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The Islamic State has cut a bloody swath across the Middle East over the last 14 months. Since its emergence from the former Al Qaeda in Iraq, IS/ISIL/ISIS (hereafter referred to as IS) has emerged as the most ruthless and, not coincidentally, most successful of the violent Islamist movements scattered across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
To date, only the Kurdish peshmerga has been the only fighting force in the Middle East to withstand the advance of the IS in Syria and Iraq.
Western analysts have been at a loss to explain the motives or reasons for the stunning advance of the IS. Officials in the administration of President Barack Obama have quite frankly embarrassed themselves and the president by suggesting, for example, that what drives the ruthless fighters of the Islamic State is high unemployment.
With all due respect, that stands as possibly the most ridiculous statement from one of the least competent administrations in American history. Forget the official rate of 5.3% (as of July, 2015); real unemployment in the U.S. is around 23% and has been at or near this mark for six years. That’s Great Depression territory—the unemployment rate has been higher longer than during the bread line era of the 1930s. By the twisted logic of the Obama administration, there should be open rebellion in the heartland.
No, there is more behind the barbaric acts of the Islamic State than a lack of decent jobs. The root cause is spiritual, not financial. Corporate greed does not provoke outraged Midwesterners to burn bankers alive and sell their daughters into slavery.
Our military, sadly, hasn’t come any closer to figuring out what drives the IS. Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations in the Middle East, convened a series of conference calls last year with experts from outside the Pentagon to figure out why the Islamic State is so dangerous.
While Gen. Nagata is to be commended for thinking outside the five-sided box, leaked confidential notes from the sessions are not encouraging. For example, college business professors were tasked with analyzing the Islamic State’s branding and marketing strategies.
Branding and marketing?
Politicians and soldiers in the West operate with secular blinders that prevent them from seeing the picture, much less making sense of it. As Gen. Nakata reportedly said during one of his conference calls, “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it. We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”
Understanding the Islamic State is not as difficult as it appears. One simply needs to take the organization at its word. A recent article by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic makes a strong case that the Islamic State is “no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
Since it declared the caliphate on June 30, 2014, the IS has made no secret of its goal: It wants to provoke a war with the forces of Rome at or near the northern Syrian town of Dabiq. They believe the war will culminate in a bloody victory for the forces of Islam, who will go on to occupy Istanbul, and from there take over the world. It’s right there in their official publication, titled, not coincidentally, Dabiq.
This belief in an apocalyptic end game is based on a prophecy attributed to Mohammed. It is recorded in a Hadith, a collection of teachings outside the Koran that purportedly preserve Mohammed’s instructions on a variety of subjects. Sahih Muslim, considered one of the two most reliable and authentic collections among Sunni Muslims, records a prophecy of a tremendous battle between “Romans” and Muslims at Dabiq.
In the prophecy, a third of the Muslim soldiers will run away, never to be forgiven by Allah, a third will die as “excellent martyrs”, and the remaining third will emerge victorious as conquerors of Constantinople (Istanbul). While the victorious army is still divvying up the spoils, the Satan appears and announces to the victors that the Dajjal, the Islamic Antichrist figure, “has taken your place among your family.” The forces of the Dajjal enter Syria to confront the Muslim army, at which time Jesus appears to lead the Islamic troops in prayer—and the enemy disappears “just as the salt dissolves itself in water”.
Wood was roundly criticized by other analysts and journalists for reporting that the Islamic State not only believes this stuff, but formulates policy based on the so-called prophecy. It is not by accident that Dabiq, located between Aleppo and the Turkish border, was one of the first towns overrun by the IS after declaring the caliphate.
Westerners are so divorced from a worldview that believes in ancient prophecy that policymakers have been unable to grasp the implications and respond accordingly. To the hard-core members of the Islamic State, it’s a very simple worldview: Allah prophesied these end-times events through Mohammed, end of story. Would that Christians would hold so tightly to the prophecies of Jesus Christ.
The response from the West, such as it is, has been confusing at best. Reluctant to embroil American ground troops in another long war in the Middle East, something on which the American public is divided, President Obama—who asked Congress to authorize the use of military force in February and is still waiting for a vote—has elected to limit American involvement to air strikes.
In late July, Turkey announced an agreement with the United States to create an Islamic State-free zone in northern Syria. Interestingly, the zone, a 60-mile strip of land along the 500-mile border connecting the two countries, includes Dabiq.
The Vatican, which in recent years had distanced itself from the traditional doctrine of “just war”, reversed course this spring after a video of Islamic State militants in Libya decapitating 21 Coptic Christians on the Mediterranean shore was released to the Internet. In March, Archbishop Silvaso Tomasi, the Vatican representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said plainly that the threat posed by the Islamic State required “the use of force to stop the hands of an aggressor.”
That had to be the response that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and all the IS faithful had hoped for—a de facto declaration of war by “the nation of the Cross”.
But prophecy is not the exclusive domain of the Islamic State. What about Iran? We have been hearing for months that the ayatollahs want nothing more than to get their hands on a nuclear weapon to eradicate Israel and jump-start the Apocalypse. They believe, we are told (primarily by conservative political commentators), that provoking World War III would bring the Twelfth Imam out of occlusion and fulfill the end-times prophecies of Shia Islam.
However, a study of what Shias actually believe reveals that this is probably not the case. While there is no question that Iran is a state sponsor of international terror and an avowed enemy of Israel and the United States, there are good reasons to believe that the ayatollahs aren’t as eager for the Apocalypse as we are led to believe.
