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Islamic State’s Apocalypticism, Recent Attacks, and Vulnerabilities

Photo al Baghdadi

by Gordon M. Hahn

Unless we understand the Islamic State’s (IS) theo-ideological imperatives, even the possibly emerging grand anti-Islamic State coalition will be unable to fashion effective strategies and tactics to counter the IS threat. An effective strategy for countering IS must take into account–if not be largely defined by–the specifics of IS’s theo-ideological prophecies and expectations. Indeed, the recent wave of IS attacks appear configured to provoke an aggressive response from the targeted states and entities and thereby instigate the coming apocalypse predicted under its perverse theo-ideology. An effective counter-strategy would build on the jihadi groups’s theo-ideological expectations or be designed to expose their bankruptcy to all present and potential followers.

IS and Takfir

IS teachings are based on an extremist interpretation and sweeping application of the Islamic concept of takfir or excommunication. Takfir renders Muslims apostates and thus no better than infidels and subject to death. However, for most strains of Islam, a Muslim is not designated takfir simply for having committed ‘haram’, sin or sacrilege. However, under IS’s theo-ideology, one can be so designated with takfir. IS’s radical takfirism renders all non-Muslims and almost all Muslims apostates. Differences between strict Shiite and Sufi Islamic practice, for instance, and what IS regards as proper Salafi practice make all Shiites and Sufis apostates to be punished by death; hence IS’s fighting with Iran and Hezbollah. By difinition, all Islamists and jihadists adhere to the strictures of purist Salafism. They require that Muslims live in strict accordance with the Koran as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s lifestyle, teachings, and sayings and those of his most immediate and “righteous” companions and successors as the Islamic leader. Thus, for example, Mohammed’s, his companions’ and successors’ ownership of slaves, military conquests and the establishment of a caliphate are central to IS and other jihadists’ practice.

IS Prophecy

IS prophecy is more immediate than that of other jihadists, including Al Qa`ida, which has emphasized less and at times even played down Islam’s apocalypticism, even though it is based solidly in Koranic teaching. In accordance with it, there will be a final apocalyptic confrontation between armies of truly righteous Muslims—today’s fighters and followers of IS—and infidel-apostate “armies of Rome.”

The armies of Islam (read: IS) will be made up of Muslims from across the world; the opposing “armies of Rome” will consist of infidel and apostate forces likewise from across the world. In IS eschatology, the armies of Rome are seen as largely centered around the Western core of modern ‘anti-civilization’ but include Chinese, Indians, Shiites, Sufis, and all infidels and unrighteous Muslim apostates. The armies of Rome are prophesied to encamp and be routed by Islamic armies on the plains surrounding Dabiq, a town located in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border. This ushers in the apocalyptical era. After Dabliq, Istanbul is expected to be sacked and Jesus to return and the Islamic army in global conquest towards a final showdown with the anti-Allah and his forces at Jerusalem. The Muslims’ victory over the ‘satanic’ forces leaves Islam and its Messiah, the Mahdi, to rule the world and Allah – the universe. Earlier this year, IS occupied the Dabiq plains and now awaits the infidel Roman armies.

The Recent Attacks

The geography of the recent attacks over suggests that IS may have made it as broad as possible in order to impact a large number countries, dispersed over the most broad possible territorial and regional expanse and involving leading states. This would have been intended to provoke these countries’ and their allies’ mobilization, political coalescence, and ultimately greater and more coordinated military intervention—to help spark the formation of the armies of Rome. One needs only to review the list of countries and peoples affected by some of the recent successful and interdicted IS attacks:

*Ankara, Turkey – October 11 – Turks and Kurds – 100 killed, 250 wounded

*Egypt/Russia – October 31 – Russians, Egyptians, and other nationals – 223 killed

*Beirut, Lebanon – November 12 – two suicide bombers killed 43 and wounded 239 in southern Beirut Hezbollah stronghold.

*France, France – November 13 – 129 French and other nationals killed, over 350 wounded, 99 seriously.

*EU/Norway – November 12/13 (interdicted) – at least 13 IS members arrested in Italy, Britain, and Norway tied to a Norwegian cleric.

*Istanbul, Turkey November 13 (prevented) – 5 IS members arrested plotting a “major attack” for the same day as the Paris attack.

