ISIS’s barbarism and its discontents

The Islamic States's strategy is to project power and perpetrate blackmail, an approach that may boomerang

The abduction and execution of two Japanese hostages and a Jordanian pilot were the most recent links in a chain of similar atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State over the course of the past year. What has become an industry of abductions and ransom demands in Syria has grown to involve foreigners from the West, including journalists and aid workers who came to Syria to provide humanitarian relief and ended up in ISIS controlled territory.

Seizing the opportunity for financial gain and propaganda, ISIS began displaying its hostages. The fate of most of the Western citizens, mainly those from the United States and the United Kingdom, was to be beheaded on camera, following a televised plea to their government to cease its attacks against the Islamic State as their fate depended upon it. Shortly after they were shown begging for their lives, the hostages were decapitated in front of global spectators through ISIS cameras.

The most recent video released, featuring the gruesome execution by fire of the Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasabe, aired following earlier beheadings of the two Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, concluding yet another saga of brutal performances aired by the Islamic State. These televised performances were examples of psychological warfare at its best; intended to instill fear and terror in the audience and shore up a narrative of ruthlessness and unstoppable might vis-à-vis ISIS enemies in the West. In addition, ISIS attempts to bargain for millions of dollars and/or the release of ISIS prisoners in return for hostages were accompanied by a new tactic of turning one country against the other, thus breaking the seeming solidarity of ISIS-afflicted states.

ISIS’s most recent behavior unveiled two basic principles guiding its strategy. The first is the attempt to exert power and establish the impression of a growing empire while exposing the weakness of the Western powers and their allies, as they stand helpless against it. The second principle is to flaunt modern Western values reflected in the accepted requirements for humane treatment of prisoners of war and captives, which include a fair trial and immunity in the face of senseless murder.

Despite short-term gains from the recent atrocities through terrorizing civilians — and perhaps also soldiers who may fear a fate similar to that of Kasabe, Goto and Yukawa — ISIS may have overstepped. Not only did recent events end with no prisoner swap or financial transaction, but there are signs they have incurred an opposite effect; Japan has reiterated its support for the States and sympathy for civilians harmed by ISIS. And Jordan has begun to fight back with vigor, and will probably increase its involvement in the US-led coalition strikes against ISIS.

The international coalition’s attacks against ISIS strongholds and assistance to local forces in Iraq and Syria has impeded ISIS’s expansion and incurred a daily death toll of its combatants. The disregard for rules and accepted behavior in the areas it has conquered, alongside the ruthlessness of its extravagant ferocity, serve to alienate the public in countries affected by its operations, reinforcing coalition leaders’ willingness to join operations against ISIS. In short, the outrage and fear that ISIS actions were intended to provoke may very well bring about its eventual doom.

Yael Basford, an intern at the INSS, also contributed to the publication of this article.

INSS will hold its 8th international conference “Security Challenges of the 21st Century” on February 16-17 2015 in Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum, which will focus on “Israel in a Turbulent Region”.

About the Author
Yoram Schweitzer is an expert on international terrorism and head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies.