Apocalypse not yet

Terrorist groups are really good at telling a story.  This skill contributes to what we call narrative: a worldview that explains why a group does something, provides meaning and helps to draw others in.  Islamist extremists in particular have crafted what we call the “Single Narrative”, a wide historical and current canvas in which the West is seen as Islam’s enemy and a brave bunch of self-styled mujahideen come to Islam’s defence.

A lot of what we in the West have done, rightly or wrongly, is used to bolster this narrative.  The spiritual godfather of Al Qaeda, Abdallah Azzam, took advantage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back in 1979 to spur Muslims to take up arms in his famous tracts In Defense of the Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan.  More recently, the US abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in Guantanamo – not to mention the ill-considered decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – serve to support their belief that the West hates Islam.  Have you noticed that terrorist organisations like Islamic State dress their prisoners in orange suits before beheading them?  Coincidence I think not.

In their propaganda there is also reference to heroism, bravery and making a difference in life (“Be a lion of Islam!”).  IS also got a lot of mileage out of allusions to end of history scenarios.  The title of its flagship e-zine Dabiq is in fact a call out to a town in northern Syria where, according to some sources, the grand battle between Islam and the West will be fought with the former destroying the latter.  When you read this jihadi literature you frequently come across terms like the Mahdi (an end of time figure who comes to Earth to battle evil), the Dabbah (an anti-Christ-like character) and the armies of Khorasan.

It is not hard to see how this imagery appeals to some.  After all, in our own (Western) history the end of the first millennium CE was chock full of the end of the world fears and the return of Jesus Christ who would sort things out.  As to whether the use of Armageddon was effective in convincing some to fight for IS is not clear (although my research shows it did resonate with some).  Nevertheless for those already committed to jihad the notion that you will fight and die in the battle to end all battles could be influential.
Well, it appears that the great battle to end all battles has been postponed.  The Free Syrian Army has taken Dabiq from IS after what was labelled “little” resistance (you would have thought that a place so imbued with cosmic importance would have been better defended).  The West did not crumble in northern Syria – heck, the town was seized by fellow Syrians!  IS’ great hope for the ultimate showdown seems to have weakly vanished.

So what does this all mean?  IS, by all accounts, is on the ropes with efforts to retake Mosul already begun.  The terrorist group has lost a lot of its territory and even its propaganda machine is less productive.  IS has gone from the heights of the Caliphate and worldwide attention to a group possibly in its death throes in remarkably quick order.

When we can reliably say that IS is finished that will indeed be a good day.  As I have cautioned before, however, the end of IS is not the end of terrorism and I am certain another bunch will rise with essentially the same ideology.  IS will be seen to be a failure in that its reign was mercifully short (remember the 1000-year Reich?) but we are not doing enough to prevent new IS’ from developing.

As for the failed Armageddon I for one am happy since I was not ready to go out in a global conflagration.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

One reply on “Apocalypse not yet”

Hi Phil.
Thanks for your posts. Even though I disagree with you, your post helps me clarify my own confused ideas.
I know the idea if a ‘single narrative’ has more or less become ‘folk wisdom, but reading of AQ and ISIL propaganda would suggest that they have a number of narratives. One is as you say, the alleged war on Islam by the West – but there are others, such as that Islam has been betrayed from within – which some then say the West has exploited. Another narrative is one of redemption: that they as individuals will be rewarded by fighting jihad. There is also an apocalyptic narrative too. My feeling is the more or less single fixation of Western media on a ‘single narrative’ has led us to be blind to these other narratives – which are as powerful and motivating – if not more so.
There is work by, I think Steve Corman, who described a narrative a little differently from you. A narrative differs from a story: a narrative is a system of stories that share themes, forms, and archetypes. Narratives explains or give meaning to events. But you need additional things – principles, rules, duties, to tell people what to do. Salafi-jihadism has these rules – such as al wala wal bara. Seen like this, it would not matter what the West has done or does do. The salafi jihadis would be after us all the same – as they said in Dabiq 15.
The other bone to pick is that the recapture (or liberation, depending on your point of view), of Dabiq – and the significance of that. ISIL losing it has already been worked into their narrative – and they have been preparing for this for months. Firstly, they said some months ago there would be reversals but eventually the apocalypse would happen. Loss of territory is not really important. Second, it is not about land, but making an effort to bring eventual victory. So, from ISIL’s point of view, it does not really matter – their narrative of a cycle of wins, losses and re-emergance is a sign of Allah’s providence and his master plan. For ISIL’s devotees, the apocalypse has merely been postponed, not cancelled.
Also, although ISIL’s propaganda machine is less productive, the quality is still there. And it’s likely they will try to keep it going at a high quality, if less productive, for as long as possible. They have also taken account of their ongoing losses and issued a new magazine, Rumiyah. Whether this is a replacement for the magazine Dabiq or not is not yet clear – but given ISIL have lost the village (of Dabiq) the appearance of Rumayah a few months ago would indicate they were adapting their stance to take account of such a loss and move from the ‘apocalypse is night’ narrative to ‘the apocalypse will come – eventually’ line.
I also do not think ISIL is on the ropes at all. For them it is not about territory. It is about endurance. As ISIL has said, in 2006 they went into the desert, to emerge again. As well, they have a network of branches and affiliates from West Africa to South East Asia. And some a particularly active – such as in Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh. ISIL is far from finished. They have also told aspiring jihadis to go to other jihadi arenas.
This is going to go on for years.

Leave a Reply