Ashby Henningson, UMBC:
Over the past several months, the world has been subjected to news of increasingly more inhuman acts by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result, the terrorist movement has attained an arguably unprecedented infamy, both for the magnitude of their brutality and for their seeming flagrant boasting thereof. Even so, the recent release of video footage apparently showing ISIS operatives burning captured Jordanian fighter-pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive has marked a new level of cruelty–and elevated the world’s sense of horror accordingly. Many are now wondering if ISIS possesses any limits to its capacity for terror, and how its members can kill so ruthlessly with such apparent ease. Others are asking what, if anything, can can be done to dissuade the group from continuing such tactics. Though there is no set of easy answers to such questions, it may help to gain an understanding of the strategic reasoning and psychological motivators behind ISIS’ more heinous acts. Such an understanding reveals a deliberate effort by ISIS to psychologically batter its enemies in a morale-based war of attrition–one in which it may boast the upper hand.
To go about this aim, however, one must first gain a broad perspective of ISIS’ notoriety for ruthlessness, as grim a task as this invariably is. As massive a trail of human suffering the group has left in its wake, a number of incidents stand out more than others. Particularly, the video-recorded executions of western journalists and aid workers have garnered a particularly potent notoriety due to their more deliberately blatant nature. The first of these recorded murders featured the beheading of captured American journalist James Foley, somewhere in northern Iraq in August last year . This was followed by the release of footage depicting the beheading of fellow American journalist Peter Scotloff , as well as that of British aid worker David Haines , in September. Barbaric as the murders have been in themselves, they have been made more so by their perpetrators’ apparent relishment of the acts.Then there are stories of a less publicized yet equally harrowing nature: those of individuals who have been subjected to ISIS’ brutality and survived. Young women of the Yazidi ethnic group have shared stories of life under forced captivity by ISIS. Many have been forced into sex slavery among the organization’s members . Some have additionally been forced to offer their bodies for blood transfusions to wounded fighters . Among the civilian populations caught in ISIS’ sights, not even children have been spared comparably heinous treatment. Stories from survivors of the fighting in the Turkish town of Kobane, for instance, describe indiscriminate murders of children by ISIS fighters .
Yet perhaps not even these acts could have offered any foreshadowing of more recent escalations of ISIS’ terror-tactics. On Jan. 16, photos emerged which portrayed ISIS fighters throwing local men off a rooftop in Mosul, Iraq– for allegedly being gay–as well as the crucifixion and stoning of other local individuals . All of this has culminated in the brutal execution-by-burning of the Jordanian pilot al-Kasasbeh . Whether or not ISIS will conduct even more prolific acts remains to be seen.
Some may regard these staged executions as simply a reflection of moral depravity on the militants’ part. Others may perceive them to be driven primarily by their extremist interpretations of Islamic sharia law. Yet an astute calculation of the acts’ psychological impact may also be at play. As Simon Cottee postulated in The Atlantic last November, the group’s power stems largely from their deliberate dismissal of any moral qualms concerning “the intimate kill.” As Cottee argues, ISIS’ members want to be regarded as sadists and as heartless. They want to mortify viewers of these acts, and to a certain degree they even aim to incite outrage. From this perspective, ISIS’ goal “isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It is about breaking hearts and minds.”  Its members’ tactics stem from a simple yet cold calculation: that by demonstrating that they are willing to delve into any depths of human brutality, they will psychologically and morally break their enemies and achieve final victory in the name of their ideological cause.
Yet ISIS’ members seek more than merely to terrify their enemies and erode their will to fight. As George Packer of The New Yorker explains, “There’s an undeniable attraction in this horror for a number of young people around the Middle East, North Africa, and even Europe and America, who want to leave behind the comfort and safety of normal life for the exaltation of the caliphate.”  The brutal tortures and killings thus serve a dual function as both instrument of terror and recruitment tool for aspiring jihadists in both the Middle East and the West. In essence, they serve to weaken the resolve of ISIS’ enemies and increase that of its own supporters. This only augments the threat represented by the movement’s more brazenly graphic deeds.
The execution of al-Kasasbeh via immolation, as well as the aforementioned brutal murders of Iraqi civilians, could represent an escalation geared towards furthering both of these aims. Some would argue that this is partially driven by necessity. According to Packer, “the group is running out of high-profile hostages whom it can use to threaten, extort, and terrify the world.”  At the same time, its plans to enlarge its proclaimed “caliphate” have met stiff resistance in the form of coalition airstrikes in Iraq as well as logistical difficulties in governing its already-conquered territories . Thus, it needs increasingly infamy-garnering means of maintaining and intensifying public attention. The more polarizing and shocking its treatment of high-profile hostages and prisoners, the greater the observing world’s outrage becomes–and the longer the organization can boast a major global relevance. This same desire to retain its geostrategic and public significance may subsequently compel it to seek out opportunities for more high-profile attacks against Western targets or obtain more hostages.
One can only hope that all of these considerations aid a more astute understanding of to how to undermine ISIS’ efforts. Yet even this offers only a partial glimpse into the movement’s overall aims. The group ultimately fails to compare neatly to previous terror-based regimes, terrorist groups, or militant insurgencies. To a great extent, this has helped it defy efforts to derail it to this point. Perhaps its unceasingly destructive ideology and psychological strategy will eventually poison it from within. But for now, it would appear as though ISIS has executed this strategy to an effective degree–and the opposing coalition thus far stands at a loss for solutions.