Why does the so-called Islamic State engage in such brutal and shocking practices as beheadings, not to say crucifixions and burning people alive?
Of course, the practice of beheading is invoked in the Koran, and certain Muslim States still use it to inflict the death penalty – most notably and regrettably the Western ally Saudi Arabia – but only the most extreme Islamic non-governmental militants carry it out in the modern day. Why?
Psychological warfare is a key part of the Islamic State’s military strategy
Even where outnumbered, as they were in Mosul in June, the IS 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?
As strategists have noted from the Roman Empire onwards, fear is a uniquely effective weapon. Down through history, regimes and insurgents have all behaved in hideously violent manners to discourage their opponents from fighting effectively. This is one reason IS is so deliberately and theatrically brutal.
By no means is this limited to terrorist organisations, or Muslim extremists. The tactics of the indiscriminate use of snipers, wholesale slaughter of populations, systematic rape of the civilian population and more were all evident in the conflict in the “civilised” Balkans in the recent past, enacted by all sides.
It has been acknowledged that the initial Allied assault on Iraq’s capital was intended to create “Shock and Awe”, to the point of naming the assault precisely that, to deter the local population from supporting the regime and to encourage the largely poorly trained conscript army to lay down its weapons.
The atomic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by America was deliberately designed to force the Japanese Government to sue for peace. It was undoubtedly a “terrorist” act – designed to sow terror – but it has been long argued that the terror was justified to shorten the war and prevent a greater loss of life. That is as may be – the argument will continue forever – but it was unquestionably the most dramatic example of psychological warfare before or since in the history of mankind
Brutality is a form of deterrence
Slicing through the neck and vertebrae of a journalist or aid worker is one thing. With horrible calculation, IS understands that Western governments are, to some extent at least, dissuaded by the prospect of a British or American soldier meeting with a similar fate. It would mean not just political embarrassment, but also an unimaginable propaganda boost for the jihadist cause. Which is why, two days before declaring their caliphate, IS 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, affecting both politicians and public.
Propaganda by the deed
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.
In the UK, the killing of Trooper 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.
Does all this actually work?
It can. But there are two ways in which a strategy of brutality can backfire, as well.
The first is that it can induce your enemies to fight even harder, because surrendering is such an awful option. One academic study showed 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? IS 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 IS says it is in the state-building game: creating “the caliphate”. It is out to conquer, not merely to annihilate. But it was precisely such excessive and indiscriminate violence that proved the downfall of IS’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 IS 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. The conjoining of local Sunni militia (some of which have previously been in conflict with the USA) to fight IS is happening again now. The West’s attitude – especially given the extremely variable quality of the Iraqi army in contesting ground with IS – is obviously “better the Devil you know”, or, if you like, “the lesser of two evils”.
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, 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?
One more factor, however, is especially chilling. It is that IS doesn’t really care if it wins or not, and might even be doing all it can to “lose”. It has been argued that the eschatological “end times” cult actually believes it will be defeated by a coalition of opponents on the fields of Iraq – reduced to 5,000 fighters – but in that moment Jesus Christ will return and defeat the invaders, ushering in the end of the world. Read more in this brilliantly researched article in the Atlantic at What does IS really want?
For the end times to happen, IS needs to suck in as many foreign opponents as possible, by becoming increasingly violent and threatening. But as The Atlantic article says:
… the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?
Acknowledgement: Partly taken from an article by Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and a PhD Candidate at Harvard University in the Telegraph newspaper.