Leaders of the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq are infatuated with apocalyptic Muslim prophecies foretelling a titanic final battle of good and evil that even involves the re-emergence of Jesus Christ to join their cause at the end of time in the Middle East.
Analysts say the Sunni extremist group is consumed by such fantasies in a way Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda never was, and its propaganda is so saturated with them that intelligence officials are working to determine how much of the group’s operational strategy is actually being shaped by the obscure predictions.
From the Islamic State’s circulation on social media of photos depicting a so-called “cyclops baby” to its fixation on a Syrian town where the prophecies say the final battle will occur, analysts say the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is tapping the mythology to convince his followers that the apocalypse has already begun.
“Since its inception, the leaders of the Islamic State have been obsessed with Islamic prophecies of the ‘End Times,’ ” said William McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “Even the establishment of the Islamic State itself is based on their interpretation of when those End Times would occur.”
“The group’s ideological and organizational DNA is simply different from al Qaeda in how it approaches these prophecies,” said Mr. McCants, a fluent Arabic speaker currently writing a book on the group’s obsession with such prophecies.
Mr. McCants explained that the apocalyptic predictions come not from the Koran but from a body of literature known as the Hadith, a compilation of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by his followers more than a hundred years after his death.
The formation of a caliphate in modern-day Syria and Iraq is just one of several key developments that the Hadith says will usher in the end of the world. It also says the apocalypse will be heralded by the emergence in Damascus of a one-eyed anti-Christ figure known as ad-Dajjal.
The prophecies contend that ad-Dajjal will arrive at a time when homosexuality and hedonism have become prevalent in the world, and that he will divide Muslims into a great war until he is confronted by the emergence of a true messiah figure known as the “Madhi.”
The Madhi is predicted to appear in Saudi Arabia, in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, where he will gather his army and eventually be joined by Jesus Christ, whom the Hadith predicts will also appear “at some point during this end-of-days drama,” according to Mr. McCants.
Muslims who side with the Madhi are predicted to win the fantastic war against those who have been deceived by ad-Dajjal and will ultimately rule the world until a great day of judgment, predicted to arrive after a final, massive battle in the northern Syrian city of Dabiq.
But, similar to Judeo-Christian prophecies of the apocalypse, the claims in the Hadith are not exactly black and white. While Mr. McCants notes that the predictions are being followed feverishly by the extremist Sunni Muslim Islamic State, they also carry immense philosophical weight with radical Shiite Muslim militants, who are presently at war with al-Baghdadi’s group in Syria and Iraq.
“The big disagreement,” he said, “is who is fighting on the good side and who is fighting on the side of the bad guy.”
According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a leading French scholar on Islam’s apocalyptic predictions, a deeper question may revolve around how the Islamic State’s leaders use the prophecies to “foster recruitment and propaganda.”
“It is obvious that the apocalyptic momentum is key to attract volunteers ready to fight the ‘Last Battle,’ ” said Mr. Filiu, who noted how the Islamic State perpetuates an idea that joining the current war in Syria and Iraq will be “much more important and rewarding than all the other struggles waged during Islamic history.”
It’s an effort that also appears to lean heavily on optics and subversion, one of the more bizarre manifestations of which occurred on social media last summer when the Islamic State began circulating photos it claimed were of one-eyed babies born in the Middle East.
Saying the babies were a sure sign of the Antichrist’s imminent arrival, the group reportedly used images of actual children born in South America and Asia with a rare defect caused by an experimental anti-cancer drug.
On a separate front, the Islamic State makes regular reference to the Syrian city of Dabiq, which the Hadith predicts will play center stage in the great battle that begins with an attack by outside forces — the actual prophecy calls them “Byzantines” — and ensues with a bitter fight among Muslim armies divided between ad-Dajjal and the Mahdi.
Not only has the Islamic State named its official online propaganda magazine after Dabiq, the group appears bent on trying to goad the current U.S.-led coalition of international forces, which could be read as a modern-day incarnation of the Byzantines, into a confrontation in the city.
Dabiq played a role in a recent grisly video featuring the severed head of a murdered American aid worker.
“Here we are burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” proclaimed a black-masked militant, who had a view of the city behind him in the video.
A Sunni-Shiite clash
The use of beheadings to shock the world was certainly something bin Laden’s al Qaeda succeeded at years ago. But under al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State is attempting to elevate the tactic to apocalyptic heights.
Where the beheading of Americans such as journalist Daniel Pearl after 9/11 sent a message that bin Laden’s group would kill U.S. citizens anywhere, the Islamic State has sought to tailor such executions into its end-of-times narrative.