There was another IS suicide attack on November 13th. Although not ‘out-of-area’ attacks like those above, the attack in Baghdad targeted the hated Shiites, killing 21 people and wounding at least 46.
These attacks targeted a broad panoply of IS enemies. For example, the October 31st airliner bombing affected Russia, Egypt, and all countries with citizens who were passengers, including the United States and Russia’s present nemesis, Ukraine. Last week’s attack in Lebanon targeted a Hezbollah stronghold and thus impacts Iran and Syria. The Paris attack involved most robustly targets tied to France, Germany (the French-German soccer ‘friendly’), the U.S. (the bombed concert’s American musical group), and international tourists who frequent Paris in autumn. The countries involved touched on almost every designated infidel and apostate group—Western Christian and secularist infidels and Shi’a and Sunni apostates—except for Asia and Sufis, who are not at the center of most jihadists’ radar screens.

In addition to all of the above, an IS video released on November 11th threatened Europe and Russia with terrorist attacks, warning Moscow specifically that “an ocean of blood will flow soon, very soon.”

So in a period of just 33 days, IS was able to organize or inspire at least six suicide-bombing plots in Europe involving at least 12 suicide bombers and carry out four of them successfully. The hoped-for mobilizing effect may have been intentionally enhanced by concentrating them within in a short window of time—assuming more such major attacks are not in the offing. The attacks’ chronological proximity certainly heightened the propaganda effect, concentrated the mind of the ‘infidels and apostates’, and mobilized them into action. Perhaps the attacks were timed to precede the G-20 meeting to intensify the coalescing results. In this way, IS could be attempting to draw the great powers closer to a direct intervention, which would presumably take place not far from Dabiq. Later, IS might take actions to lure forces on the ground to Dabiq.

Anti-IS Strategies and Tactics

IS could be made vulnerable by its own theo-ideological prophecies. IS’s attractiveness and seeming legitimacy among some Muslims and potentially for potential recruits can be undermined by either confounding the veracity of its prophecies through the creation of contrasting realities or by using its prophecies to lure it into a traps. One strategy—perhaps the most obvious but not necessarily the most effective—might involve a large multinational ground invasion force organized in southwestern Turkey. This could draw and concentrate IS and other jihadists to an area not far from Dabiq where they could be more easily destroyed en masse.

A potential vulnerability is IS’s belief that the final confrontation is to come with the twelfth caliph. IS’s so-called ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is only the eight. Thus, the timing of a major showdown could be used in conjunction or in contrast with this belief in order to undermine recruitment, mobilization, and fighting spirit. For example, killing five caliphs in rapid succession would bring the thirteenth and without the expected culminating apocalypse would require number thirteen to do some explaining.


There are other tenets of IS thought they can be manipulated to good effect or put in opposition to realities on the ground to undermine IS theo-ideology, recruitment, governance, and military and terrorist operations. The point is that they must first be taken seriously, understood, and applied to present and possible future political, strategic, tactical, and operational scenarios in order to come up with effective strategies to destroy the IS scourge. To do this, people with the best minds and most knowledge of IS and its affiliated groups will be needed in order to fashion the most effective global, regional, and local approaches to all levels and affiliate-incarnations of IS.

While it is important not to oversell the role of ideology, that is not the current problem in the analytical, policy, journalistic, and academic communities. There, the tendency is to disregard and and/or fail to understand IS’s and other jihadi organizations’ theo-ideology. Those who downplay or seek to downplay ideology often rely on unreliable sources such as new recruits and captured prisoners. Many Muslims join jihadi groups for reasons other than a fervent faith in the intricacies of Islamist ideology, but once caught up in the group they are subjected to intense indoctrination within the limits of available resources and time. Those who resist or otherwise fail to imbibe become cannon fodder. Those who survive are the captives accessible for academic research and unrepresentative of the jihadists who matter. Suicide bombers, those who fight to the death and avoid capture, and the top leaders are generally not available for interview.

Moreover, many Muslims do join jihadist groups for theo-ideological reasons. They are the ones who tend to rise to the top of jihadi hierarchies, and it is they who decide how to recruit, who to recruit, on what to devote resources, and when and where to attack.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.


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