The Islamic State, a self-proclaimed “caliphate” that rules over large portions of Iraq and Syria, has released a video showing a Jordanian pilot, Mu’adh al Kasasibah, being burned alive. He is shown standing and praying in the middle of a cage as a fighter sets fire to him. The video is horrific, but not surprising. We should know by now that there is no limit to the group’s brutality.
But the Islamic State is brutal on purpose. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization seeks to frighten and intimidate its opposition.
For instance, its mass executions of Iraqi soldiers undoubtedly helped convince Iraqi forces to retreat from the fight during the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State overran Mosul and other areas. The result was that the jihadists got stronger – until, that is, the U.S. and its allies decided they had to act.
While the coalition’s airstrikes against the Islamic State’s positions in Iraq and Syria have undoubtedly done significant damage to the organization, they are most likely not enough to defeat it. Still, the Islamic State has sought to shock nations out of the air campaign.
The jihadists’ beheadings of two American journalists last year came with a message directed to President Obama, saying that the U.S. is to blame for their deaths because the president decided to bomb the Islamic State’s positions. And when the Islamic State beheaded a British aid worker weeks later, its intent was, again, to convince a Western nation to abandon its support for the war effort. Neither the U.S., nor the UK, caved to the Islamic State’s disgusting spectacle. Nor did Japan after two of its citizens were beheaded in the first weeks of this year.
In this case, the Islamic State’s message to Jordan and other nations throughout the region is clear: There is a price to be paid for your involvement in the coalition’s aerial campaign. It is unlikely that the Jordanian government, which has been dealing with terrorism for years, will buckle.
The latest video will probably further inflame the jihadist hotheads, the young recruits the Islamic State depends upon to keep its war machine going. But it will likely have the opposite effect on the broader population.
Years ago, al Qaeda decided that graphic displays of violence do more damage than good for the jihadists’ cause in the long run. More people throughout the Muslim-majority world are offended by such acts than are drawn to them. Because al Qaeda seeks more popular support for its ideology, the organization ordered members of its global network to abstain from such productions. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders are not against executing their captives; they just don’t want their ideology represented by sadistic videos.
The Islamic State, of course, doesn’t care much about al Qaeda’s method for waging jihad. The two have been openly at odds since last year. But al Qaeda’s critique of such methods could very well illuminate one of the Islamic State’s shortcomings.
In its video of Kasasibah’s execution, the Islamic State tries to incite the Jordanian people against their government. The group offers a reward of 100 gold dinars to anyone who kills a Jordanian pilot participating in the war.
But by killing one of Jordan’s own in such a despicable manner, the Islamic State may have convinced more citizens that the organization, and the jihadist ideology, is not worthy of their support.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.