The Dabiq Experiment

The Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL, & Daesh) has provoked a lot of questions since it first exploded on the world stage.  These questions range from the philosophical (the ever-popular “how can anyone be so cruel to another?”) through the practical (say, “is Assad now a potential ally?”).  One of the more interesting questions remains: what is the Islamic State, anyway?

The first assumption was that IS followed the long tradition of radical Islamic groups, such as al Qaeda or al Shabab.  On the whole, the public sees all of these groups as representing a highly questionable fringe of Islamic interpretation.  On to this stage walked Graeme Wood.  In March of 2015, he published “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic, arguing that while the groups interpretation may be fringe, it’s hardly eccentric.  By speaking with Western sympathizers and recruiters, he declared the IS theology to be a fundamentalist reading of the Koran and an attempt to bring 7th century sensibilities to the present.  They might be anachronistic savages, but they are, in Wood’s view, Islamic anachronistic savages.

A bare month later, Christoph Reuter of Der Spiegel started the debate for real, in “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”.  Using documents captured from the house of the dead IS commander, Reuter argued that at it’s core, Daesh was a Baathist police state, born of the officers that were banned from further military service after Hussein was removed from power.  Their expertise made Daesh so much more effective than previous Islamic groups, and their familiarity with torture and genocide were a direct influence on Daesh’s use of fear to maintain order, control, and publicity.  While the soldiers on the ground may be recruited by the Islamic ideology Wood saw in the recruiters, the real leadership is much more apathetic about Islam as such, and much more interested in raw power.

Since then, the debate has continued: is the organization a radical, apocalyptic, and fundamentalist Islamic group that has leveraged unemployed ex-Baathist expertise, or is it a Baathist police-state abusing religion to exploit sectarian fault-lines maintain a fanatically loyal following?

Thankfully for the cause of science (if not for those in the region), the world appears to be providing the curious with a natural experiment.

Turkey just declared an IS-free zone along it’s border,* following several IS provocations. Critically, this region includes the town of Dabiq.  To quote Graeme Wood on the town:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp.

The grand battle of Dabiq signals the beginning of the end of history, and, indeed, the world.

This, then, is the experiment.  IS is an organization built on growth, and fighting madly to expand is it’s go-to strategy.  However, it has tended to be very pragmatic about switching fronts and redirecting efforts to whichever front looks the most promising.  If, however, Turkey attempts to make Dabiq part of an unrewarding front, then IS has a choice.  If the Islamic State is really Islamic, then it will continue to throw resources at an insignificant town, so as to maintain its control until such time as the full force of the “armies of Rome” will be arrayed before them.  If IS is, instead, a primarily Baathist police-state with religious trappings, then it is more likely to fill the town with IEDs and make a tactical retreat, as per its usual strategy.

So, keep watching Dabiq – one way or the other, the Islamic State may soon offer another hint about its true face

*The linked article suggests the Turkish government is more worried about the Kurds than IS, and has directed its military operations accordingly.  Turkey’s “anti-IS zone” also, very conveniently, fills the 150 km gap between two mostly-Kurdish-controlled zones, preventing the formation of a more geographically unified Kurdish territory.  The completion of this ‘Kurdish corridor’ has been a concern of the Turkish government for some time now.  If Turkey’s focus is not actually on IS, then the discriminatory strength of the experiment proposed here is admittedly weakened, as Turkey may not actually significantly test the group’s resolve.


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