The last few months have seen considerable change in the struggle against Islamic-extremist terrorism. On the battlefields in Syria, forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) fighters. In Iraq, IS was pushed from the city of Ramadi in late January, and the key northern city of Mosul is the next target for the U.S.-backed coalition. The area that IS terrorists physically govern in Iraq and "Sham," or greater Syria, is shrinking. And it's the prevailing wisdom that militarily, IS is weakening.
But while the territory controlled by IS bears many of the hallmarks of an actual state, the "caliphate" that IS wishes to establish is not just physical. One of its goals is to conduct terrorism outside of the Middle East. If the memory of November's horrible terrorist attack in Paris was fading into memory, the March 22 airport and subway bombings in Brussels were a devastating reminder that IS is capable of striking areas far from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
It remains to be seen whether the terrorist cell (or cells) that conducted this attack have been effectively disrupted, and no one can be certain that there are not more IS sleeper cells within Europe. Furthermore, defeating IS on the battlefield may or may not discourage copycat IS-inspired attacks like the shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December.
In other words, it's not clear whether IS is being defeated militarily, but it's even less clear whether the extremist group's other power -- the power of its ideology -- has suffered setbacks.
Nowhere is this tension more evident than on the pages of Dabiq, the highly polished magazine published at irregular intervals by the terrorist organization. At its core, Dabiq is a publication aimed at those sympathetic to IS who live in the West. Its message follows a careful ideological construct -- that "the Islamic State" is a real location, but also a religious and spiritual reality that exists beyond its physical borders.
Muslims who live in the West can be citizens of the Islamic State, then, by traveling to its strongholds in the Middle East, by creating terrorist cells abroad, or even by conducting suicide attacks on their own. Previous episodes have, for instance, underscored that it is easy to acquire a gun and serve the ends of IS without leaving one's country. The magazine is also an intimidation tactic -- the professional pages, surprising readability, and the global message are designed to give the impression that IS is powerful, legitimate, and operating everywhere all at once.
The latest issue of Dabiq is titled The Murtadd Brotherhood -- "murtadd" meaning "apostate." The main theme is the definition of that term. The authors define true Islam as the path that has brought about Islamic State, and they also name many enemies of that ideology. Most of this issue is dedicated to the Muslims who resist this ideological radicalism -- those the terrorist group considers the true apostates because, in its eyes, they have betrayed their religion.
The cover story is focused on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, setting the ideological stage for IS's battle against the Egyptian government, which is ongoing. One article lists a large number of Muslim leaders, many of whom live in the West, by name. These leaders preach a peaceful version of Islam, one that condemns the violence of IS. Since Dabiq's purpose is to convince Western Muslims to conduct terrorist attacks, these leaders are portrayed by the magazine as the worst kinds of traitors. Dabiq is laying out one key fact that is often missed by Western media coverage -- the majority of those fighting against IS on the battlefield, and arguably the most important ideological voices countering the message of IS, are Muslims.
The latest issue, which was published last week, is an interesting case study in how IS propaganda deals with both its achievements and its defeats.
The most obvious trend in Dabiq is the frequency of publication. The magazine was first published in July 2014, arguably as IS's military success in Iraq and Syria was approaching its height. The second issue came out just 22 days later, while subsequent issues were published roughly every 30-50 days. That is, until late 2015, when more than 100 days passed between the August and November issues, then another 62 days before the January publication. And this latest issue came out on April 13 after an 85-day lapse.
Why the sudden long gaps? Simply put, IS fighters have been losing ground in both Syria and Iraq, and it's been harder to spin the bad news. IS lost Ramadi in December, U.S. raids have captured or killed several high-ranking members of the organization, Kurdish YPG rebels have made inroads against the terror group in northern Syria, the U.S.-backed coalition is closing in on Mosul, and -- most recently -- the Syrian government coalition recaptured Palmyra in March. It's no coincidence then that the November issue was released just days after the attacks in Paris and April issue just three weeks after the Brussels bombings.
Analyzing the content of the latest installment of Dabiq provides a clue as to how its publishers are changing their marketing strategy. November's issue, titled Just Terror, was published less than a week after the Paris attacks and was heavily focused on the incident. By contrast, this latest edition praises the perpetrators of the Brussels bombings, was published three weeks later, and it largely buries the incident in other articles that discuss IS ideology more broadly. The Brussels attack is listed as just one of the terrorist organizations many battles and accomplishments.
