Future Tense

ISIS’s End-of-the-World Problem

The terrorist organization’s apocalyptic prophecies aren’t coming true.

Syrian rebel fighters get into a truck in the northern Syrian village of Rael after capturing from the Islamic State group on Oct. 9.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Nazeer al-Khatib/Getty Images.

In a gruesome video released November 2014, showing the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig along with 16 Syrian soldiers, the masked militant known as “Jihadi John” says to the camera, “Here we are, burning the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

That invocation of Dabiq was significant: In ISIS’s apocalyptic propaganda, the otherwise unremarkable Syrian town of Dabiq was to be the site of a showdown with “Rome,” the Christian invaders of the Middle East, which was to immediately precede the conquest of Constantinople, and then the Day of Judgment. ISIS named its English-language magazine after the city, which it captured in the summer of 2014, and heavily fortified the town, despite it having little strategic value. But in October 2016, ISIS lost Dabiq after a short battle with Turkish-backed rebels. The Day of Judgment hasn’t happened yet.

The Islamic State has distinguished itself from previous terrorist groups with its brutality, its emphasis on controlling and administering territory, and the grand apocalyptic vision of its propaganda. ISIS’s followers aren’t just fighting to cleanse the Muslim world of nonbelievers, defeat Western powers, or even to build a “state.” They believe that the re-establishment of the caliphate will lead to a final battle that hastens the end of days. The message has been a critical recruiting tool for the group. As one recruit told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, the prophecy stuff “always works.”

But lately, things haven’t been going according to plan. ISIS has now lost not just Dabiq and Mosul—the Iraqi city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph in 2014—but most of the territory that was once under its control. The crumbling of the caliphate presents a problem for the organization’s propagandists. But ISIS is hardly the first movement to have to adapt when a doomsday prophecy turned out wrong. And past examples suggest that it isn’t even necessarily the end of the world for ISIS.

As Brookings scholar Will McCants writes in his book The ISIS Apocalypse, many of ISIS’s End Times predictions are based on collections of prophecies attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that were put together in the Middle Ages. Some of these prophecies have become more popular—not only among ISIS members—in the wake of the upheavals following the War in Iraq and the Arab Spring.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Reuters/Khalil Ashawi and Thinkstock.
Ahmad Najjar, a 27 year-old Free Syrian Army fighter, holds a mine detector as he stands near collected improvised explosives that were planted by Islamic State fighters, on the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, Syria December 31, 2016.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Reuters/Khalil Ashawi and Thinkstock.

One predicts that the original caliphate, established in the days of Mohammed’s immediate successors, would eventually disappear, and in its place would rise “a tyrannical monarchy,” followed by a “caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.” ISIS declared the establishment of this new caliphate, under the leadership of Baghdadi, in Mosul in 2014. The prophecy states that after the establishment of the true caliphate, the prophet “fell silent.” Some Sunni Muslims interpret this to refer to the end of the world.

Another prophecy mentions al-Sham, an old name for a region that includes modern Syria, as a “place of gathering” for the Day of Judgment. Another says that “The Hour will not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq.” This one sparked particular excitement among ISIS foot soldiers after the United States—the modern day stand-in for Rome—entered the war in Syria. After victory in the battle at Dabiq, the prophecy states that the prophets followers will be “conquerers of Constantinople” and then Rome.

That victorious conquest is looking like more of a long shot now. “Interestingly, they have not really grappled with the two major failings in their apocalyptic propaganda. One is the loss of Dabiq, where they were adamant there was going to be a showdown,” McCants told Slate. “The other is the looming loss of the entire caliphate, which they said was the return of the original caliphate, which was itself a fulfillment of prophecy.”

This problem is not necessarily insurmountable. In a classic study from the mid-1950s, the social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues suggested that when the predictions of apocalyptic or messianic movements don’t come to pass, it can actually make their adherents more devoted to the cause. Basing his findings on a study of a UFO cult that believed the world would end in 1954, Festinger argued that an adherent is likely to stay true if he or she has deep conviction in such beliefs, has taken actions that are difficult to undo in the name of them (like selling all of your earthly belongings), and has social support for those beliefs.

