The bloodlust behind the Islamic State’s beheading of Steven Sotloff

It began with a knife, an orange tunic and a name. “I am Steven Joel Sotloff,” the bedraggled journalist said. “I’m sure you know exactly who I am by now. And why I’m appearing before you.” Sotloff paused for a long moment, kneeling on the desert floor, and looked directly into the Islamic State’s camera. He neither wept nor begged. There was only resignation. “And now,” he said, “it is time for my message.”

After it was done and Sotloff was dead, the knife-wielding man who has come to be known as “Jihadi John” grabbed another Western hostage. Promising to “strike the necks” of more Americans if the United States continues airstrikes against the Islamic State, he warned, “We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of American against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.”

The beheading of Sotloff, two weeks after journalist James Foley’s decapitation, is an Islamic State calling card. In the last week alone, militants decapitated a Kurdish man and then days later beheaded a Lebanese soldier in an additional video. The decapitations are brutal and terrifying. But are they politically motivated? Or do they instead betray an unhinged brand of violence that is ultimately self-defeating?

“Beheading an American hostage — and a bound, kneeling one at that — hardly seems likely to keep the United States out of the Middle East,” wrote former New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker. “Indeed, [the Islamic State] leaders couldn’t have made the prospect of American airstrikes more likely if they had sent a video to President Obama begging him to drop more bombs. Which raises a larger question: What could these people possibly hope to gain from such an act?”


U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, left; journalist James Foley, right. (Left: The Daily Caller/Handout via Reuters – Right: Steven Senne/AP)

Terrorism’s objectives are usually clear. “The purpose of terrorism is to strike fear into the hearts of opponents in order to win political concession,” wrote Timothy R. Furnish in “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” published in the Middle East Quarterly.

Much of the literature on Islamic decapitations, which soared during the Iraq war under al-Qaeda strongman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is coldly analytic. “Jihadists have employed this tactic for a range of reasons, including obtaining ransom payments, hampering foreign investment, discrediting transitional states and recruiting supporters,” according to an article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. “…Beheadings in Iraq were largely used to recruit future jihadists and to demonstrate jihadists’ strength to the potential support base, the global Muslim community.”

But such reasoning may not convey the complete picture. The Islamic State’s penchant for decapitation has become so pervasive — so raw — that plain bloodlust must surely be a factor. Indeed, after the release of the Sotloff video, some in Congress were calling for more military intervention in Iraq, not less. Polling by the Pew Research Center suggests a similar reaction is developing more broadly among the public, which otherwise pays little attention to foreign developments.

The beheading didn’t elicit political concession, but anger. So what was the point of Sotloff’s decapitation?

“It’s hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff’s last moments and not to conclude … the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people,” Filkins wrote. “For the guys who signed up for [the Islamic State] — including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife — killing is the real point of being there.”

The Islamic State’s foreign fighters, who operated on the fringes in their home countries, account for a substantial portion of shocking acts of violence. Some of them were reportedly just criminals found to have psychotic tendencies.

Australian Khaled Sharrouf is one such jihadist. He’s beheaded many, judging by social media. Once, he even handed a severed head to his son, who posed with it for a photograph. Sharrouf is an old hand at violence. He was busted in 2005 by Australian authorities for complicity in a terrorist plot. A subsequent psychological report found: “Mr. Sharrouf has a history of psychotic symptoms over the past few years and has been diagnosed to be suffering from schizophrenic illness.”

Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told The Washington Post’s Griff Witte that foreign fighters are some of the most sadistic. “They are the most ideologically motivated,” he said. “The locals may say, ‘That’s not the kind of thing we do here.’ But the outsiders don’t know that.”

The brutality has come at a cost. Locals as well as other jihadists, according to Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio, have recoiled at the violence. “They kill people under the name of Islam, but Islam’s not like that,” said one fighter, who at first cheered the foreign fighters but now disdains them. “…Their main victims are rebel fighters and innocent people.”

The Soufan Group, an intelligence consultantcy, reported that because the Islamic State’s grip on territorial gains remains tenuous at best, its commitment to extreme violence makes it vulnerable. Its enemies list keeps growing. “Recent videos showing the massacre of over one hundred Syrian soldiers … and the apparent beheading of a Sunni Lebanese soldier produced more negative reactions than positive,” the group’s report stated.

The consequence of unmitigated violence is a lesson Osama bin Laden himself learned. Before he was killed in 2011, his final months were reportedly filled with delusion and regret. He feared that his Muslim “brothers” had turned too many against al-Qaeda with indiscriminate brutality. He even wanted to change the name of the terrorist group to distance itself from the evils of its past. “Learn from their mistakes,” he wrote in a letter reported by CNN. “…It would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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