Islamic State and the Murder of Captives: A Display of Defiance?

Islamic State demonstrates enormous commitment to their cause with the public murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, but the Western response indicates that lessons have been learnt from the Iraq War, and a coordinated, localised response is likely to produce an elongated struggle that will shape Iraq’s future.

Another week goes by, and a second journalist has been murdered barbarically by the terrorist group Islamic State, as they rumble on, baiting the West, in a war that is being played out on many fronts. Whilst their momentum on the ground seems to have stalled, their position in the hearts and minds of Western leaders has never been more prominent since ‘Jihadi John’ murdered two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. These public displays of barbarity mark their entrance into a second front, one that is taking place on our televisions, tablets and telephones: a battle of perceptions. Judging by the vociferous response of Presidents and Prime Ministers the world over, it would be easy to assume that they have lost this battle, too. The language of world leaders stresses the barbarity of the threat posed by Islamic State, with President Obama and David Cameron stressing that they will not be cowed by the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The release the videos of the murders of two American journalists represents a different kind of perception, one that focusses on signalling their own strength and commitment to their cause of creating a caliphate.

It was suggested by some that the murder of James Foley was an act of desperation before an implosion, an attempt to lash out against the United Sates in the only way it could in the face of military setbacks. However, the killing of Steven Sotloff and threats to a British captive’s life indicate that these most public beheadings have become part of the Islamic State’s strategy in dealing with the West. They reveal something much deeper about workings, and the motivations, within this organisation. Rather than acts of desperation, these atrocities should be viewed as a signal of defiance, a calculated strategy, pre-planned to gain airtime on our radio stations, access to our own living rooms, and, ultimately, to influence the policies of our leaders. The tragic deaths of James Foley and Steeven Sotloff are, to quote the murderer, ‘serious warnings’ from these terrorists. They are warning the rest of the world, that despite their losses, they are committed to their goal of establishing a caliphate, and they are ready to risk the western ire that will follow to achieve it.

What of this British-accented, Jihadi John? Whatever his true identity, how did he, along with hundreds of others, choose to leave Britain and fight in a foreign field for such an extreme ideology? Dissatisfaction, anger, frustration at home in London are all likely causes, but the decision to head to Syria and now Iraq is an extreme choice. The ‘Why?’ question is one that cannot be fully understood at this stage, but it seems highly likely that British involvement in the Iraq War has played a role in shaping this ideology, as it shaped the outlook of the 7/7 bombers, and shows again the follies of that war.

After initially stumbling in his response to IS by saying that the US ‘did not have a strategy’ to deal with the Islamic State, President Obama’s declaration that the beheadings will not intimidate the US, suggests an understanding of the message within the shocking images, and talk of forming a localised coalition to combat the Islamic State shows that, perhaps, lessons from the Iraq War have been learned. Rather than seeing these most public executions as a challenge to be met with a heavy-handed intervention, with boots on the ground and all guns blazing, this administration is providing aid to create a home-grown counterforce to the might of the Islamic State which seems to empower locals rather than impose a western-guided mission. John Kerry stressed that defeating IS could only occur when ‘responsible nations and their peoples unite to oppose them.’

The result is likely to be a long struggle that pits one patchwork alliance of jihadists drawn from all over the world against a local collation of Kurdish fighters, the Iraqi government, regional powers such as Jordan and Turkey, supported by the a global coalition that has started to form at this month’s NATO summit in Newport. The Islamic State have signalled their commitment, their will to suffer despite military setbacks, and their position as the wealthiest terror group in existence means that this commitment will be fuelled for a good while yet, and all the while, Iraq’s emerging democracy is reforming itself under the leadership of Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haidir al-Adabi. It is a struggle that will last for many years to come, and will shape Iraq’s future, but one thing is clear: repeating the mistakes of 2003 cannot be allowed to happen again, lest another Jihadi John emerge.

By David Ireland

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Middle East

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One Comment on “Islamic State and the Murder of Captives: A Display of Defiance?”

  1. Terry Webster
    September 20, 2014 at 3:13 am #

    I am unsure where I landed, on a funny farm? The U.S. created this little group of devils,
    this is the way our government prepares the sheepel for war, get them all excited and pass out sticks and they beat each other to death. You need to do more research and less writing. Wake up sleeper

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