On Tuesday the world was horrified by the news that the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) had beheaded the kidnapped American journalist James Foley. The militants released a video showing the experienced photojournalist kneeling in the desert and reading a statement blaming his own death on the actions of US in Iraq. After finishing his statement Foley was murdered by a masked man. The brutal video brought a furious response by Western governments, and put the Islamic State firmly in the headlines yet again. So why was Foley murdered now, after almost two years in captivity? What does this say about the ideology of the Islamic State? And will this lead to a bigger US role in Iraq?
The apparent reason for the timing of Foley’s murder is the recent airstrikes by the US in Iraq against IS. After a long period of inaction, the US decided to intervene in recent weeks after a new IS offensive. Militants caused the mass exodus of the Christian minority in the northern Nineveh area, seized the vital Mosul Dam, and trapped thousands of minority Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. The immediate threat to the Yazidis, a religious minority IS sees as heretics, prompted the US to hit the Islamic State with airstrikes, and begin providing the Kurdish forces with weapons to fight IS.
In the disturbing statement Foley was forced to make, he speaks directly to his brother in the US air force, saying “when your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people they signed my death certificate”. The statement is clearly a carefully crafted piece of IS propaganda, and forcing Foley to address his brother in that way is utterly abhorrent. However, it is that cruelty and flair for brutality that has set IS apart.
More than any other terrorist group, the Islamic State combines extreme cruelty with clever publicity and use of both social and news media. Their techniques go back to the US occupation of Iraq, when Al-Qaeda in Iraq (who later became IS) regularly kidnapped Westerners before beheading them on video. IS have also realised videos showing the mass murder of captives from the Iraqi army, and the beheading of captured Syrian officers. They are not content with killing their ‘enemies’, but want to extract the maximum amount of horror and terror from the deaths of their innocent victims. This tactic is effective in many ways. Most foreign journalists now go nowhere near the areas of Syria controlled by IS, allowing them to impose their law without any exposure to the outside world. In Iraq their propaganda, has had the effect of utterly demoralising the Iraqi army and causing the mass flight of civilians and soldiers who might have otherwise stayed to fight.
The question now is whether the US will step up its airstrikes and support for the Kurds in Iraq. This support carries many risks. Arming the Kurds (who are more efficient than the Iraqi Army) risks spurring their breakaway from Iraq. Sending more weapons into such a volatile war zone brings the risk that arms will fall into the hands of IS. Finally, if the US increases its involvement, especially to the point of any ground troops, Islamic State can portray themselves as fighting the US imperialists directly. This would gain them more fighters, and give them more legitimacy in the eyes of disaffected Muslims – support they now sorely lack. However, apart from the moral obligation to stand in the way of IS, the threat they pose to US interests in the region seems sure to outweigh the risks of intervention in the eyes of the US government.
The murder of Foley also shows yet again how utterly extreme the Islamic State is. Christians, Westerners, Shi’a Muslims or secular Middle-Easterners – IS denies its enemies any right to exist. Students of Islamic law say that IS’s empty ideology is in complete disregard of the Qu’ran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. As I mentioned in an earlier piece on Islamic State, even Al-Qaeda proper expelled them for over reliance on brutality. It makes me wonder if there is any future for the ‘caliphate’ the Islamic State has declared. They don’t offer the resistance of Hamas, or the solidarity and protection of Hezbollah. All that Islamic State offer is death and fear – and alienating all but the most diehard extremists is not a tactic for long-term survival.
For those interested in knowing more about the life and work of James Foley, a profile about his life can be found here. If you want to know more about the risks journalists face throughout the world, try “The fight for press freedom”.