Fall of Dabiq is ‘end of the world’ for ISIS

End game: Around 2,000 rebel soldiers captured the small town of Dabiq on Sunday. © PA

Yesterday ISIS lost control of a small Syrian town which is the battleground that will end the world. Or so it teaches. Is this ‘game over’ for ISIS? Or the trigger for a bloody martyrdom?

In north-eastern Syria, six miles from the Turkish border, lies a dusty backwater called Dabiq, home to a mere 3,000 people. There was huge rejoicing within ISIS when they captured it in 2014. But yesterday they gave it up with barely a struggle. Resistance was ‘minimal’, said one commander.

Dabiq is militarily insignificant compared to Mosul where a massive US-led attack has been building up for weeks. And yet some experts say that ISIS were finally broken yesterday when they abandoned that small town in Syria. But why?

Unlike Western forces, ISIS have always understood war as a work of visual propaganda, they say. Homer’s Achilles understood this when he fought Hector in front of the walls of Troy in full view of both armies. The Nazis understood this by employing Leni Riefenstahl to turn their party rallies into art.

And Dabiq has been the main stage for ISIS propaganda. When they beheaded a kidnapped aid worker, they taunted the US by declaring that they were ‘burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies.’ They named their English-language magazine Dabiq, and they end many of their videos with images of Dabiq.

Their rationale is rooted in a 1,400-year-old prophecy. ISIS leaders, steeped in Islamic scholarship, teach that it is in Dabiq that the armies of Rome, or the West, will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and the battle of Dabiq will be the West’s Waterloo or final defeat. This will then lead to the apocalypse or end of the world.

A stake in the heart

With the fall of Dabiq yesterday ISIS lost something far more important than a military outpost, say some. For them, this is like the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 was to the Jews. They have lost the key to their psychological and theological story. The fact that they fled with hardly a fight is a sign of just how defeated they really are. The dragon is slain. It may writhe for a few more months but essentially it is no threat.

But there is another reading, respond others. Perhaps they gave up Dabiq easily for a reason. They want to lure the US led coalition into one great final battle. This looks likes happening at Mosul soon. The more over-confident the West, the better. ISIS fighters believe that martyrdom is the best way to die. They look forward to it. Meanwhile they know this: fighting people is one thing, but fighting an idea is quite another.

You Decide

  1. Can ISIS survive this latest blow?
  2. Is it ever possible to kill an idea?


  1. Watch the video by Vox under Become An Expert which explains the history of the rise of ISIS. Summarise what you’ve learned in five bullet points.
  2. Write a letter to a teenager who is trapped in Mosul. What questions would you ask them? What would you want to tell them?

Some People Say...

“In war, stories are far more important than battles.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean terrorism will be over in my country too?
Unfortunately there is still a risk of ISIS-inspired terrorism in many countries. But the events far away in Iraq and Syria are crucial to the group’s power. The name ‘Islamic State’ refers to its territory, a ‘caliphate’ that it once hoped would spread around the world. Instead, it is getting smaller by the day — meaning its core philosophy is falling apart.
What will happen to the foreign nationals who went there to fight?
Some are already being held by ISIS to prevent them from coming home. If they survive and manage to make it back, what happens next depends on their home country’s government. Some (like France and Belgium) will arrest and possibly jail returning fighters. Others (like Denmark) have a rehabilitation programme.

Word Watch

A census in 2014 recorded just 3,000 people in Dabiq. It has been the site of an epic battle once before, when the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluk Sultanate there in 1516.
Also known as IS, ISIL, (Islamic State, of Iraq and Syria, or Iraq and the Levant) and (the Arabic) Daesh. The group came to the world’s attention when it captured a handful of major cities in Iraq in 2014. It has since expanded into Syria and inspired acts of terrorism around the world.
The second city of ISIS (the first is Raqqa in Syria) and its most populous. It is also the last major ISIS territory in Iraq. Thousands of troops are currently gathered nearby, waiting to start an attack.
Part of the extensive ISIS propaganda machine, the magazine explains and clarifies the group’s philosophy.
The words are in the Hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad. Different branches of Islam often have different interpretations of hadith.
Although it is unclear who ‘Rome’ is, many assume it refers to Christians. This means that American forces can fill the place of the Romans.

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