Why ISIS Beheadings Won’t Stop U.S. Missiles

Sandip Roy


From FirstPost and reprinted by our content partner New America Media:

“I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy toward the Islamic State... So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people. We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic state to back off and leave our people alone.”

The masked fighter nicknamed Jihadi John with the British accent who proclaims this threat before journalist Steven Sotloff is beheaded probably means the opposite of what he says.

ISIS wants to draw the US into its net, not really leave it alone. After claiming they are establishing a Caliphate in the Middle East, what better recruiting tool can it imagine than a Holy ground War with Western crusaders?

As Sunny Hundal notes in the New Statesman its spokesman made no bones about it as quoted by Vice News. “Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing.”

ISIS, writes Hundal, is counting on the fact that it is not a “rag-tag bunch of rebels hiding in caves, as al-Qaeda is largely reduced to now” but a “well-equipped urban guerilla army fighting on several different fronts and winning in most of them.” It’s fired not just by its ideology but cold hard cash and topnotch arms. They make 3 million pounds a day selling oil on the black market. They have some $400 million in cash and gold in their kitty after seizing the central bank in Mosul. It would relish a ground war with Americans and their allies.

The horrific Sotloff video is carefully constructed propaganda to that effect. Except there is one critical flaw. As strategy it’s dumb.

Obama might talk tough and promise to be “relentless, but the cold hard truth is the US does not care that much about freelance journalists anywhere in the world. It didn’t ask for them to be there, unlike the US ambassador killed in Benghazi, Libya.

Forget the government, freelancers don’t even have news organizations that truly have their back. Even a major news organization cannot save you from fanatics hell-bent on making an example out of you as Daniel Pearl discovered in Pakistan. But a freelancer has even less of a chance.

The deaths of Foley and Sotloff will not be a death-knell for freelance journalism because as news organizations close their foreign bureaus, there will always be a market for the daring risk-taking freelancer. But if the beheading of Foley and Sotloff achieve anything, it will be to shrink that already small pool. ISIS at best will drive more freelancers and humanitarian aid workers out of their land.

That loss will be felt not by America but by the lands they came to work in. It will have no effect on the march of the drones. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted after the Foley beheading shows 66 percent of Americans support airstrikes even as 56 percent oppose sending ground troops back to that region.

Barbaric as it is, the video is nothing new. If its goal was to strike terror in the heart of Americans it does not work. This video merely reinforces a sense of revulsion rather than terror. It is shocking and obscene but its shock value too is ultimately limited. We have already seen Daniel Pearl with his throat slit.

If its goal is to cow Iraqis into submission a market bomb would be more effective than executing random foreign freelancers. Al Qaeda in Iraq would routinely film its bloodiest suicide bombings and post “Greatest Hits” videos of exploding bombs and ripped-apart bodies.

If it wants to indeed ultimately establish a Caliphate, it’s setting itself up as even more unreasonable and fanatical than other hardline groups. It ironically makes the Taliban look almost reasonable and legitimate in comparison.


ISIS surely understands that it is playing a high-stakes game of diminishing returns. Wayne White, a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office writes in the Interpress service that over 90 percent of the land it controls is “the driest, most underpopulated, and poorest in the greater Fertile Crescent region,” the heavy weapons it seized cannot be replaced, and it “does not have a very large army of dedicated fighters”. The Iraqi allies it relies on, including Ba’athists and Sunni tribes “could get very nervous about their future with ISIS” and might be open to cutting a deal with the new government in Baghdad now their old enemy Nouri-al-Maliki is gone.

That's why the videos have the fighter with the British accent on them, whether he was the actual butcher who did the job or not. It’s their way of trying to rattle the British and raise the spectre of sleeper cells and give the impression that ISIS is everywhere. It is also a recruitment tool aimed at disaffected Muslims in other countries like the engineering students who left Kalyan, Maharashtra to join them leaving letters behind saying “I do not want to live in this sinful country”.

But in the virtuous Caliphate they want to join, even the “warriors” executing Foley and Sotloff in supposedly righteous cause choose to wear masks. “Is it a mark of a warrior?” wonders Dexter Philkins in the New Yorker. “Or is it the mark of a murderer who knows, deep in his soul, that he should be ashamed?”

The shame is because the videos, like Al Qaeda in Iraq’s slickly produced “Greatest Hits” compilations of suicide bombings, end up not so much as blood oaths for a fabled caliphate as out and out slasher porn. As Philkins writes the “palpable excitement” of the cameraman as the explosion neared makes these death videos “impossible to watch without concluding that those guys were enjoying what they did—that they were getting off on it. Videotaping a mass murder is not politics; it’s pornography.”

In the case of ISIS it’s pornography turned into a hideous television serial. Like a maker of soap operas with their next episode teasers, the organization announced a threat to kill another hostage, a British national, one David Hawthorne Haines.

It sounds like an obscenely twisted version of the most beloved story from that part of the world – the Arabian Nights. In the 1001 Nights each story Scheherazade tells is a way to save her life for one more night. In this 21st century ISIS rendition each story is about ending one more life.

Sandip Roy is a writer for First Post where another version of this analysis appeared.


From FirstPost and reprinted by our content partner New America Media

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