Matthew Petti, JHU:
One of the favorite pieces of scripture of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) is a ḥadīth (prophetic saying or action) on the signs of the Apocalypse. Abū Hureira reported hearing from the Prophet that the Last Day would not occur until a Roman army landed at the town of Dābiq. Today Dābiq is controlled by ISIS, and the terrorist organization is quite fond of reminding its members. Every edition of its English-language magazine, appropriately named Dābiq, begins with a quote from the group’s founder: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dābiq.” ISIS sees itself as the sole hero of a cosmic religious drama coming to an end in the cradle of civilization.
Of course, this is a highly selective reading of scripture. It is important to note that this is a weak hadīth – one with potential errors in the chain of transmission – and that that Abū Hureira is only considered reliable in the Sunni, not Shi’a, scholarly tradition. Nonetheless, ISIS finds his hadīth incredibly useful for promoting its own narrative. As it does with many other aspects of theology, ISIS ignores the rest of the Islamic sources to promote its self-aggrandizing narrative. Indeed, most Muslim scholars would find it heretical to try to accelerate the Day of Judgment. However, it is important to know what ISIS believes in order to understand how it will act. The strategy of an apocalyptic cult depends on its particular idea of the Apocalypse.
Conventional wisdom is that ISIS believes the modern incarnation of the “Romans” to be the United States of America. Substituting “crusader” for “Roman” suggests that ISIS associated Rome with Western Christendom. The gruesome tape of Peter Kassig’s execution was filmed in Dābiq—Kassig was claimed by the group to be the first crusader casualty of the apocalypse. (In fact, Kassig had converted to Islam while working as an aid worker in Syria, but it should be quite obvious already that a fact like this does not matter to ISIS.) With the “crusader” invasion failing to materialize, however, ISIS was forced to adjust its beliefs.
The Western narrative of the “fall of Rome” makes it easy to forget that the Roman government continued to function in the eastern Mediterranean until 1453. Although the Eastern part of the empire has been called “Byzantine” by Western historians, it saw itself as fully Roman and was called that by its neighbors. Even as late as the 14th century, the travel writer Ibn Baṭūṭah referred to the empire as “the land of the Romans.” The empire’s capital was at Constantinople, now the Turkish city of İstanbul, and its core territories correspond roughly with modern Greece and Turkey.
ISIS seems to have taken notice of this history, founding a Turkish-language magazine called Konstantiniyye, the old Turkish name for Constantinople. Chillingly, the first issue of Konstantiniyye is entitled “the Conquest of Constantinople.” If ISIS has given up on – or amended – the idea that America is the Rome for their Dābiq, it seems that they have adopted Turkey in its stead. How the “Islamic State” seems to be acting on this belief is worrying, given the political situation within the Turkish Republic. ISIS could be end up being the spark that ignites a civil war.
Turkey has spent 35 years fighting a war against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Anatolia. The PKK, which has jumped between ideologies like Marxism-Leninism and anarchism throughout its four decades of existence, represents the most militant and left wing currents within the movement for more Kurdish rights within Turkey. Although there has been a peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government since 2013, it has begun to break down over the Syrian Civil War. A group inspired by the writings of jailed PKK leader Abdüllah Öcalan, calling itself the People’s Defense Unit (YPG), took large swaths of northern Syria at the beginning of the civil war.
As the YPG received support from the United States against ISIS beginning with the Battle of Kobanê, Turkey feared the creation of an internationally backed haven for the PKK on its border. Since then, the YPG and its affiliates have been in a “cold war” with the Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). One weapon in the AKP’s arsenal was a proposal to create a “safe zone” occupied by Turkish troops in northern Syria. While the proposal was sold to Europeans as a way to stem the flow of refugees and create a buffer against ISIS, a map of the proposed safe zone from Stratfor shows that it would stand between the two major Kurdish cantons in Syria. Incidentally, the “safe zone” also includes Dābiq.
Many of the recent escalations involving Turkey, the YPG and the PKK have been the result of ISIS actions. The first real breakdown of the peace process began after an ISIS suicide bomber attacked an YPG solidarity group in the Turkish border town of Suruç on 20 July 2015, prompting President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan to crack down on both Kurdish and leftist activists. Further escalations occurred after an unclaimed bombing of a peace rally in Ankara on October 10th, stirring Kurdish suspicions of Turkish complicity with the Islamic State.
On February 27th, 2016, the first day of the international ceasefire, ISIS attacked the YPG in the border city of Tel Abyaḍ, also known as Girê Spî. The battle produced no strategic benefit for ISIS, but occurred at a fragile time in Turkish-Kurdish relations. Tel Abyaḍ was a frequent sore spot between Turkey and the YPG, and had been targeted by Turkish artillery hours before the attack. While it is not known whether ISIS fighters crossed through Turkish territory, the attack did not stop many Kurdish news sources from speculating on whether the attack was coordinated with Turkey. If there was ever a clear sign that ISIS was attempting to stir up tensions around the Kurdish question, it came last Saturday.
ISIS seems to be pursuing a disturbing strategy of inciting violence between the Turkish state and Kurdish forces. While this strategy effectively threatens the fragile anti-ISIS coalition militarily, it also carries religious significance. ISIS may believe, with good reason, that a further eruption of violence in Turkey will provoke a “Roman” attempt to occupy Dābiq, fulfilling their prophecy. It is absolutely imperative that both Kurdish and Turkish leadership recognize the danger in saber rattling, and refrain from escalating the Syrian Civil War.