7th Century alive and well?
The jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) are not, after all, nihilists. They are a highly professional military force, more similar to an army than insurgents, and seek a well-administered Islamic state.
So why engage in beheadings and crucifixions?
First, psychological warfare is a key part of IS’s military strategy. As Lawrence Freedman writes in his most recent book, strategy “is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”. Even where outnumbered, as they were in Mosul in June, IS 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, IS 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, 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.
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.
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. IS can make its enemies flee, but it would be a foolish Iraqi unit that surrendered – and the net effect is that IS has to fight all the harder.
The second problem is that IS 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 IS’ 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.
Thus the modern jihadist’s dilemma: when does a strategy of calibrated terror turn into a self-defeating orgy of violence?
Pic - "Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation and we have prepared for this day"