“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” – Leonard Cohen
Fearsome terror attacks led or inspired by the Islamic State group have now become an occurrence almost every other day – in the past days, Berlin, Baghdad, Istanbul – and will almost certainly continue throughout 2017 and beyond. Ever since the establishment of the Caliphate in June 2014 they have also been a permanent reality among the people under the control of the Islamic State.
How precisely is this kind of permanent terror to be explained? A magazine, almost unknown in the West, published by the Islamic State provides the best clue.
As soon as the establishment of the Caliphate was announced, this elegant online magazine began to be distributed electronically in several languages. It was named Dabiq, after the town where it is prophesied in a hadith (the records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Mohammad) that the crucial final battle between believers and infidels will be fought. Although no one appears to know who was responsible for its production, its articles were self-evidently written by intellectuals steeped in the theological tradition of Islam, with a deep knowledge of the Qur’an, the hadiths and major Islamic scholars. Its spirit was murderous and martial. Before its publication ceased towards the end of 2016, 15 issues had appeared, amounting to more than half a million words. (After the Islamic State lost control over Dabiq in Syria, the magazine was replaced by a shorter and less sophisticated online magazine called Rumiyah – “Rome” – which, in accordance with the prophecies, the Islamic State promises to conquer in the near future.)
In Dabiq, no theme was more important than the Islamic State’s desire to destroy those it regarded as its historical and current enemies – for military reasons, the armed forces of the new Crusaders at war with the Islamic State; for political reasons, its rivals among the Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, including the al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front; for religious reasons, the Shi’a Muslims; their Syrian cousins, the Alawites; the fallen “apostate” peoples, the Yazidi and the Druze; the Christians of the West; and the supposed eternal enemy of the Muslims, the Jews.
The magazine had several regular features. Each issue provided details of the military triumphs of the Islamic State and its affiliates, including both the planned operations and the lone wolf attacks on its Crusader enemies in the West. (It was, however, conspicuously silent about the setbacks.) Each issue contained gruesome details of the enemies it had dispatched – beheaded Western or Japanese hostages, adulterous women stoned to death, “sodomites” thrown from the roofs of tall buildings to public squares, and the captured enemy troops and the apostates its army had slaughtered.
Each issue told the story of the noble mujahidin “martyrs” for the cause, under the rubric ‘Among the Believers Are Men’. In a regular column called ‘From Our Sisters’, questions concerning women were discussed – the benefits of polygamy, the merits of sexual slavery, and the indispensable mothers’ role in providing a suitable education for the “lion cubs”, the next generation of soldiers. One of Dabiq’s preoccupations was the horror of life in the infidel (kufr) societies of the West and the religious obligation of Muslims around the world to undertake migration to the Islamic State (hijrah) now that the Caliphate has been established.
Dabiq is heir to the tradition of revolutionary Salafi jihadism – from the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb, executed in 1966, to Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaders of Al Qaeda. Without some grasp of that tradition it cannot be understood. Yet what is most interesting about Dabiq is what it reveals about the changes in both the style and content of Salafi jihadism that have taken place in the years since the Iraq insurgency began, following the US–UK–Australian invasion of 2003.
The Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led the Iraq insurgency for only three years. He was not a theorist but a warrior, killed eight years before the declaration of the Islamic State Caliphate. Nonetheless, in a way that is difficult to understand or to explain, it is Zarqawi’s brutal spirit and worldview that shapes the ideology of the Islamic State. Zarqawism, as expressed in the pages of Dabiq, represents a new and perhaps final chapter in the ideological history of Salafi jihadism.
A core concept in the Zarqawist ideology, as articulated in the pages of Dabiq, is called “paying the price”. Among those who must pay the price are the citizens in the countries at war with the Islamic State. On several occasions Dabiq has published a passage from the group’s (now dead) official spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging wars, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner.”
The authors of Dabiq were extremely enthusiastic about lone wolf attacks, like the Sydney siege of Man Haron Monis, in particular because of his eleventh-hour conversion from Shi’ism to Sunni Islam. It was equally delighted by the slaughter in Orlando because of the choice of the victims. Its final issue in mid 2016 reported that “our brother Omar Mateen, one of the soldiers of the Caliphate in America, carried out an attack on a nightclub for sodomites in the city of Orlando, Florida. He succeeded in massacring the filthy Crusaders, killing and injuring more than 100 of them before he was killed.” Orlando was a precursor to this week’s massacre in the fashionable Reina nightclub in Istanbul.
Dabiq of course also cheered loudly earlier planned reprisal operations, like the downing of the Russian aircraft after Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, and the mass shootings in Paris and Belgium – the precursors to the truck massacre on the promenade at Nice and, although the details are not yet clear, the recent copy-cat Christmas atrocity in the market square in Berlin.
Time and again, Dabiq pointed out that no one should describe these attacks as driven by envy of the Western way of life – a very common but altogether mistaken motive proposed by many neo-conservatives in the United States and by conservatives, like Tony Abbott, in Australia. The leaders of the Islamic State do not envy the Western way of life. They despise it. The terrorist attacks are acts of war. Citizens of countries not involved in the fight against the Islamic State, Dabiq frequently told its readers, can sleep soundly in their beds, unless of course one of them insults the Prophet. Clearly, Australia is a potential target for the operatives and the followers of the Islamic State.
What is also interesting is that all issues of Dabiq lovingly published many vivid and gruesome photos of the political or religious enemies of the Islamic State before or after the moment of their execution – perhaps most shocking were the photos of a captured Jordanian pilot, in a cage, burned alive – and of those slaughtered Western citizens murdered by agents or supporters of the Islamic State.
The conspicuous depiction of the extreme cruelty awaiting the enemies of the Islamic State transcends savagery. It has a clear logic and purpose. Unlike the partial cloud of secrecy that covered the most evil crimes perpetrated by the 20th century’s most terrible regimes – led by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot – the full barbarity of the Islamic State is on display. The leaders of the Islamic State are proud of their greatest acts of terror, which they believe fulfil the will of God. There is no reason for disguise. As importantly, there is a political motive. As taught by one of their foundational texts, The Management of Savagery, the fate that has already befallen the victims of the Islamic State is meant to instil a paralysing fear in the hearts of their enemies.
This article is based in part on Robert Manne’s recent The Mind of the Islamic State (Redback, Black Inc.), which is to be published in the US in September 2017 by Prometheus Books.
This article first appeared in The Monthly.