ISIS: sadism as strategy

Ever since it began its astonishing rampage through central Iraq last year, the organization known as Daesh/ISIS has demonstrated a propensity for extreme violence and cruelty that has made its predecessors looked comparatively mild by comparison.   At times ISIS almost appears to engaged in some kind of competition with itself, to surpass each disgusting act of viciousness with something even more horrific.

Snuff movie video clips of beheadings and executions of prisoners who dig their own graves; the inquisition-style burning of a man in a cage – ISIS has set itself a very high benchmark of attainment but the depressing certainty is that it will find some new way to beat it.   Such actions tend to invite a familiar litany of condemnatory adjectives such as sick, barbaric, evil, insane, savage, vile, and bankrupt, that tell us more about the feelings of those who use them than they do about their objects.

This condemnation is certainly well-deserved, but it is unlikely to make any difference to ISIS.  Because perhaps more than any non-state organization in history, ISIS is using sadism and cruelty as a purposeful instrument of its political and military strategy.   Its broad justification for this can be found a book called Idarat al-Tawahush (The Management of Savagery), written by an obscure jihadist called Abu Bakr Naji, which has apparently become a key text in jihadist circles.

Translated in  in 2006 by a member of the Brookings Institution  named Will McCants, the book has become part of the ISIS ‘curriculum’.   According to the Abu Dhabi analyst Hassan Hassan, who has co-written a book on the group, Abu Bakr makes a distinction between ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ jihad, in the following passage:

‘One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, [deterrence] and massacring.  I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him.’

On one level therefore, ‘massacring the enemy and deterring him’ has served the same purpose during ISIS’s military campaigns that Genghis Khan’s punitive massacres once served: to punish an enemy for resisting while also terrorizing the populations ISIS wishes to dominate into submission and passivity.   This is why ISIS killed the Iraqi soldiers it had captured  and then filmed the executions.

At the same time ISIS has used cruelty as an instrument of ‘media warfare’ in an attempt to draw recruits to the organization and manipulate its enemies.   ISIS is not the first jihadist organization to film murders and executions.  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq had already pioneered this tactic, first by producing videos of kidnapped hostages to bring pressure to bear on their governments, and secondly by filming their executions.

These videos were intended to realize various objectives.   On the one hand they were demonstrations of power and ‘justice’, as his organization interpreted these concepts, that were aimed at a Muslim constituency that al-Zarqawi’s organization hoped to ‘inspire.’ cause.

At the same time these videos were intended to sicken Western public opinion and undermine the ability of the governments concerned to maintain the war and occupation.   This is a well-established tactic of non-state terrorists, which al-Zarqawi’s organization was able to take to new extremes as a result of the Internet.   Where governments and news broadcasters could previously have refused to broadcast these videos, thereby mitigating their impact, the Internet made any attempts at censorship irrelevant.

ISIS has taken this tactic even further, replacing the grainy video clips of murdered hostages with ‘cinematic’ execution/murder clips supported by high production values and considerable effort.   As Islam Sakka points out, in a grim but essential piece in al-Akbar English, ‘the  Islamist group is leading the media war, and its responses are not limited to dull documentation of events as was the case in Iraq years ago.’

On the contrary

‘Today, we are witnessing a completely different era, marked by a jihadist movement far more advanced than anything we have seen before. They coincide with a far more sophisticated viewership, who have access to the source of information and can scrutinize any image. Today’s viewers, who live in an age of instability where conspiracy theories prevails, have come to question everything. There is a direct relation between the new public psychology and ISIS’ new style of audiovisual production.

According to Sakka, ISIS has established its own production company, al-Hayat Media Center (HMC), as part of the group’s transformation into ‘ a media strategy organization whose task is to shape the group’s upcoming messages to the world, and to convey the message of the Mujahideen, who “with their blood are marking a new era of victory for the nation in history.”

This means that there will more – and almost certainly even worse – shocking massacres and executions to come, and more cinematic productions, as ISIS pursues its ‘media strategy.’   That is a pretty appalling prospect, but as vile as it is I can’t help thinking that in the end it will fail.  Because history demonstrates that cruelty and terror – whether strategic or not – cannot win permanent long-term political victories.

After all, both the Nazis and the Japanese used terror and violence in the territories they occupied on a scale that ISIS can only dream of at present,  but the massacres and reprisals they carried out were not enough to quell the resistance against them.

They lost, and in the end I can’t help thinking that ISIS will too, and that they too will end up on history’s garbage heap, where they most certainly belong.


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