Eschatology: the part of theology concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.
Few people today have ever heard of the term, but it will soon be familiar. On the first day of Ramadan, 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi stepped to the head of the Al Masjid Al Nuri in Mosul and proclaimed himself the Caliph. In essence, he proclaimed the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth and the proximity of, “judgement day.” Baghdadi’s pronouncement additionally served as a call for young would-be jihadists and Islamists the world over to “come to Dabiq, to die.”
Baghdadi’s proclamation that the end of the world is nigh wasn’t new, and it wasn’t a call exclusive to militant Islam. As a matter of fact, numerous cults and religious movements the world over have used such eschatological beseeching to strengthen its followers. Never before, however, has any one group been so successful at it. Another factor that sets ISIS apart from other doomsday cults is that it is the first group to call its followers to kill all those who do not buy into their “end of time” scenario.
Al Baghdadi, an ardent follower of Musab Al Zarkawi, rose to power with this message of laying the foundation for the return of the Mahdi and the final battle between good and evil. Like Zarkawi, Baghdadi had to buck opposition from traditional Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and now Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, both of whom traditionally viewed such apocalyptic expectations as counterproductive concepts held mostly by the uneducated Shiite apostates. Although Jihadists embrace the end-time prophecies, most Muslims put little if any theological legitimacy in the real world regarding any proximity of the end of times. They believe, as most Christians do, that the “end times” is driven by God and cannot be conjectured by human beings. They dismiss such details as mythology about the end of times and wars that would be driven by man.
It must be acknowledged that while most Islamists who believe in the Islamic State and the caliphate do not believe in the associated extreme version involving eschatology; the two are dangerously, closely related in their Islamism and Islamist supremacism. And while many Islamists are non-violent, the fact is Islamism is the precursor and common conveyor belt towards militant (violent) Islamism. Eschatology accelerates extremist recruitment capabilities, serving as the ultimate, extreme motivational form.
“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah’s permission until it burns the crusaders’ armies in Dabiq,” Zarkawi famously proclaimed. Al Zarkawi followed this proclamation with horrendous acts such as mass executions and beheadings designed to entice the “infidel’s soldiers” and anyone he saw as enemies of Islam to put boots on the ground for Malahim in Dabiq. He orchestrated a clarion call that has been taken up by ISIS leader Al Baghdadi for the armies of the world to gather for this epic battle; a mandate that is, today, being emphasized and reinforced around the world by random acts such as the mass shooting in Istanbul on New Year’s eve. As a further example, many analysts believe the ISIS attack in Paris had the intent of provoking France to act with military aggression. Such action reinforces the “end of the world” narrative ISIS has created.
Al Zarkawi, whose real name was Ahmad Al Khalayleh, grew up in a village called Zarqa, Jordan. Zarqa was widely accepted as the biblical location for Jacob’s famous struggle with God. Resistance to authority, for Al Zarkawi, was nothing new. Throughout his evolution from small town thug to a worldwide leader of jihad and the inspiration for present day ISIS, Al Zarkawi marched to a different drummer, convinced of his role in ushering in the end of time.
Al Baghdadi picked up where Al Zarkawi left off, adding a touch of professionalism to the call with his skill as a leader and his ability to use social media to his advantage. Today, as a result of Al Baghdadi’s skilled messaging, young men and women the world over are eager to embrace death on the battlefield of Dabiq; convinced of the paradise that awaits them. It matters little that the majority of them are basically ignorant of Koranic teachings and prophecy. ISIS has become adept at using the eschatological call as a recruitment tool. Once the mindset is inculcated among potential jihadists, the follow-on steps are natural. Embracing martyrdom is easy once you are convinced of what follows. Additionally, martyrdom, according to the ISIS message, is assured if you kill the infidels who resist or contradict the will of Allah.