The effect on the reader is that as big as the Brussels attack was in the Western media, the bigger story of IS's activities is not being accurately portrayed. IS may also be downplaying expectations, since the Paris and Brussels cell that conducted these attacks may have been largely or completely depleted in both the attacks and subsequent arrests.
Even in the biographies of the Brussels attackers, titled The Knights Of [Shahada (Martyrdom] In Belgium, Dabiq stressed their battlefield accomplishments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, more than the European attack. For instance, here is part of what they wrote about one of the Brussels attackers, Najm al-Ashrawi (Abu Idris al-Baljiki). Note how their fight is put in ideological context. The Assad government is not mentioned, but is instead called "the Nusayri regime," a derisive term for Shi'ite Muslims. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is "apostates," traitors of Islam. The Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is instead called "Jabhat al-Jawlani," a reference to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, whom IS considered to be an enemy (this issue seems to again close the door to any possible merger of the two groups.) In this framing, Paris and Brussels were only two "battles" among many that Abu Idris al-Baljiki fought against ideologies that are a threat to IS.
"He participated in several battles against the Nusayri regime before the FSA apostates started to fight the mujahidin. Proving himself steadfast during the sahwah in Sham, he fought them until the order came to withdraw to ar-Raqqah. He continued to participate in raids until he suffered a bullet wound to his leg in a raid against Jabhat al-Jawlani in alKhay," it says.
"After healing for several months, he began to train in order to realize his dream of returning to Europe to avenge the Muslims of Iraq and Sham for the constant bombing by crusader warplanes. Upon completing his training, he traveled the long road to France to execute his operation. It was Abu Idris who prepared the explosives for the two raids in Paris and Brussels."
One section is a description of battles fought by IS fighters or terrorists, "battles" being broadly defined to that they include terrorist attacks -- a key theme is that, according to Dabiq, killing civilians in Paris or opponents in Syria is all part of the same struggle.
The section gives the impression that IS fighters who have been killed died to achieve Allah's goals and took out plenty of "apostates" in the process. This is an important theme, since the next section, "affliction and faith," which features a photograph of an air-dropped bomb falling somewhere in the Middle East, focuses on struggle (or, in a word Dabiq would never use, defeat). No direct reference to the many recent military defeats IS terrorists have suffered is given, but the article no doubt was designed to restore confidence in the terrorist organization that is failing to make headway in either Iraq or Syria at the moment.
The military defeats of IS extremists have been many, but it's not yet clear if they will be permanent. Last week I argued that Russia and Assad cannot be relied upon to wage war against terrorism. It's been nearly a month since Palmyra fell to the pro-Assad coalition, but Assad and his allies have not pushed further toward the IS strongholds in eastern Syria and show no signs of doing so. IS has regained momentum in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and it's not clear whether the U.S. coalition is gaining or losing momentum near Mosul in Iraq.
But IS has gained new strength in Libya, and Boko Haram has recently pledged allegiance to the terror group. Dabiq wants its readers to ignore some of the details. Its message is that Islamic State is both a literal state and a state of spiritual being, and both are under siege -- by Muslim "apostates" and foreign "crusaders." Every battle counts if it leads to the deaths of nonbelievers, and there's plenty of death -- in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino -- to go around.
The unanswered question is whether Dabiq and the message of terrorist propaganda will have an impact if the perception in the media is that the terrorists are losing the war. One thing is clear, though: as long as IS can successfully conduct terror attacks, and as long as it controls large amounts of territory in the Middle East, IS will at least be able to convince some impressionable and disillusioned people to join its cause. Clearly, defeating terrorism at home and abroad, then, is vital.
But Dabiq has another strategy -- ideological fundamentalism. Its brand of Islam is simple -- nonbelievers need to be killed, believers who refuse to do that work are traitors and apostates and need to be killed. And since dying is part of the plan of this ideology, killing terrorists alone will not defeat this radical and dangerous death cult. IS's message must also be countered through ideological battles, a war that has proven at least as difficult to fight as the literal battles in the Middle East.