19 September 2015

Unlikely Coalitions: ISIS' Portrayal of its Enemies

11 Sep 2015

In the latest edition of ISIS' propaganda magazine, Dabiq, the group promotes an image of itself as an underdog against a global coalition, and condemns the flow of migrants rushing towards Europe.

The 11th edition of ISIS' propaganda magazine, Dabiq, published by the group on 9 September 2015, includes an extensive narrative on the various coalitions fighting the group, and draws on a number of high-profile recent events to support its ideas. It aims to reinforce its binary picture of the world, divided into supporters of ISIS, and its enemies.

War of Coalitions

The group draws on a historical battle from the Prophetic period to establish that today ISIS is the sole vanguard defending Islam from a wide-ranging group of coalitions.

The battle of al-Ahzab or the Confederates, in which the early Muslims were outnumbered against a coalition of groups from across the region, is presented to the audience as a direct parallel to the situation that ISIS is facing today. But instead of facing tribes and groups from around the region, ISIS puts forward a far grander narrative in which a number of countries from around the world have entered into an expansive coalition against ISIS. While the existence of some kind of coalition fighting against ISIS doesn't seem at all ludicrous, the bizarre coalition that ISIS views presents Russia, Iran, and Syria as "the most important allies" of the United States.

The group portrays itself as an underdog to align itself with the Prophetic cause.

The forces fighting the ISIS affiliated Boko Haram in 'Wilayat West Ifriqiyyah [sic]' (Nigeria and surrounding countries), the NATO-led presence in 'Wilayat Khorasan' (Afghanistan), and the Israeli and Egyptian forces tackling the insurgency in 'Wilayat Sina' (Sinai Peninsula), all are considered to be part of a broader global coalition against ISIS. Furthermore, there is an explicit instruction to target the countries that are fighting against the group, whether through attacks on their soil or their interests abroad.

Presenting the enemy as a cosmic alliance of countries from every continent and faith allows ISIS to assume the role of the underdog and align itself with the Prophetic cause. By likening the situation today to the one faced by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, ISIS reinforces its binary worldview that the world is united in its opposition to Islam, represented by ISIS.

Jewish-Shia Axis

The second axis ISIS presents as arrayed against it is religious; an alliance of Shia and Jews. By presenting writings from prominent Shia writers from the medieval Islamic period, ISIS tries to establish that the Shia Mahdi – who the group identifies with the antichrist – will rule according to Jewish scripture and speaks in Hebrew.

Further writings are presented to demonstrate that this Mahdi will look to kill all Arabs and beginning with the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also claims to be descended from. ISIS concludes that the Shia will definitely align with the Jews and wage "a war against Islam and the Muslims."


Despite the inherent racism of this account, elsewhere in the magazine the group focuses on racism in the United States, in an effort to portray ISIS, and loyalty the group, as above race.

In an article on loyalty and enmity, ISIS suggests that race and ethnicity are beside the point. The sole criterion the group presents for determining allies and enemies is based not on the colour of skin but on whether someone subscribes to ISIS' understanding of Islam. ISIS' discrimination is based solely on religion: those who oppose the ideology of Salafi-jihadism on ISIS' terms are enemies. ISIS goes as far as to say that it even treats its enemies equally – by the "slaughter" of its opponents. This distinction based on the group's narrow ideology further contributes to the binary narrative that ISIS seeks to establish elsewhere.


A striking feature of this edition of the magazine is how much appears to have been written in the days before its publication. The image of the washed up body of Alan Kurdi featured prominently, seeking to convince its readers that refugees fleeing to Europe are not only unwise, but actively sinful, deserting the 'land of Islam' (ISIS territory) for 'the land of unbelief.'

ISIS' discrimination is based solely on religion.

Again ISIS attempts to forge parallels with the time of the Prophet by stating that just as the creation of a Muslim state in Medina gave Muslims seeking sanctuary from persecution a place to come to, today ISIS has adopted that mantle and has forged a territory for Muslims to live in. While there is a positive and strong Islamic tradition of hijrah (migration), ISIS regards this as representing a duty for all Muslims to come to the territory it controls.

ISIS considers the impact of refugee flows away from its territory as detrimental not only for the parents migrating, but more so for their children who will now constantly live under the "threat of kufr" and will forget the Quran. ISIS' focus on this issue, combined with a defensive tone through much of the magazine, may indicate concerns over the population it controls. Whether for ISIS' growth ambitions, the sale of slaves, or the need for specialist workers, an exodus does not do any benefit to the group's cause.

ISIS looks to further consolidate its definition of 'the enemy' in this issue of Dabiq. Eschewing any distinction between near or far, East or West, Christian or Jewish, ISIS is unequivocal in its simple binary depiction of the enemy as anyone who disagrees with its. The portrayal of such a broad enemy, drawn with particular focus on incidents from early Islamic history, serves to push ISIS' depiction of itself as an underdog that will overcome the odds just as the Prophet did.

The target audience of Dabiq, an English magazine, is largely the discontented European and North American Muslims, so drawing on two of the most prominent crises currently facing these regions shows ISIS' willingness to tap into current narratives to promote its cause. The focus on the issue of racism in the US and the thousands of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe show ISIS' determination to react to events in its own way in order to serve its purpose.

The tone of the whole magazine emphasises the group's binary worldview. There are no grey areas. According to ISIS, if you are not for the group, you are its enemy.

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