Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and co-author of “Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda.” Robin Simcox is a national security research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London.
No more beheading videos, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri advised Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a 2005 letter.
“I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Zawarhiri wrote. He was concerned then about al-Qaeda in Iraq losing support among Muslims and damaging the al-Qaeda brand. But his advice applies just as well to Zarqawi’s successors, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, who are allowing their brutality to undermine their interests.
More than anything, the Islamic State wants to reestablish a caliphate in the Middle East. To do that, it needs to solidify its grip on the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, keep regional adversaries at bay and swell the number of supporters who aspire to live under its fanatical interpretation of Islamic law. In his first public sermon as “caliph” in July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi implored “Muslims everywhere” to “rush . . . to your state . . . whoever is capable of performing hijrah [emigration] to the Islamic State, then let him do so.”
One of the surest ways for the group to consolidate its gains is to avoid public brutality — toward Muslims, but also toward Western powers. Don’t murder Westerners, especially American and British nationals, and don’t commit crimes against U.S. and U.K. installations. Don’t carry out terrorist operations against Europe and North America. Don’t have the English-speaking fighters threaten the West or its leaders. The United States, Britain and their allies have little appetite for open-ended war, especially against a group that, no matter how terrible and fanatical, has not directly attacked their homelands. The threat of regional destabilization, or the persecution of minority populations such as the Yazidis, may prompt some Western reaction. But if the Islamic State doesn’t directly incite the West, it stands a good chance of outlasting Western interest in fighting it.
Yet the Islamic State can’t seem to resist its inclinations toward brutality. A Nov. 16 video showing the severed head of American humanitarian aid worker Peter Kassig, along with the beheadings of more than a dozen Syrian soldiers, was a barbaric threat. “To Obama, the dog of Rome,” a masked killer says, “today we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar, and tomorrow we will be slaughtering your soldiers. And, with Allah’s permission, we will break this final and last crusade, and the Islamic State will soon, like your puppet David Cameron said, begin to slaughter your people in your streets.”
The warning was no doubt felt among the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who watched the killing of their comrades in high-definition.
The video also may help the Islamic State somewhat with recruitment, as the earlier videos documenting the killing of two Americans and two Britons appeared to. This time, there seems to have been a deliberate effort to demonstrate the group’s international appeal — British and French nationals have been identified among the Islamic State fighters in the video.
However, a far larger constituency is horrified and deterred by the Islamic State’s public and casual displays of brutality. Islamic leaders worldwide, moderate and radical alike, have spoken out against the group. In September, Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment issued a fatwa declaring terrorism a capital crime. In August, the Muslim Council of Britain condemned the Islamic State’s “psychopathic violence,” and the grand mufti of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque said it was “tarnishing [Islam’s] image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption.” And Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a conservative Muslim cleric with deep links to the Muslim Brotherhood (and who implored Sunnis to go to Syria to fight in the first place), stated in July that the declaration of a new caliphate was “void under sharia.” Even hard-core jihadist theologians, such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, have publicly condemned the Islamic State. The lack of support among even ultra-radical Muslims is significant, because as Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, has noted, caliphs have traditionally been selected in consultation with all Muslim scholars.
Meanwhile, rather than deter outside intervention, the Islamic State’s bloodthirstiness has ensured that the spotlight falls on its activities more than those of any other jihadist group, galvanizing the American and British publics against it. Shortly before the beheadings of Americans James Foley in August and Steven Sotloff in September, 52 percent of Americans approved of airstrikes against the Islamic State. As of late October, that number had risen to 76 percent. Although a CNN poll found that 45 percent of Americans support sending ground troops to Iraq or Syria, it also noted that if the Islamic State attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, support for deploying ground troops would be 72 percent. Similarly, in Britain, 37 percent supported military action against the Islamic State as of August. Yet in a poll taken in October after the videotaped beheadings of British nationals David Haines and Alan Henning, 59 percent said they supported British military intervention against the group.
This dramatic shift in public opinion cleared the way for airstrikes, which have in turn made territorial gains more difficult for the Islamic State. Absent coalition efforts, the critical Mosul and Haditha dams, the Syrian town of Kobani, and Erbil — the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan — all probably would have fallen to the group by now. The current U.S. strategy certainly has its flaws, among them relying on undependable fighting forces such as the Free Syrian Army and the Iraqi Army to retake territory, but a fully engaged and righteously enraged United States increases the likelihood that ISIS’s advances will be reversed.
Why won’t the Islamic State protect its interests and refrain from baiting its enemies with brutality? The problem is an ideological one. As Zawahiri anticipated in that 2005 letter to Zarqawi, “And your response, while true, might be: Why shouldn’t we sow terror in the hearts of the Crusaders and their helpers?” Like Zarqawi, the Islamic State promotes an apocalyptic prophesy that envisions a final confrontation between Muslims and “unbelievers.” The group fought hard to control the Syrian town of Dabiq and named its English-language magazine after it, because it subscribes to the belief that “the area will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome.” The Kassig video, released from Dabiq, quoted Zarqawi’s 2004 statement that “the spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah’s permission until it burns the Crusader army in Dabiq.”
Such pronouncements seem to be more than propaganda; they appear to reflect the group’s true beliefs. We should therefore expect the Islamic State to continue its barbarity and to strike Western targets. If there’s any consolation, it’s that utopian organizations forged in violence tend to overextend themselves — and precipitate their own destruction.
In the unlikely event that the Islamic State did alter its strategy and stopped antagonizing the West, we should beware letting off the pressure. Insufficient attention to what was happening in Iraq helped bring about the Islamic State’s rise. If we are distracted from our fight with ISIS, we will then be the unwilling accomplices to the birth of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East.