The Islamic State's Feb. 3 release of a macabre video recording showing Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death caused shock and outrage. But though the video was appallingly gruesome, the fact that the Islamic State's public relations team continues to amp up the shock value of its media offerings should not surprise anyone who has monitored the group's media output.
Indeed, over the past several months, the Islamic State has released videos documenting the executions of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi prisoners of war. In one of the videos, the group forced prisoners to dig their own graves and to kneel on the edge before shooting them. In another video, the group paraded hundreds of prisoners through the desert to a large mass grave dug by a bulldozer, ordered them to lie down and shot them. In yet another video, prisoners were marched one by one to the edge of a dock along the Tigris River, shot with a pistol in the back of the head and thrown into the river. Undoubtedly coalition pilots have either seen these videos or have been briefed about the Islamic State's policies regarding prisoners of war.
An interview with al-Kaseasbeh that was featured in the sixth edition of Dabiq magazine concluded with the question, "Do you know what the Islamic State will do with you?" Al-Kaseasbeh replied, "Yes … They will kill me."
A Long History of Violent Media
In January, the Islamic State released photos and videos of the group throwing men accused of being homosexual from a tall building in Mosul. Recent videos also have often depicted beheadings. The group's beheading videos have not only featured foreign hostages, including Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig and British prisoners David Haines and Alan Henning, but also prisoners of war. For example, the group beheaded a large number of Syrian soldiers in July after overrunning the Syrian army's 17th Division base near Raqaa. The Islamic State claimed to have captured and beheaded 75 members of the division, and Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State posted photos of the beheaded Syrian soldiers.
The video chronicling Kassig's death also contained footage of the mass beheading of 18 Syrian prisoners of war. That video in some ways presages the al-Kaseasbeh video; the executioners were all wearing matching uniforms and load-bearing equipment and wielding identical knives. This is something rarely seen among Islamic State troops on the actual battlefield and was clearly done for cinematic effect. Also, unlike the Western hostages, whose actual beheadings are never shown, the Syrian troops were beheaded in graphic slow motion.
But this type of grotesque public display is by no means a new thing for the Islamic State. In fact, violent and brutal media productions have been a part of the group's organizational DNA since 2004, when the founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is believed to have personally beheaded American hostage Nick Berg in a May 2004 video posted online.
The Berg execution video, along with a number of other brutal videos the group posted during the al-Zarqawi era, prompted al Qaeda's then-deputy and now-leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to send a letter to al-Zarqawi in 2005 admonishing him for his brutality. In it al-Zawahiri wrote, "Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable . . . are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages."
Al-Zawahiri also tried to dissuade al-Zarqawi from too literally interpreting the Koran verses asking Muslims to strike terror in the hearts of non-Muslims, but the reprimand went unheeded.
Interestingly, al-Zarqawi was not the first jihadist leader to appear in a beheading video. That honor goes to al Qaeda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks, who beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in February 2002. It is fairly obvious that the Pearl video influenced al-Zarqawi's decision to produce a video of Berg's execution.
Al-Zarqawi and later his followers continued releasing media that contains extreme violence. Indeed, their video production capabilities have become far more sophisticated since the shaky, grainy Berg video, and the group's understanding of the Internet and how to effectively use social media has far surpassed that of al Qaeda or any of its franchise groups. Last week, Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote an article comparing al Qaeda to Microsoft, the old, stodgy player faced with a newer, hipper competitor — the Islamic State. Al-Zawahiri sits in hiding and writes letters while al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State carve out an empire in the heart of the Middle East and document it all on social media.
Taking Watts' analogy one step further, if al Qaeda is Microsoft, the Islamic State is Facebook and Twitter: It is all about networking and publishing horrific selfies. Arguably, the Islamic State has experienced great tactical success through its business model. The psychological advantage its terrorist campaign gave it allowed it to defeat much larger and better-equipped military forces in places such as Mosul. It also allowed the group to subsume several other Syrian and Iraqi militant groups, recruit local fighters, raise funds from international donors and draw thousands of foreign fighters to its ranks. Furthermore, its campaign has sparked an unprecedented amount of grassroots activity across the globe over the past five months. However, these tactical advantages are not achieved without some strategic consequences.
Facing the Consequences
As al-Zawahiri warned in 2005, the Islamic State's behavior in Iraq — including but certainly not limited to its execution videos — alienated its local support base. In 2006, the group was dealt another blow when a U.S. airstrike killed al-Zarqawi; the group was nearly destroyed by 2010. Indeed, one of the primary reasons the group survived was because the Iraqi Sunni sheikhs chose not to totally destroy it so they could use it to distract the Shiite-led government in Baghdad (a Frankenstein monster that has certainly gone out of control).
Looking at the Islamic State today, the group appears to have learned little from the events that ushered it from its last boom to a severe bust. It certainly has not changed its tactic of using extreme violence and publicizing it. This recklessness is not just prompted by the desire to gain tactical advantages, such as shocking and terrorizing the enemy into capitulation, recruiting more fighters, raising funds and provoking nations into reactionary measures. Though certainly each of these tactical objectives is a facet of the Islamic State's strategy, the heart of its decision to use extreme violence is in its belief system.
Members of the Islamic State truly believe that they are invincible and that if they practice what they believe to be true Islam, Allah will bless them and use them to conquer the Earth to bring all people to their form of Islam under their brand of Sharia. Because of this belief system, they have little room for the type of pragmatism or moderation other jihadist leaders have suggested. Indeed, they believe that such attitudes reflect a lack of faith, and they have openly criticized jihadist leaders like al-Zawahiri and the Taliban's Mullah Mohammad Omar for displaying pragmatism and calling for moderation.
I believe that the reckless hubris of this belief system will once again be the group's downfall. We are already beginning to see signs of the organization's next bust cycle in reports that the group is executing defectors, forcibly conscripting young men to fight, and sending very young and inexperienced fighters to the front lines. Indeed, using poorly trained young recruits and foreign fighters as cannon fodder might lead to more internal dissent than the group's public displays of violence. The group's use of mentally disabled individuals and women as suicide bombers had terrible consequences for it in the last go-round.
Because of their belief that Allah protects them, the leaders of the Islamic State may not see a problem with publishing grotesque videos — even when those videos cause a visceral international reaction that results in an international coalition mobilizing against them. Most recently, the group has provoked Jordan and other Arab states to increase their campaign to destroy the organization. It is becoming increasingly clear that the rest of the world no longer believes that the Islamic State is inexorable, and that realization is going to manifest itself in some very real strategic consequences on the battlefield.