Why does the Islamic State engage in beheadings and crucifixions? Of course, the practice of beheading is invoked in the Koran, but only the most extreme Islamic militants carry it out in the modern day.
We might identify three parts to this. First, psychological warfare is a key part of the Islamic State’s military strategy. Even where outnumbered, as they were in Mosul in June, the Islamic State’s fighters have used their reputation for terror to dissuade Iraqi forces from ever seeking battle. Which poorly paid soldier wishes to risk decapitation, impalement, or amputation for the sake of a distant, crumbling government? Fear is a uniquely effective weapon.
Second, the Islamic State understands that Western governments are, to some extent, dissuaded by the prospect of a British or American soldier meeting with a similar fate. It would mean not just political ruin, but also an unimaginable propaganda boost for the jihadist cause. Two days before declaring their caliphate, the Islamic State threatened to attack the US if they were targeted militarily. Their rhetoric presently outstrips their capabilities, as former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove has argued, but the track record of massacre and torture gives these threats, to Western audiences, added menace. Brutality is therefore also a form of deterrence.
Third, terrorism is a form of propaganda by the deed. And the more chilling the deed, the more impactful the propaganda. The graphic nature of beheading, the focus on the individual, and the act of bodily desecration involved all render this far more chilling than the explosion of a bomb, even where the latter’s death toll is greater. The killing of Lee Rigby was uniquely horrific because of the targeted, mechanical quality of the murder.
There’s little new in this approach, particularly the massacre of captives and the method of beheading for the purposes of terrorisation. The American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, the American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq in 2004, and several others thereafter.
But does all this actually work? There are two ways in which a strategy of brutality can backfire.
The first is that it can induce your enemies to fight even harder, because surrendering is such an awful option. One academic study shows that “the Wehrmacht’s policy of treating Soviet POWs brutally undercut German military effectiveness on the Eastern front”. Moreover, the Soviets’ own relative brutality to Germans meant that German soldiers fought harder in Russia than in Normandy. The lesson? The Islamic State can make its enemies flee, but it would be a foolish Iraqi unit that surrendered – and the net effect is that the Islamic State has to fight all the harder.
The second problem is that the Islamic State is in the state-building game. It is out to conquer, not merely to annihilate. But it was precisely such excessive and indiscriminate violence that proved the downfall of the Islamic State’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni groups, armed and protected by a surge of US forces, turned on the group in the so-called Awakening, expelling it from the same Sunni-majority areas in which it’s now encamped. Although the Islamic State initially sought to restrain itself in the places it seized over the first half of this year, its record has been patchy, to put it mildly. Iraqis may be accustomed to being ruled by terror, but it doesn’t mean they like it.
This is one of the reasons – in addition to the Islamic State’s megalomania – that the group was expelled from al-Qaeda earlier this year. As Osama bin Laden wrote in a letter four years ago, pursuing jihad “without exercising caution … would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war”. Thus the modern jihadist’s dilemma: when does a strategy of calibrated terror turn into a self-defeating orgy of violence?
- Second American Journalist Beheaded (telegraph.co.uk)
- Islamic State Reportedly Bans Uploading Beheadings to Social Media (breitbart.com)
- Second US reporter murdered as Iraq forces advance (news.yahoo.com)
- ‘I’m back’: ISIS beheads second journalist (heraldsun.com.au)
- ISIS extremists murder second reporter (newsinfo.inquirer.net)