First of all, belief in a Muslim messiah, the Mahdi, is held mainly by Sunnis. Shia Islam, which is the majority sect only in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, has an institutional hierarchy that is lacking among Sunnis. For Shias, the Mahdi must be a specific person, whereas for Sunnis, “the mantle of the Mahdi can be appropriated, in the right context, by a charismatic leader megalomaniacal enough to believe Allah is directing him to wage divinely-guided jihad.”
Furthermore, Shias believe that they cannot do anything that will prompt the Mahdi—the Twelfth Imam—to emerge even one minute sooner than Allah has ordained. It will be the collapse of the Zionist regime that will provoke the Promised One to come, not the other way around. Trying to “hotwire” the Apocalypse would be pointless and, from the perspective of the ayatollahs, a poor career choice.
Think of the ayatollahs in Iran as a Muslim version of the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day. They rule on all aspects of Shia life, religious, political and social. The emergence of the Twelfth Imam would make them irrelevant, just as the Messiah rendered the Sanhedrin redundant. In a nutshell, the ayatollahs aren’t all that eager to give up their wives, big houses, and nice cars.
Nor are the ayatollahs stupid. In spite of their aggressive talk, the ruling class in Iran knows that a nuclear strike on Israel would bring the full weight of the Israeli and American militaries down on their heads. Even if they survived, which is no sure thing, the ayatollahs would be left ruling a pile of radioactive rubble—not an attractive prospect.
So it is the Sunnis who carry the banner of Mahdism, and is their apocalyptic visions of the future with which we must contend.
But the other “Abrahamic” faiths also have prophecies about the last days that may draw believers into a wider war, but also—misled by flawed interpretations of biblical eschatology—lead Jews and some well-meaning Christians into a mistaken belief that the Antichrist is the Messiah.
Jews, having rejected Jesus of Nazareth, still await the Messiah. In broad strokes, and understanding that I am not an expert on Jewish eschatology, they are apparently looking for two messiahs—Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David.
In a nutshell, Jewish beliefs about the two (or one) messiahs are:
- They are two different people from two different tribal families.
- They live at the same time.
- Moshiach ben Yosef never takes the throne nor is he entitled to.
- Moshiach ben Yosef is a warrior (Moshiach ben Dovid would also appear to be).
- Moshiach ben Yosef will be killed in BATTLE and will be the first to be raised from the dead by Moshiach ben Dovid.
- The period of time from when Moshiach ben Yosef first comes into prominence until he is resurrected after the Moshiach ben Dovid comes to his throne is very short, the longest period is under two years.
The basic chronology of events is that there is a seven-year period. It starts with continually [sic] problems, it starts to improve and then in the sixth year it gets worse again. In the seventh year there are great wars in which the Moshiach ben Yosef is first successful and then he is killed in that later part of the year. Many Jewish people will become depressed and fall away. At the end of the seven years Moshiach ben Dovid comes and finishes the job and there comes the resurrection of the dead. 
Is it possible that the activities of the Islamic State in Syria would draw the Israel Defense Forces into the conflict? Yes. The Israeli military has already warned Syrian rebels allied with the Islamic State to stay away from Druze communities just across the Israeli border on the Golan Heights. Israel has a significant Druze population in the north, and they are demanding that the IDF protect their cousins inside Syria.
Now, we speculate. Imagine this scenario: The Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State pushes into Druze territory from the north. Political pressure compels an Israeli leader to send the IDF from the Golan Heights into Syria. Heavy fighting ensues.
While the timing wouldn’t track with the specific prophecy that inspires the Islamic State, it is not a stretch to assume that at least some Sunni Muslims would identify this Israeli leader as the Dajjal. This would surely draw more fighters to the cause of the Islamic State.
Muslim nations in the area might be compelled to join the fight, especially those governed by regimes with a shaky hold on power. Nothing unifies a country faster than a hated external enemy. Iran, seeing an opportunity to extend its influence over the majority Shia population in neighboring Iraq (and all that oil around Mosul and Kirkuk), might also join the fray.
The existential threat to Israel would no doubt bring the “Nation of the Cross”—the United States and possibly its NATO allies—into the war.
Next month: How this scenario could lure well-meaning Christians into rooting (and working) for the wrong side.
 Eric Schmitt (2014, December 28). In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology, The New York Times, retrieved August 16, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/29/us/politics/in-battle-to-defang-isis-us-targets-its-psychology-.html.
 Graeme Wood (2015, March). What ISIS Really Wants. The Atlantic, retrieved August 16, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/.
 Hadith No. 6924, “Pertaining to the conquest of Constantinople and the appearance of the Dajjal and descent of Jesus son of Mary (Jesus Christ)”. Retrieved August 16, 2015, from http://www.sahihmuslim.com/sps/smm/sahihmuslim.cfm?scn=dspchapters&BookID=41
 Note that this translation from Arabic treats “satan” as a description or title rather than a proper name, similar to the Hebrew satan, which means “accuser” or “adversary”.
 It also serves to separate areas held by the Kurds, who want to establish an independent Kurdistan that would include territory from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Turkish government considers the Kurds to be just as threatening, if not moreso, than the Islamic State—which may explain why evidence suggests the Turks have been quietly supplying the IS.
 Dr. Timothy Furnish (January 2011). A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?, INEGMA Special Report No. 12. Retrieved August 17, 2015 from http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File-8102013131623.pdf.
 I use scare quotes because Islam is not an Abrahamic faith in the true sense of the word.
 Assuming, of course, that Christians are still on Earth when the Man of Sin is revealed.
 Or just one messiah—the first time suffering, the second time exalted. Of course, Jesus of Nazareth was the suffering messiah.
 Who is the Moshiach ben Yosef. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2015, from http://www.judaismsanswer.com/yosef.htm