ten videos selected from the Wilayat of the Islamic State” appear later in the issue. This is about much more than mere marketing. It is a strategy designed to drag its readers deeper into the psychological minefield that is IS’ propaganda campaign – whether that reader is merely curious, giving consideration to IS’ call or already identifies with the group. The deeply interconnected and self-reinforcing nature of IS’ propaganda means that if one issue, article or image can resonate with its audience it may create “cognitive openings” for broader themes and narratives.

The purpose of this article was to not only offer an overview of Dabiq 15’s core narratives and major themes but try to place them within a broader strategic context. IS has always framed its successes as a manifestation of divine grace and a testament to the authenticity of its methods. Failure means the opposite which is why Dabiq 15 celebrates IS’ summer of terror in the West and demands submission from its enemies. This is also a useful way to avert the attention of friends and foes away from the heavy losses it is suffering. That Dabiq’s architects have adopted this approach for this issue and at this time makes a lot of strategic sense.