Every apocalyptic movement runs into reality at some point and that is when things get interesting.
Islamic State’s strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria have yet to fall, but the theologians and strategists of the world’s largest terrorist entity are already laying the groundwork for keeping the loyalty of the faithful once they do.
To do that, they must keep those faithful who, since 2014, have been part of the ultimate giant killer and the over-achieving underdog team, even as ISIS becomes just another losing team picked off piece by piece.
Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in an oped in The New York Times that, in May and August, ISIS began pushing articles and videos about “inhiyaz,” which he explained describes ISIS’s strategy of temporary retreat into the desert.
Part of the doctrine is the idea that, even as the West may cheer victory in a major city like Mosul as the end of ISIS, the terrorist group views desert locations as being just as important as the big cities.
Controlling big cities may be more glamorous on the surface, but fighting from the desert lets ISIS return to its roots; collect new recruits; terrorize and deplete nearby residents; fill its coffers with guerrilla-style theft; and outplay its overstretched adversaries over a wider terrain where it is hard to track.
If, until recently, ISIS regularly distributed videos of its fighters’ victories and slaughtering of their enemies in the urban context, some recent videos have shown a marked shift to showing victories and attacks occurring in the desert context.
ISIS is constantly reminding its followers that by 2007 it had retreated into the desert in the face of the US and Sunni “Awakening” alliance’s counter-attack.
Despite that strategic retreat, ISIS prides itself that its guerrilla-terrorist tactics in the following years did not allow nearby Iraqis to rest or establish stable lives for even a second as it gradually wore them down.
Under ISIS’s constant onslaught, political unity and alliances frayed until it became easy for the group to retake wide swaths of territory and even expand.
The various groups fighting ISIS might also note that if ISIS succeeded in a comeback by wearing down the formidable Awakening groups, Iraq, in 2016, is even more divided than it was then.
Any leftover political vacuum or dissent between competing Iraqi ethnic groups following military victories is fertile ground for another ISIS comeback.
So ISIS has a military and conceptual strategy to survive its expected loss of Mosul and its adversaries have a soft underbelly once they have to try to restore normal life.
What about ISIS’s confidence, promises and prophecies to followers of its imminent Caliphate?
There is substantial revamping of messaging there, as well.
Up until 2014, ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others had praised Dabiq, an otherwise unremarkable location in Northern Syria, as the site of an end-of-days battle with the infidels.
Combining multiple ancient Islamic prophecies, in their glory days, ISIS said Muslims would fight a great battle against masses of infidels (as many as 80 nations, each 10,000 strong) and, after heavy losses, would be victorious, including overrunning the eastern Roman capital of Constantinople.
July 2014 saw ISIS release its first English-language magazine, named Dabiq after the town of the apocalypse.
According to a post on Jihadica by Will McCants, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, ISIS dared the West to attack and be defeated in Dabiq on social media as a method of showing its confidence to its followers, even affirming the prophecy was nearing fulfillment when the US started air strikes in August 2014.
By mid-2015, and after relentless US air strikes, though some ISIS messages were sticking to the original interpretation of the prophecy, others began to float the idea that the prophecy might be delayed if the coalition did not invade with ground forces.
In September 2016, and with Dabiq encircled, ISIS followers bagan to frantically explain why Dabiq was not actually “the” showdown. They noted that the messianic Mahdi figure had not appeared; that even if there was a coalition they did not add up to 80 nations; and that other preceding prophecies had not yet occurred, McCants explained.
There are two ways to see ISIS’s change of tune. The more hopeful perspective is that it is losing and doing mental gymnastics to explain this its followers after having overplayed its expected future successes.
The less hopeful one is a recognition that part of what makes ISIS so formidable is not that it took so much territory, but that it adapts and evolves to favorable and unfavorable circumstances at a pace matching any adversary the US or the West has faced.
This lesson connects ISIS’s inhiyaz strategy of returning to desert-guerrilla warfare and its reinterpreting of its Dabiq prophecies. It is a lesson that some of observers say the West and the smattering of Iraqi-ethnic groups who currently have ISIS on the run should well remember before they declare a premature V-day.