The rationale of kidnapping and hostage execution: What drives ISIS kidnappers?

The morning of 14th September 2014 brought the anticipated yet chilling news that ISIS had executed their third Western prisoner since sweeping so abruptly from the splintered rebel-held territories of Syria into Northern Iraq and onto the global political stage. The death of David Haines – following that of James Foley and Steven Sotloff – triggered condemnation from across the British political spectrum, from the Presidents of the US and France to the Prime Minister of Australia. The consensus appeared clear: this ‘act of pure evil’, as described by Prime Minister David Cameron, necessitates the mobilisation of the international community to find and punish the perpetrators.

Whilst one would struggle to disagree with such sentiments, it is important to explore the motivations that drove the kidnappers to acquire these Western hostages. In seeking to understand the gains that the kidnappers believed their actions would bring, one can approach this subject in a more constructive way. Steven Sotloff was actually sold to ISIS by moderate Islamists for a reported sum of between $25,000 and $50,000. The fact that ISIS were willing to pay this amount, on top of expending valuable manpower feeding and guarding prisoners, indicates the value the group places on such targets.

What this value could be is less transparent. If ISIS is seeking monetary gain for its efforts – a key motivation for kidnapping in states such as Venezuela, India and Mexico among others – it failed in these recent high-profile cases. This is a long-standing, effective tactic of international terrorist groups, incentivised by the general willingness of stakeholders to meet demands. Other fundamentalist Islamist organisations, such as Boko Haram, have received payment for Western hostages in recent years. ISIS itself released two Spanish journalists in 2013 in response to ransom demands being met, whilst a Scandinavian company reportedly paid $70,000 for the return of an employee. Furthermore, ISIS appeared to be in the process of ransoming James Foley before the video of his brutal execution ended negotiations. This surely drives one to question why the execution took place. Killing a hostage essentially prevented ISIS from potentially acquiring considerable income. This could be explained if there was the immediate threat of an aggressive hostage release operation, but this was not the case in the killing of Foley or his fellow prisoners.

On the face of it, these kidnappings could be seen as a tool for achieving political goals. The assassin of James Foley asserts that his death is in retaliation for US military operations in Iraq, and threatens further killing if specific political demands, such as an end to US airstrikes against ISIS, are not met. One has to question, however, whether it was expected that such demands could ever have been met. It is difficult to find examples of states dramatically altering foreign policy in response to threats against hostages to suit the demands of kidnappers. Indeed, had the US scaled down or halted operations to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS (such as the recapture of the Mosul Dam) following the threats made in the video of James Foley’s execution, the Obama administration would have been met with international condemnation, its foreign policy decried as weak, and its global leadership capacity severely lessened. It is likely that even ISIS did not anticipate such an unlikely outcome.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation would be to view these kidnappings and executions as a form of psychological warfare and image assertion. As with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers from Gush Etzion earlier in 2014, these killings constitute an act of aggression from an inferior power against a stronger one, maximising its gains through relying on media coverage of deplorable acts to shock and intimidate opponents. The media coverage of the ISIS killings has ensured that the acts and their perpetrators now have a truly global profile, which brings with it multiple benefits for ISIS.  It provides ISIS with the platform to make itself known to those who may share its fundamentalist sentiments, and may consider joining the apparent thousands that have left Europe to support their cause in the past few months. It also asserts the superiority of the group over their Islamic fundamentalist contemporaries. ISIS grew out of the struggle for power in the fractured and fragmented Syrian opposition movement, and has quelled other fundamentalist movements, such as the Al-Nusra Front, into submission. It must ensure it can keep such movements subservient in order to maintain control of its Syrian heartlands. In this respect, the high-profile executions of Western hostages serve to demonstrate to affiliated and rival groups alike the continued relevance and significance of ISIS in the fight against American hegemony and Western imperialism. The fact that such videos provoke Western powers into direct – and likely very damaging – action against ISIS reinforces the apparent effectiveness of the group in hurting its enemies.

While its high-profile gruesome execution videos continue to circulate around the world, ISIS is succeeding in its aims of psychologically affecting its enemies, attracting potential followers and maintaining its dominance and superiority as the flag-bearer for anti-imperialist Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria. It is likely that ISIS will strive to acquire more Western hostages for as long as it has the resources to do so and such an approach remains profitable and productive to its aims. Whilst these actions could be interpreted as successful in the short term, it is possible that in provoking the West, ISIS is facilitating its eventual destruction. However, one cannot expect the tactics of ISIS to die with the movement now their effectiveness has been demonstrated. Other radical groups may engage in ‘copy-cat’ actions to assert the strength and relevance of their own movements. It must be a frightening prospect to have to work whilst under threat from groups that recognise more value in dead hostages than living ones. Adapting to this insecure reality will be a key challenge for organisations employing Western citizens in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

By Samuel Godolphin

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Middle East

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