Middle East

Why Islamic State chose town of Dabiq for propaganda

Image from an Islamic State magazine, with a slogan referring to the group's aims in Dabiq, Syria
Image caption Islamic State magazine Dabiq, with slogan referring to the apocalyptic prophecy

The small Syrian town of Dabiq, which featured in the latest beheading video from the Islamic State group (IS), has figured heavily in the group's propaganda since July when it named its new English-language magazine after the town.

The group has focused on the dusty backwater not because of any strategic importance or the size of its population - the Syrian census of 2004 recorded that little over 3,000 people were living there - but for the power of its symbolism.

Dabiq, which lies around 10km (six miles) from the Turkish border, features in Islamic apocalyptic prophecies as the site of an end-of-times showdown between Muslims and their enemies.

The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said that "the last hour will not come" until Muslims vanquish the Romans at "Dabiq or Al-A'maq" - both in the Syria-Turkey border region - on their way to conquer Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

IS has been seeking to bring on that battle by goading the international coalition to confront it there.

Image caption This British militant is believed to have been involved in the beheading of five Western hostages since August

The masked British militant who is believed to have been involved in the killing of five Western hostages since August appeared in the latest IS video with Dabiq in the background and the severed head of murdered US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig at his feet.

"Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive," he said.

IS has repeatedly dared the West to send ground troops to Syria. By staging the latest beheading video in Dabiq, the group appears eager to be given an opportunity to fulfil the prophecy and bolster its legitimacy to a wider audience.

It appears that the militants were filmed on a hill on the northern edge of Dabiq, close to the location of another IS propaganda video released in October which featured three European jihadists all playing up the significance of the town.

Image caption The British man in this video has threatened to behead coalition forces

One of them, a British IS member of Eritrean origin called Abu-Abdallah, addressed the camera with the black IS flag fluttering in the background saying "We are waiting for you in Dabiq" and threatening to behead coalition forces there.

Although the group has been exploiting this apocalyptic imagery more aggressively in recent months since its territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria, references to the Dabiq prophecy have been used by IS for far longer.

After the group announced its expansion from Iraq into Syria in 2013 - long before IS seized Dabiq from other Syrian rebel fighters in August this year - the group's videos began to cite the prophecy routinely, suggesting that the town was in its sights.

Image caption Many IS films have signed off with this image

Many of its films have been signed off with an image of an IS fighter walking slowly across a landscape carrying a large black banner accompanied by an audio clip from the former leader of the group, Abu-Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, mentioning Dabiq.

Al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air strike in Iraq back in 2006, is heard to say: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify... until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq".

That quote dates back to September 2004 - a few days before Al-Zarqawi's group captured a Briton and two American hostages who were later beheaded.

It has since been used extensively in Dabiq magazine, whose launch in July signalled a clear intention to use the apocalyptic imagery to reach out to an international audience.

Image caption The Sulayman Bin-Abd-al-Malik shrine in Dabiq before its destruction
Image caption The shrine after the reported explosion

One aspect of life in Dabiq that has not been addressed by the group has been the apparent destruction of the tomb of one of the early caliphs of Islam - Sulayman Bin-Abd-al-Malik - who was buried in the town in the Eighth Century.

Footage on YouTube, uploaded on 2 August, several days before IS took the town, appears to show damage to the shrine said to have been caused by an explosion. The person who uploaded it blamed the incident on IS or its supporters, which has a track record of demolishing shrines which it considers un-Islamic.

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