Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why the Horrifying ISIS Murders?

ISIS is a real challenge to postmodern thinking that there aren't "good" and "evil," but simply people with differences, psychologies, and ingrained senses of groups. They are an almost comical caricature of what we consider to be evil for evil's sake. They leave no middle grey ground the way that enemies often do. Not since the Nazis has the world had such a large spectacle.

The most gruesome of ISIS' evil behaviors are its televised murders of hostages--often civilians (like reporters). British and Americans have been targets, which might seem to make sense: the message might be "stay away or we'll do gruesome things to whoever ends up in our grasp."

More recently, their behavior has seemed to deviate from that potential narrative.

ISIS recently captured 2 Japanese reporters and beheaded them after demands for a prisoner exchange.

In perhaps their most horrible publicized act, they put captured Jordanian pilot (Moaz al-Kasasbeh)  into a cage and burned him alive, televising it.

(Note that these are links to articles, not videos of the killings. I haven't seen the videos and don't recommend you see them, either.)

Jordan is vowing an "earth-shaking" response. Government officials are calling for "revenge." Even the ever-pacifist Japan may step up its involvement with assisting the anti-ISIS coalition.

Ostensibly, these killings would be meant to intimidate Japan and Jordan out of involvement in the war. The murders of the Japanese hostages came after Japan pledged $200M in non-military aid to the coalition, and Jordan has been bombing ISIS targets.

If that were true, it would show an incredible lack of sophistication on the part of ISIS. Such barbarous murders tend to strengthen the resolve of one's enemies, not break it. 9/11, of course, is the best example of how terrorism leads to a heavy response.

So why do it? Plenty of rebel organizations fighting for a state manage to stay somewhat under the radar of big militaries--not beheading their citizens is a pretty tried-and-true method.

The answer is the same answer to the "why 9/11?" question: ISIS wants to be at war with its ideological enemies. Osama Bin Laden very clearly wanted the US to invade Afghanistan, become mired there, and inspire other hardliners to action. And that's really the crux of it: marketing.

When  a radical Islamist terror group is at war with fellow Muslims, recruiting is hard. Even angry extremists don't actually lull themselves to sleep imagining butchering other Muslims for not being hard-line enough. Groups like ISIS want to subjugate these Muslims--and that does require heavy-handed butchery at times--but not destroy them.

When an organization can paint itself as fighting against invaders, particularly infidels, its image changes entirely. It starts to paint itself as the defender of Islam against a Western Crusade that is armed both with bombs and immoral culture (music, bikinis, and the like). It appeals to radicals who are frustrated that their fairly secular governments are allied with an immoral, oppressive, colonial West. This is why ISIS has so many foreign fighters--not only because they crave an Islamic State, but because it's a battleground on which they can fight the West. It's why we see ISIS being the group du jour for radicals in other countries, like Libya.

ISIS wants to publicize killing people that represent an enemy to their brand of Islam--this helps their brand. They want bombs to be dropped in Syria and Iraq from evil foreigners--this helps them galvanize radicals into picking up arms and fighting, when they might otherwise stay at home. Some Jordanians are worried--and have reason to be--that Jordanian involvement in the war is whipping up domestic extremists, and that these extremists can now see their home country as a target where previously that sense may not have been as strong.

If ISIS didn't have a very public foreign/infidel enemy, and didn't very publicly show off its resistance to that enemy, its lustre would not be as strong. If it didn't have opportunities to win against a seemingly-indomitable Western military (like it tried to in Kobani--part of why that was so important), it wouldn't seem as divinely-ordained to carry on its fight. This is why ISIS wants to provoke foreigners and find opportunities to publicly fight against Western enemies and their allies.

Does this mean ISIS would shrivel up if the West, Japan, and the Arab coalition weren't involved? Probably not. The coalition is in a bit of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation if it wants to keep ISIS from taking over Syria and Iraq, and there's no crystal ball on the pros and cons of military action.

Probably the most important part is winning the messaging war. President Obama has spent 6 years doggedly making clear that the US and her allies aren't fighting a war against a religion, and has been almost comically insistent that ISIS is not  Islamic. Critics are pretty upset that Obama is not taking an ideological stand against radical Islam as a greater problem, but they miss the subtlety here. The President howling about radical Islam only gives ISIS recruiters more propaganda weapons. Much like his persistent non-response to Hugo Chavez's frothing about the American satan, Obama is refusing to play into ISIS' narrative that this is a war of ideologies, a war of civilizations.

Instead, Obama's messaging is that these guys are an isolated band of nutjobs who are the enemies of absolutely everyone. They don't represent anyone--certainly not Islam. The calm persistence of the surgeon removing a tumor, rather than the fist-pounding ideology of the religious zealot, keeps Obama from giving ISIS a weapon it is working very hard to try to extract through increasingly horrible acts of barbarism. It's not that the President doesn't think radical Islam is a problem, nor does he want others to not think it's a problem--it's that he's trying to beat it, rather than grandstand about it.

There does need to be messaging with a strong ideological opposition to counter ISIS' messaging, but let's think about the goal: we're trying to cut off ISIS' recruitment. The targets of the message are fairly radical Muslims, who probably already hate America. The best the President can do is stay above the fray, and leave that ideological messaging to the folks that will have the most influence: fellow Muslims who live in the area.
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