Why Strategically Useless Dabiq Matters to ISIS

Gaziantep, Turkey. About an hour south from here, just over the Syrian border, a small nondescript town called Dabiq is currently held by ISIS. "It's a nowhere place," a Syrian activist based here told me today. "I've driven through it a few times, but never stopped--why would anyone? I doubt it's even got a coffee shop."

But for ISIS, Dabiq has epic importance. It's spun an impressive mythology about the place, billing it as the site of a future decisive battle against the "Crusaders." Before the war around 3,000 people lived there, but given the years of conflict it's thought that few civilians still remain.

Yet it has crucial symbolic value for ISIS. The Prophet Mohammed is thought to have said that "the last hour will not come" until Muslims defeat the Crusaders at "Dabiq or Al-A'maq" before conquering Istanbul. 

The imagery has been central to the group's mythology since at least 2004, when its founder Abu-Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (killed by a U.S. air strike two years later) said: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify... until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq."

Since then it's played a central role in ISIS's messaging, as it brings captives there to be killed. It's where the beheading of former U.S. Marine Peter Kassig was filmed two years ago.

ISIS's glossy magazine is called Dabiq in homage to the tiny bland town. It's an odd, professionally-designed publication offering an eclectic assortment of turgid theology and instructions on personal hygiene. The latest issue presents chilling tips on how to carry out a terrorist attack: "...do not make intricate plans, but instead, keep it simple and effective. If you can obtain a weapon, do so and use it, as soon as possible and in a place that will cause the most damage and panic."

It also contains an explanation for why they hate non-believers (not, apparently, "because of your lattes and your Timberlands"), a bizarre account from a fighter in night vision goggles on guard duty near Aleppo who reflects on a chance encounter with a cat that "leaped on my lap, and began purring," and a tagline of "UNTIL IT BURNS THE CRUSADER ARMIES IN DABIQ."

ISIS has made such a big deal about the importance of the dusty town as the site of an apocalyptic battle with western forces that it has to stay and fight to keep it. Having held Dabiq for two years, losing it now would be a catastrophic humiliation.

Then there's this week's news that about 40 U.S. special forces soldiers were gathering about ten miles outside Dabiq. Reports stated that the U.S. troops were to join with Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias to burst through Dabiq on their way to the strategically more important town of al Bab, about 20 miles further south.

But some of the Syrian armed groups were less than enthusiastic about fighting alongside the Americans, and the U.S. troops pulled back. This might have been a wise move for a number of reasons, not least because being part of a force invading Dabiq would help fulfill ISIS's prophecy of it being the site of the historic Crusader battle.

ISIS is unlikely to hold Dabiq much longer. Watch and see how its spins the defeat.