Tracy McNicoll suspects that the real purpose of the ISIS propaganda video showing Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig’s severed head was to feature its expanding cast of foreign fighters, some of whom are seen taking part in the synchronized beheading of 18 Syrian military personnel. One of the executioners has been identified as 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Hauchard:
Hauchard is the first of the unmasked executioners in the ISIS video to be positively and publicly identified, although French authorities have said a second young French Muslim convert’s appearance may be authenticated shortly. As intelligence services around the world are working to identify any other foreign fighters among the band of killers in the gory new video, speculation also surfaced that another of the killers is 20-year-old Welsh jihadist Nasser Muthana, but that has yet to be confirmed.
Indeed, analysts agree one of the video’s key functions for ISIS is to illustrate how far the group’s seductive reach is extending globally. As France took in the shock news that one of its own sons may be a throat-slitting, decapitating terrorist, the Islamist specialist Romain Caillet told Le Monde, “In putting forward soldiers from the four corners of the world, Da’esh [as the French call the group, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS] is looking to create a ‘United Colors of Jihad’ effect. The message is simple: there are hundreds of Jihadi Johns.”
I’m still kinda agape at the idea of a 20 year old Welsh Jihadist. But I fail to be intimidated by that kind of ludicrous Western loser. They seem as evil as they are ridiculous. Simon Cottee reflects on why ISIS makes a point of showing off its beheadings:
The conventional wisdom holds that ISIS’s savagery will be its undoing—that it will alienate ordinary Muslims, and that without their support the group cannot succeed. But what this view overlooks is that ISIS’s jihad, as its progenitor Zarqawi well understood, isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It is about breaking hearts and minds. ISIS doesn’t want to convince its detractors and enemies. It wants to command them, if not destroy them altogether. And its strategy for achieving this goal seems to be based on destroying their will through intimate killing. This, in part, is what the group’s staged beheadings are about: They subliminally communicate ISIS’s proficiency in the art of the intimate kill. And this terrifies many people, because they sense just how hard it is to do.
Cottee’s analysis squares with a new UN report on the jihadists’ reign of terror, which also concludes that it serves a strategic purpose:
There’s a terrible logic at work here. “By publicizing its brutality,” the UN concludes, “the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology.” Such violence isn’t rare in war zones. According to Stathis Kalyvas, a Yale professor who studies civil wars, rebel groups understand that civilian defection is an existential threat to their rule. Their violence is generally targeted to coerce civilian cooperation with the group — which is why ISIS labels the people it publicly executes as traitors. The message: defect to the government or a rebel group, and you’ll pay.
Meanwhile, Rodger Shanahan notices something odd about the timing of these videos:
Note that the latest video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig and Syrian military personnel was released a day or two after the fall of the town of Bayji to Iraqi government forces. … This is part of a broader pattern. A day after the Turkish parliament authorised military action against ISIS (not good news for ISIS), video of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was released. And if we hark back to the recapture of Mosul Dam by Kurdish forces backed by US air support in mid-August, the beheading of US journalist James Foley followed shortly after.
None of these actions are designed to dissuade Western military intervention in Iraq or Syria, or even to goad the West into becoming decisively committed on the ground, because ISIS understands this is unlikely to occur. Rather, it has a much more short-term aim: to get ISIS’s military and political setbacks out of the media cycle and replace them with bloody imagery that demonstrates ISIS is still a force.
But they somewhat detract from that message, don’t they? They seem desperate and the last one rushed.