It’s not just cults and fringe cranks who have had to adapt to failed prophecy. Sometimes these groups become fairly mainstream. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of the world’s largest Christian denominations, grew out of the Millerite movement that had predicted the second coming of Christ in 1844. Some members of Chabad, the large and influential Hasidic Jewish movement, continue to believe that their former leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, was the messiah. They simply ignore the fact that he died in 1994.

“If people invest their livelihoods, their reputations, their time and their money to one cause, if the cause fails, they don’t just say, ‘Oh well, that was fun,’ ” says Jon R. Stone, a professor of religion at California State University Long Beach and editor of Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. “The response is to try to convince other people that they were actually right.”

Stone says one common way to do this is “spiritualizing” the prophecy, claiming that “it came true, but it came true in a spiritual way.” A textbook example of this is radio evangelist and doomsday prophet Harold Camping, who wrongly predicted a massive global earthquake on May 20, 2011. He later claimed to have been correct because mankind had “shook with fear” of the rapture.

Alexandra Stein, a writer and researcher focusing on cults and totalitarian movements—who was herself a member of a Minneapolis-based extremist political group known as “The Organization”—says the key factor in whether people were turn on their organizations is whether they can find others to validate their doubts. “Even if what you’re seeing with your own eyes is contradictory, you’re going to have the whole system telling you you’re not seeing it,” she says.

Stein also notes the stigma of being a member of a failed organization can make it hard to leave. “It’s a hell of a thing to come out of something like that and say I was wrong from 10 years, and utterly manipulated. You don’t get points for that,” she says. “How do you say you’ve wasted your life and given it up to a psychopath? Especially if you’ve done terrible things.”

This dynamic applies in particular to ISIS’s foreign fighters, the primary audiences of the group’s apocalypse prophecies, who have spent years fighting in service of an internationally reviled organization and are likely to face arrest or, at the very least, ostracization and suspicion, if they went back home.

Stone also notes that in many cases, for adherents of prophetic movements, “their conviction isn’t necessarily in the prophecy, but in the source of the prophecy.”

It does seem likely that many, if not most, of ISIS’s fighters are still genuinely attached to the cause.

“If you go from 2014, basically ISIS is fighting to the last man in every village, town and city,” says Fawaz Gerges, an expert on jihadi movements at the London School of Economics and author of ISIS: A History. “We have seen hardly any case where the group collapses. This tells you—we have to think about the potency of the ideology.”

But still, the group’s messaging, particularly to potential recruits, is likely to change.

ISIS is shifting its emphasis from its core state-building project in Iraq and Syria to smaller holdings in places like Yemen, Egypt, and Afghanistan as well as encouraging attacks by adherents in the West.

“ISIS has been preparing its followers and supporters for more than a year now for the idea that the dismantling of the caliphate does not mean the end of the dream, the end of the utopia,” notes Gerges.

As for the apocalypse prophecy, Dabiq the magazine hasn’t published since the city of the same name fell. Instead the group has focused on another, typically shorter and less-theologically-based, English-language magazine called Rumiyah—Arabic for Rome.

Rome is “a safer prophecy for them,” says McCants. “They actually owned Dabiq and they got whipped. If you say, ‘Ah, we’re going to take Rome. Just wait,’ that gives you a lot more time. But it might not be as exciting as the more visceral prophecies about Dabiq and the caliphate.” McCants notes that the number of foreign fighters heading to join ISIS in the Middle East has been falling significantly. While much of this is probably the result of improved efforts by security services, it’s also possible that the group’s messaging isn’t as possible as it used to be now that reality is flatly contradicting its prophecies.

On the other hand, ISIS doesn’t need as many fighters to come to Syria if it’s not building a physical state, and recent events suggest that its messaging can still inspire violence from its adherents.

After the recent attacks in Barcelona, ISIS put out its first-ever Spanish language video warning that “jihad doesn’t have borders” and that more attacks are likely to follow.

“We hope that Allah accepts the sacrifice of our brothers in Barcelona. Our war with you will continue until the world ends,” said the fighter in the video. It appears that ISIS’s apocalypse hasn’t been canceled, just postponed.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.