The presidential debates have sparked intense discussion of the Islamic State and America’s role in defeating extremism. The candidates on both sides have proposed multiple solutions of the advise and assist variety, with several candidates proposing the use of special operations in a role augmenting friendly local forces—in other words, a combat role.
I can’t help but recall when the mission in Iraq transitioned to “advise and assist” during the last phase of Operation New Dawn (OND). The only thing that changed was the language on awards and official communiqués. Our operational role remained the same.
As is already the case, the role of SOF advisors in Iraq has morphed into active ground combat, defying the political narrative. The costs have just begun to be borne out with the death of Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler, a seasoned and highly decorated Special Forces operator killed during a daring hostage rescue that freed dozens of Iraqi civilians.
The general rationale behind a limited involvement strategy is that American (Western) involvement contributes to the recruiting narrative of the Islamic State. This is largely true. The narrative of jihadi leaders regarding Western action in the region is framed in terms of the ‘West vs. Islam’ or ‘Christianity vs. Islam,’ which drives their recruiting power by positioning the Umma (whole Muslim community) as victims of Western aggression. Hence the calls by candidates for withholding U.S. ground support and enabling the friendly Sunni and Kurdish forces, an attempted remake of the awakening movement that helped turn the tide in the Iraq War circa 2007.
The hesitation to commit troops is derived from only a partial understanding of jihadi ideology. It can be done, but only in a way that exploits the Islamic State’s ideology to gain an advantage.
Over a year ago, in December 2014, Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, then-SOCOM commander in the Middle East, was quoted in a New York Times report stating, “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” He continued, “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” On what battlefield will the idea—indeed, the prophecy—behind the Islamic State be defeated? We must understand what we are actually battling is the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s claims.
“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.” Those are the words of the infamous jihadi, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist kingpin who strategically masterminded the Iraqi Civil War in the first several years of the Iraq campaign. He was once enemy #1 of the United States.
Zarqawi was hunted down and eventually killed by coalition forces in 2006. However, his words are prominently inscribed throughout the Islamic State’s propaganda magazines. The prophecy he alludes to has always been a part of the jihadi ideology, long before the Islamic State existed. It is one that Zarqawi; bin Laden; Zawahiri; and Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph; all subscribe(d) to—a series of events that, as written in the Hadith, will bring about the apocalypse.
The first step, the creation of a caliphate, has already happened according to the Islamic State’s claim. This step predicates the rest of the prophecy, for it is only the successful, legitimate caliphate that can battle the enemies of Islam in the name of Allah. Because the caliphate has territory, it claims divine right and commands Muslims to make hijra, a journey, to the “holy land.”
Sahih Muslim Hadith No. 6924 is prominently quoted in the Islamic State’s propaganda:
“The hour will not be established until the Romans land at al-A’maq or Dabiq (two places near each other in the northern countryside of Halab). Then an army from al-Madinah of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them.
When they line up in ranks, the Romans will say, ‘Leave us and those who were taken as prisoners from amongst us so we can fight them.’ The Muslims will say, ‘Nay, by Allah, we will not abandon our brothers to you.’ So they will fight them.
Then one third of them will flee; Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with fitnah. Then they will conquer Constantinople.
While they are dividing the war booty, having hung their swords on olive trees, Shaytan [Satan] will shout, ‘The [false] Messiah has followed after your families [who were left behind.]’ So they will leave [for their families], but Shaytan’s claim is false.
When they arrive to Sham he comes out. Then while they are preparing for battle and filing their ranks, the prayer is called. So ‘Isa Ibn Maryam (‘alayhis-Salam) [Jesus, Son of Mary] will descend and lead them.
When the enemy of Allah sees him, he will melt as salt melts in water. If he were to leave him, he would melt until he perished, but he kills him with his own hand, and then shows them his blood upon his spear.”
This prophesy is a core component of the religious ideology behind the Islamic State, and this religious ideology can, and should, be exploited militarily in order to gain an advantage. It doesn’t matter that you or I think the prophecy is ridiculous. What matters is that the entire jihadi movement is built upon this prophecy, and it is something the movement must come to face if presented the opportunity to do so, or lose legitimacy.
A report by The Atlantic articulates the ideology of ISIL quite succinctly: “[The Islamic State] follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. It is like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some eight million.”
The Islamic State’s recruiting ability and existence rests upon its legitimacy through results—the holding of territory. Through holding territory, the Islamic State is able to claim divine right to exist—that their existence is the will of Allah. But if we can convince the sects of the Muslim community that are at risk of being absorbed into the Islamic State that the caliphate is illegitimate, the Islamic State will lose its claim to divine right and thus be dealt a fatal blow.
By exploiting the prophecy, we could compel the Islamic State to face the “Romans” at Dabiq, where they expect to defeat us (the “Romans”) through divine intervention. But Jesus will not come, as the prophecy foretells, and the coalition will annihilate the jihadis on open ground. With their defeat at Dabiq, so too will the idea be destroyed.
(Featured image courtesy of theforeignobserver.com)