To most people this week’s news that a group of 40 US special forces soldiers, accompanied by Turkish troops and Arab militias, are preparing to march towards a northern Syrian village called Dabiq means nothing.
For the followers of Islamic State (IS), it means everything.
In the early Muslim prophecies adhered to by IS, Dabiq is the scene of a final showdown between Muslims and Christians, otherwise known as Armageddon.
The Final Battle, as it is also called, heralds the return of Christ, who is regarded as a prophet within Islam; and ultimately The Day of Judgement.
IS sacrificed the lives of many of its fighters to take the otherwise strategically unimportant and dusty little town.
In the past few days forces have gathered at the nearby town of al-Rai, about 13 kilometres from Dabiq, with the intention of passing through the town to another Islamic State stronghold al-Bab, which houses the foreign intelligence arm of the group.
But both IS and the US are intensely aware of the symbolic significance of Dabiq.
For IS, Dabiq is ‘Ground Zero’. A battle there will signify that the ancient prophecies for which so many of them have fought and died are coming true.
For Western military operators, taking the town would be a significant propaganda victory.
Conquering Dabiq could well have wildly unpredictable consequences.
Critics of the West’s strategy in the Middle East have long pointed out that you cannot bomb an idea; and Dabiq is at the centre of Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.
Author of Australian Jihad and one of the world’s foremost experts on Islamic State, Beirut-based Martin Chulov, told The New Daily Dabiq is the place that IS uses to justify its brutal rampage with theology.
Mr Chulov was one of the last reporters to visit Dabiq, which is now inaccessible to Western journalists.
He recalls that in 2013 the village was virtually abandoned. Then in 2014 the jihadis began to arrive.
By mid-2015 black flags flew over the town and many of the houses had been painted with the IS symbol.
An apocalyptic showdown
“Central to its world view is a hadith, a saying by the Prophet Mohammed, that a town called Dabiq in northern Syria would be the scene of an apocalyptic showdown between Muslims and Christians,” Mr Chulov said.
“This is to be a very important phase in the end of days. They have used Dabiq as a rallying call, and have also named their propaganda magazine after it.
“The US being on the outskirts of Dabiq will clearly resonate throughout the ranks of IS. This to them is the prophecy being realised. It will be used to rally people to battle, to lift morale and to reaffirm that what they believe is truly taking place.
“This comes at a very important period in the fight against IS, in which they are being defeated militarily.”
US aid worker and former elite army officer Peter Kassig was beheaded in Dabiq in an act full of symbolism.
“Here we are, burying the first American crusaders in Dabiq,” his masked executioner declared. “We eagerly await the arrival of the rest of your armies.”
Author of perhaps the best book yet written on Islamic State’s religious underpinnings, The ISIS Apocalypse, by world expert William McCants, details the motivations: “Jihadists of all stripes, not just Islamic State followers, have been stirred by the promise of fighting in the final battles preceding the Day of Judgement.”
Said one jihadist: “If you think all these mujahideen come from all over the world to fight Assad, you are mistaken. They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised – it is the Grand Battle.”
IS is provoking confrontation
Australian National University terror expert Dr Clarke Jones told The New Daily: “IS is seeking to bring on that battle by provoking the international coalition to confront it in Dabiq.
“The US and its allies may be playing into the hands of IS. This confrontation is extremely symbolic and is probably all that IS needs to play out their propaganda to its support base.
“IS has repeatedly provoked the West to send ground troops to Dabiq by staging beheading videos there,” he explained. “The group appears determined to fulfil the prophecy and bolster its legitimacy to a wider audience.”
Islamic State’s expensively produced magazine Dabiq, a primary source for researchers and a major recruitment tool, is readily available online. Australia and Australians have featured regularly.
*** The Hadith: Believed to be one of the earliest sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
“The hour will not be established until the Romans (Christians) land at Dabiq. Then an army from Medina of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them … So they will fight them. Then one third of (the fighters) will flee; Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with sorrow. Then they will conquer Constantinople.”
John Stapleton worked as a staff news reporter for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian for more than 20 years.
His new book Hideout in the Apocalypse will be available in November.