In order to understand this, and to comprehend its effectiveness, you must first embrace the message and accept its legitimacy. Those who give up everything to respond certainly believe it. If a potential recruit embraces and truly believes the message, ISIS recruiters can enhance its value by emphasizing the “brotherhood of the oppressed.” Though we have little to go on in so far as similarities among those who are more likely to succumb to the message of radical jihad, we do know that a feeling of “rejection or alienation” is common to them. Therefore, becoming a member of a worldwide brotherhood, especially a brotherhood that is suffering and is being oppressed, is a strongdraw to one who feels the rest of theworld has shunned him. If you’re convinced the Mahdi will soon return and walk in the midst of this brotherhood, assuring victory over the forces of evil, you’ll walk over ice to be part of it.
Revolutionaries battling the Umayyad Dynasty AD 665 circulated prophesies of soldiers with long hair and black beards dressed in black and fighting under a black flag who would come from the east. Al Sham, the third Abbasid Caliph who reigned from 775 to his death in 785, said, “If you see the men coming from the east under the black flag go to them even if you have to crawl over ice because indeed among them is the caliph Al Mahdi.”
Revolution, caliphate and apocalypse. The message is clear. In 2012, half the world’s Muslims fully expected the imminent appearance of the Mahdi, ushering in the end of the world. Today, more and more young people are not only willing, but are excited by this message from ISIS.
Al Zarkawi, though he swore allegiance to Al Qaeda, never took instruction from the group and often chaffed at Bin Laden’s orders to slow down. Al Baghdadi today is influenced little by Al Qaeda, preferring to follow the Al Zarkawi’s strategy.
There is a reason Bin Laden, a Sunni, resisted such apocalyptic messaging as did most other Sunni Muslims. In 1979, the year Bin Laden graduated from college in Saudi Arabia, a group of Sunni radicals took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in order to announce the arrival and consecrate one of their own as the Mahdi. Saudi Special Forces troops stormed the mosque and killed them all including the proposed Mahdi. The humiliation they suffered was a good lesson. A more practical reason Al Qaeda has resisted this eschatological thought and practice is a longer term strategy. ISIS and Al Baghdadi want nothing to do with this, though. Whether ISIS leadership really believes it, or simply sees it as a way to encourage jihad and the ensuing chaos it produces is irrelevant. The fact is, young people the world over are responding to the call.
Every action undertaken by ISIS, from the design of the flag to the clarion call, has produced some level of success. ISIS’s flag is black because flags flying behind the prophet Mohammad when he spoke in public were said to have been black. The words in black within a white background on ISIS’s flag are designed to resemble the seal of Mohammad. The message is clear; Isis inherited it directly from the Prophet. ISIS unveiled the flag with the prayer, "We ask God; praise be he, to make this flag the sole flag for all Muslims. We are certain that it will be the flag of the people of Iraq when they go to aid the Mahdi at the holy house of god."
The “House of God” is the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest shrine in Islam and the Mahdi. The Muslim savior will appear there in the days leading up to the apocalypse. ISIS was signaling that the flag was not only a symbol of its government in Iraq, but that it also was the harbinger of the final battle at the end of days.
ISIS is following the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran, in part, along with prophecies made after Mohammad’s death in relation to a final battle with evil, and the end of the world. Al Baghdadi’s actions are also designed to purify Islam by returning to its roots. This includes preparations for the return of the Mahdi and Islam’s version of Armageddon.
Other than the obvious, the danger to the rest of the world lies in Al Baghdadi’s success in convincing followers from every part of the globe to embrace jihad and be part of that which is to come. Again, it makes no difference whether the rest of us see this as believable, because every day, more and more young vulnerable Muslims do.
Contributing Writer Dr.Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus. Also read Garner and Stephen C. McCraney’s recent exclusive report, New Research Project Aims to Identify Those ‘At-Risk’ to Succumbing to the Message of Islamic Extremism and Recruitment.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. is founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and co-Founder of the Muslim Reform Movement. He is host of the Blaze Radio Network podcast, Reform This!, and author of, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith. Appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Jasser served on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2012-2016. Jasser is a former US Navy Lieutenant Commander serving 11 years as a naval medical officer.
Garner and Jasser last co-authored, Reasonable ‘Extreme’ Vetting of Refugees Makes Perfect Sense.