Unlike the Islamic State, bin Laden “never used the apocalyptic discourse,” Mr. Filiu wrote in an email.
But that’s not to say al Qaeda’s original leaders were not interested in apocalyptic prophecy.
“Obviously they believed it, but they just weren’t trying to pursue it, so to speak,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a Washington-based analyst whose “Jihadology” website examines global jihadi groups.
“It was viewed as more fringe — or they just weren’t able to use it because they were a lot weaker than the Islamic State is today,” said Mr. Zelin, who contends that bin Laden alternatively pursued a “sort of proxy fight against the West so that the West would stop supporting the Arab regimes, and they would be able to take them over.”
Al Qaeda’s position was that it was “in a state of weakness, and this would be a continual fight for decades,” he said.
Mr. Filiu, meanwhile, maintains that the calculus behind such thinking has evolved over the past decade. In his 2008 book “Apocalypse in Islam,” the French scholar argued that the apocalyptic discourse became irresistible to many Sunni jihadis after two major developments during the early 2000s, the first of which was the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq. The second development was the awakening of a new Shiite Muslim fanaticism toward the apocalypse in both Iran and Iraq — the latter of which became a hotbed during the mid-2000s of Shiite jihadism under the so-called “Mahdi Army” banner of firebrand Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Both developments served to “provoke a reaction among those Sunni Jihadists who were most devoted to combating America and its heretical allies,” Mr. Filiu wrote, adding that the “Iraqi branch of al Qaeda” — from which al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State later emerged — sought to “nullify the messianic pretensions of the Mahdi Army by accusing Muqtada al-Sadr’s soldiers of belonging to the ‘Army of the Antichrist.’ “
‘No one wants to miss the show’
Presently, it’s hard to find a Sunni or Shiite jihadi not obsessed with the apocalyptic backdrop.
Even the Nusra Front, which U.S. intelligence officials describe as aligned more with bin Laden’s original al Qaeda movement than with the Islamic State, has invoked the prophecies. The group named its own propaganda arm the “White Minaret” in reference to a Hadith prediction that Jesus will descend from the white minaret on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to fight on the side of the Mahdi.
Indeed, militants from both Sunni and Shiite sects claim to be fighting beneath the gaze of an apocalyptic messiah figure.
“Even if I am martyred now, when he appears I will be reborn to fight among his army,” a 27-year-old Lebanese Shiite militant active in Syria told Reuters.
On the Sunni side, a fighter told the news agency that jihadis were streaming in from as far away as Russia, China and America because “this [is] what the Prophet said and promised: The Grand Battle is happening.”
Mr. McCants pointed to such comments in a recent blog on the Brookings Institution’s website, claiming that “the heady reenactment of the End Times drama” is drawing “an unprecedented number of Sunni and Shi’a foreign fighters to the theater.”
“In the sectarian apocalypse, everyone has a role to play,” he wrote. “No one wants to miss the show.”
Put it all on black
The doomsday dimension of the Islamic State may well be underrepresented in most mainstream media characterizations of the group’s rise onto the world stage.
But U.S. intelligence officials say they are keenly aware of it and that there is debate in national security circles over how deeply the apocalyptic fever is truly affecting the Islamic State’s strategic operations — such as its troop movements and territorial goals.
One U.S. official said al-Baghdadi may simply be leaning on end-of-times propaganda because he knows how intoxicating it is to young recruits thirsting for meaning in their lives. At the same time, the official said, there’s “nothing to suggest that he and a circle of others around him don’t actually believe this stuff.”
Mr. Zelin said the Islamic State’s leaders are “creating a new reality or perception on the ground” in Syria and Iraq.
“With this caliphate, it is possible they are trying to bring about the times of these End Times,” he said, adding that the Islamic State today “holds more territory and is a lot stronger” than bin Laden’s al Qaeda was a decade ago.
Where al Qaeda’s fight was once about the “here and now,” Mr. Zelin said, “the Islamic State uses apocalyptic prophecy as if it’s about power for Islam, not just here and now, but forever over the entire world.”
“They’re going for broke,” he said. “They’re putting all the chips on the table, and they think they’re going to win.”
It follows that al-Baghdadi is engaging in a high-stakes gamble by leaning so heavily on apocalyptic references.
“Perhaps most interesting,” said another official who spoke with The Times “is the question of what ultimately happens if all these prophecies don’t actually materialize.”
“What would be the implications?” the official said. “Right now it seems like a perfect storm for them, but if and when it doesn’t materialize, they could be exposed as a farce to potential recruits around the world.”