Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English-language periodical, has been at the forefront of the group’s rhetorical assaults and entreaties ever since its first appearance on the morning of Saturday 5th July, 2014, just six days after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared the caliph and ‘ISIS, the organization, became ‘IS’, the caliphate.
Since its pilot issue “The Return of Khilafah”, there have been fifteen editions, which have become progressively more ambitious with time; a trajectory pursued by the rest of the Islamic State’s propaganda that seems to have been, if anything, spurred on by its waning insurgent prospects in Iraq and Syria.
An often overwhelming medley of dynamism and tedium, at times superficial and at others esoteric, Dabiq’s appearance on the IS media roster was long overdue. Since the birth of jihadism, every outfit worth its salt has published a propaganda magazine. There was Al-Jihad, published by foreign fighters in 1980s Afghanistan; Sarajevo, the Arabic magazine geared towards popularizing the Bosnian jihad in the 1990s; and Inspire, that provocative, persuasive brainchild of American radical, Anwar al-Awlaqi. That, until the advent of Dabiq, the Islamic State wasn’t circulating a regular journal was quite anomalous.
Yet when it eventually arrived, this protracted absence would soon be forgotten, for the Islamic State’s magazine eclipsed all those that had preceded it. Now, so prominent, so familiar has it become that the theological obscurity of its namesake has been jettisoned. Truth be told, the small town of Dabiq in northern Syria is not nearly as unanimously significant for Muslims as either the Islamic State, or much media coverage of the Islamic State, would suggest. Prior to the advent of the magazine, few people — Muslims or non-Muslims — had even heard of it. Now though, it is a place of worldwide repute, considered an implicit part of the Islamic State’s globally apocalyptic project. Such is the power of the caliphal media machine. When it wants something to be known, it gets known.
Usually around seventy pages in length, Dabiq gives us a window into the Islamic State’s world. Born of fluid collaboration, it is the culmination of many editorial efforts; a glossy repository for civil-military bulletins, calls to arms, agitprop, aspirational biographies… the list goes on. By jihadist standards, it is unique, offering at once a vision of visceral utopia to friends, and ultraviolent dystopia to enemies.
The Islamic State project survives, in large part, because of its domestic political messaging. It needs its media to function as an insurgency and, for that reason, most of its propaganda is geared, first and foremost, towards ‘citizens’ of the Islamic State. It’s striking, then, that Dabiq seems to eschew this ‘domestic’ audience. Never are IS media officials photographed handing it out, as they are with all other written propaganda; not once has it ‘officially’ appeared on paper; rarely — if ever — does it directly address subjects of the caliphate. No, Dabiq is not being produced with the home front in mind.
Its voice is what makes it particularly mystifying — captivating, almost. Directed not at those who have already made it to the lands of the Islamic State, Dabiq — and the bird’s eye view it offers into the day-to-day existence of the caliphate — is for the would-be muhajirat and mujahiclin, the curious, tentative supporters seeking confirmation of their IS sympathies. It is the chief means by which the caliphate organization interacts with its global audience, the principal mechanism through which it states policy, levies threats and clarifies controversies. In this sense, its the closest the Islamic State gets to a governmental office for public diplomacy.
One craves more information about those behind this meticulous project. Its authors, editors and designers, though, are elusive, pseudonymous, invisible — deliberately existing only in the minds of readers.
If anything is an example of the oft-mythologized “media savvy” of IS, it is Dabiq, a publication that has evolved a great deal without ever straying from the caliphate line. While its graphical complexity has ebbed and flowed as much as the borders of the IS territories themselves, the words inscribed within its pages have only swelled in their rhetorical potential, becoming more provocative, more audacious and more convincing with each issue. The Dabiq corpus is a lasting editorial feat, an experiment in propaganda that will be mimicked and replicated for decades to come.
The writer is an academic whose research explores terrorist communication. They have spent the last three years embedded as an observer in the Islamic State’s online forums, interviewing propaganda operatives from Scandinavia to Iraq, collecting and evaluating its audiovisual output. They work closely with media and government, advising on how best to calibrate public and private responses to jihadist propaganda in the digital age.