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Is ISIS a death cult?

ISIS - islamic state
ISIS – islamic state

Some commentators have suggested that the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a death cult that glorifies death and martyrdom by indulging in gratuitous killing and destruction. They point to the terror groups trademark beheading atrocities, especially the killing of US citizens, which they insist is aimed at goading the US into a ground offensive and an apocalyptic showdown where ISIS would go down in a blaze of glory. This hypothesis just does not make any sense for a number of reasons:

  • ISIS knows that in terms of conventional warfare they are no match for the military capability of the US and its allies. Such an all out ground conflict with the US would certainly signal the end of their so-called caliphate – something very important to ISIS and its supporters.
  • Jihadists everywhere have long romanticized about an Islamic caliphate – the last real caliphate being the Turkish Ottoman empire, which collapsed after the first world war.
  • Even al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden talked about establishing a caliphate, and where al Qaeda could only dream, ISIS have succeeded in creating something of a geographical entity which they call their caliphate. Why then would they wish to throw it all away?
  • Yes, ISIS uses very brutal methods but that does not mean that the group is only interested in murder and mayhem and that establishing a caliphate is not its primary objective.
  • ISIS clearly wishes to consolidate and expand its so-called caliphate to all the Middle East and some parts of Europe and Asia – they have made that clear in documents and videos.

So why kill the Western hostages?

  • The obvious objective is to intimidate opponents by using extreme medieval-type brutality. It also serves as a propaganda and indoctrination tool aimed at jihadist-types.
  • Killing James Foley, the first Westerner and US citizen, was designed to shock Westerners and their governments – every terror outrage has this purpose at its core. The air strikes were beginning to have a telling impact on the capability of ISIS to operate and advance on a number of fronts, and the likely calculation was that their brutality would spur greater anti-war pressure on the US president and other Western leaders to begin to rollback involvement in the conflict.
  • Moreover, ISIS needed to respond somehow to their losses on battlefield (this is common groups of this kind), and they also wanted to demonstrate to their supporters that they were not succumbing to Western air power.
  • However, the murder of Foley and other Westerners was a major miscalculation because the reaction was revulsion and greater support for the air campaign by the US and its allies.
  • ISIS miscalculated because they are not as sophisticated as they have been portrayed in some reports. For all the sensationalist talk and reporting in the media about ISIS being media savvy and shrewd strategists, the killing the hostages was more of a misjudgement of the mood in Western countries and not a sophisticated strategic or tactical move aimed at drawing the West into a ground offensive. Their action was more like lashing out in anger.
  • The evidence (from their activities and philosophy) points to an anachronistic terror group with an archaic and outdated view of the world but happy to utilize current and available technology to pursue their aims.
  • ISIS use of social media like Twitter and Facebook is not necessarily evidence of their savvy and sophistication. On the contrary, it simply means that they are ready to use the best that is available to promote their objectives – anyone with average intelligence understands that if your core target includes young people then social media is necessary. Although they recognize the power of the internet, there is nothing to suggest that the group’s message is intellectually ingenious or original.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and this inner-core group or shura council (mostly former Saddam Hussein loyalists) are like an old-fashioned power-driven cabal, similar to the mafia’s Commissione or Cupola – the group of leading crime bosses who come together to determine key issues about the mafia’s operations. Their overarching aim is power and influence.
  • ISIS cultivates power and influence through religion, which serves as the flashy, turbo-charged vehicle for delivering their message: this resonates with their target audience, the foot-soldiers and others – mostly easily manipulated young men who do the heavy lifting for the bosses.
  • ISIS is now however, becoming more desperate as it loses territory in Iraq as well as Syria. For instance, the reversal of fortune for them in the much publicized battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani has rankled them greatly, not just because of the intensity of coalition air strikes but crucially because battle-harden Kurdish women from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have played a key role in repelling them.
  • Furthermore, the recent US air strike in Iraq that killed key ISIS leaders but not Baghdadi triggered another bloody round of beheadings.
  • The survival of their so-called caliphate is crucial to ISIS, however the air campaign has steadily cranked up the pressure on them and they have no credible response to this; and as they become even more desperate it is likely that they will resort to more brutal and desperate measures.

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