By Anne Barnard
New York Times
BEIRUT >> Islamic State leaders had long promised their followers an apocalyptic battle — foretold, some believe, by the Prophet Muhammad — in an otherwise nondescript village they controlled in northern Syria.
But the warriors of the self-declared caliphate lost the village, Dabiq, in just a few hours over the weekend as Syrian rebels, backed by Turkey, closed in. To soften the symbolic blow, the Islamic State switched rhetorical gears, declaring that the real Dabiq battle would come some other time.
The about-face was part of a larger repositioning as the Islamic State loses ground, not only in Syria but also in Iraq, where forces backed by the United States began a drive on Monday to oust the group from the sprawling and strategically vital city of Mosul. On the defensive in both countries, the group has been making preparations for retrenchment and survival.
Hundreds of Islamic State fighters and their families have fled to the group’s de facto capital, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, in recent days, according to several residents of that city who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals. They said that the arrivals had come from Mosul, as well as from areas around Dabiq in the Syrian province of Aleppo, and that they were waiting for the Islamic State authorities to find them housing.
The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has also been laying the ideological groundwork to maintain its appeal in straitened circumstances. As it suffered on the battlefield in recent months, the group began signaling that a drastic contraction or even a failure of its territorial proto-state would not spell defeat.
“The generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able — God willing — to keep its banner aloft,” the group’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter, Al Naba, said in June.
The article reminded followers that the group’s predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq, had survived by fading into the desert after military defeat during the U.S. occupation, only to re-emerge more formidably in Syria years later and eventually seize much of Iraq, including Mosul.
More recently, as Dabiq was surrounded on three sides by the Turkish-backed rebel force, Islamic State followers “began to frantically explain why the approaching showdown in Dabiq would not be THE showdown,” Will McCants, author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” wrote on the blog Jihadica.
Islamic State media outlets pointed out that other conditions for the prophesied battle had not materialized, like the appearance of a “crusader army,” or the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure, or an 80-nation coalition of fighters.
Dabiq has been central to the group’s identity. The Islamic State’s online magazine is called Dabiq, and its news agency, Amaq, is named after the surrounding area. And many Islamic State opponents seized on the village’s fall and the recalibration of the group’s messaging as proof that its grand visions were falling apart.
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, ISIS declares that The Final Battle of The Apocalypse has been postponed,” Karl Sharro, a London-based architect with Lebanese-Iraqi roots who moonlights as a satirist of Middle East politics, teased on Sunday as the rebel troops swept in.
But some analysts cautioned that the shift in language could be just the latest example of the group’s pragmatic flexibility, propaganda savvy and staying power.
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the senior Islamic State strategist killed in an August airstrike, had vowed that the group could outlive any single leader. As Kyle W. Orton, a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a research institute in London, wrote on Twitter, “The real problem is: what if he’s right?”
Seizing the border area that includes Dabiq helped the rebels in several ways: It showed their potential backers that the rebels could fight the Islamic State. It also carves out a relatively safe area for their Syrian supporters; some refugees have already returned to the area.
And it helps delegitimize the Islamic State’s ability to compete with the rebels for supporters and fighters, like Sunni Muslims who also believe in the prophecy about Dabiq.
“Dabiq is free,” Mohammad Alloush, a spokesman for one of the rebel groups who has served as a negotiator in peace talks, declared on Twitter, referring to “the dream” that the group “used to exploit the simple-minded.”
“Your caliphate is a myth,” Alloush said.
“I guess after that, thousands of fighters will flee Daesh,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “And the end-times battle of Dabiq does not belong to you.”
Muhammad al-Ahmad, the commander of a rebel group that took part in the battle, posted on Twitter that the defeat would end the Islamic State’s “abuse of the name of Dabiq,” adding a note to “our people in besieged Aleppo” that “we promise to meet you soon.”