The gruesome video released by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) emphasizes that the beheading of Peter Kassig took place in the town of Dabiq, Syria. The town was chosen because of its significance in Islamic end-of-time prophecies about the time when the Mahdi and (the Islamic version of) Jesus will bring victory over those who oppose sharia.
The Islamic State named its English-language magazine “Dabiq” for the same reason. The group is telling Muslims that it is fulfilling prophecy, enticing them to participate in one of the most important moments in world history.
A secondary message is that Islamic State supporters should not worry about the military superiority of their enemy or the terrorist group’s setbacks because they will soon be made victorious with help from the Mahdi, Islam’s messianic figure, and Jesus (when he joins Islam, which he will according to Islamic prophecy).
“Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” says one Islamic State speaker.
The video features an excerpt from a sermon by Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi, the leader of the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike on June 7, 2006.
“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify…until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq,” Zaraqawi preached.
Then, for a third time, another Islamic State member says to the West, “We are waiting for you in Dabiq.”
The statements are a reference to prophecies in the hadith, the collection of sayings and actions attributed to Mohammed, the Holy Prophet of Islam.
When the Islamic State refers to President Obama as the “dog of Rome” in the video, they are making the case that the U.S. is the modern equivalent of the Roman Empire and American military action in the Middle East is the actualization of this prophecy.
The Islamic State draws a parallel between its own actions and the details of the prophecy. The hadith states that Dabiq will be controlled by the “best” Islamic soldiers from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They will capture “Romans” (i.e., Americans), which will lead to a foreign attack.
The Brookings Institute points out that the Islamic State immediately presented its capture of Dabiq in April as part of this prophecy. The group’s supporters distributed pictures on social media of the seized hilltop with the text of the prophecy.
The Islamic State’s beheadings of Peter Kassig and the other Americans are not only justifiable acts of jihad in their opinion. They are also acts designed to provoke an assault on them as prophesized. In their eyes, a U.S. military response is actually desirable, as it fulfills this prophecy.
The prophecy states that the Romans will arrive at Dabiq and tell all the Muslims to stand aside so that they can fight only those Muslims who took the captives. The Muslims will then unite against the Romans. The Islamic State is hoping that this will come to fruition.
When the battle begins, according to the prophecy, about one-third of the Muslim forces will flee (“whom Allah will never forgive”), one-third will die as “excellent martyrs” and the remaining one-third will win the battle and then conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).
If Islamic State supporters believe this prophecy is about them, then they will not be discouraged by the current U.S. military action, high death tolls and desertions. They will actually be encouraged by it because they believe it will ultimately bring victory.
According to the prophecy, what follows this victory in Dabiq and Turkey is the appearance and final defeat of the Islamic version of the Antichrist, called the Dajjal, at the hands of (the Islamic) Jesus.
To most Westerners, it sounds fanciful to suggest that the Islamic State believes it is fulfilling this prophecy, but this type of thinking is common among Islamists.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates often talk about eliminating or breaking "the cross." This is a reference to the same prophecies. They are talking about paving the way for the Mahdi and the Islamic Jesus to bring about final victory over their enemies. The terminology refers to an Islamic prophecy where Jesus will break a cross to disprove Christianity and absorb the religion into Islam.
The Muslim Brotherhood also believes in this. IslamWeb, a website with a fatwa bank that affirms the prophecies, salutes Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi as “one of the most eminent contemporary scholars who are recognized by their knowledge and efforts…”
Shiite Islamists also state they are fulfilling these prophecies. A documentary produced by the office of then-Iranian President Ahmadinejad made the case that he, along with Supreme Leader Khamenei and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, embodied specific characters foretold in Islamic prophecy. Much of the film aligns with the interpretations of Islamic prophecy by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
Khamenei’s news outlets likewise report on current events through end-of-times lenses. A Lebanese reporter in an Arab publication wrote that Iranian intervention in Syria and the ongoing civil war there is seen by the Iranian regime and Hezbollah as setting the stage for the appearance of the Mahdi.
The U.S. and its allies must not avoid tackling the Islamic State out of concern that doing so will reinforce its prophetic claims. National security and human rights are at stake. Instead, the U.S. can turn the tables using the prophecy.
The validity of the Islamic State’s claims rest upon the capture of Dabiq, the arrival of U.S. ground forces, the uniting of Muslims behind the Islamic State and military victory over the U.S. and its allies in the area.
Therefore, we can invalidate the Islamic State’s claims by not sending in U.S. ground forces to the area, strengthening the Islamic State’s Muslim adversaries, forcing the group out of Dabiq and delivering them a decisive defeat. If this happens, the Islamic State’s proclamations of prophetic fulfillment will be discredited.
The fundamental problem of Islamists seeking to trigger these end-of-times events will remain. The Islamic State could be crushed, but others with similar beliefs will arise. This entire mindset of fulfilling prophecy through war needs to be challenged by peace-seeking Muslims.
One method, advocated by Muslim reformists such as Ahmed Vanya attacks the authenticity of the cited hadiths, since they are not automatically considered the word of Allah as the Koran is.
The Islamic State’s referencing of prophecy is part of a bigger theological problem. Muslims need to address the traditional understanding of Islamic end-of-times prophecies and the role of Muslims in triggering their actualization.
For more information on the Islamic State and the ideology of conquest that drives it, see Clarion Project's Factsheet: The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL)