Why did Islamic State militants execute James Foley?

The execution of journalist James Foley was intended to send a message to young radicalized Muslims from Britain to Yemen who are drawn to the Islamists’ fight.

Jim Cole/AP
John and Diane Foley talk to reporters outside their home in Rochester, N.H., Wednesday after speaking with President Obama. Their son, journalist James Foley, was executed by Islamic militants.

The video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley features a black-robed Islamic State militant claiming – in British-accented English – that the execution is in retribution for recent US air strikes against IS forces in Iraq.

The video also shows another prone and bound captured American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and issues a warning that he will suffer the same fate if the US pursues its military campaign against fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

But while the IS militants who made and disseminated the gruesome video may have aimed on one level to halt the US air strikes, experts in Islamist terrorism and its messaging say the group had a range of objectives and audiences in mind.

In addition to President Obama – whom the black-robed executioner addresses directly – the message is intended for other Western leaders, moderate Muslims who would stand in IS’s way, as well as young radicalized Muslims from Britain to Yemen who are drawn to the Islamists’ fight.

“Clearly this kind of message has multiple audiences, and it wasn’t just President Obama and other Western decision-makers,” says Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University in Washington and author of “The Mind of a Terrorist.” “I think it’s meant to remind moderate Muslims that they can expect to be treated just as harshly.”

“This was also designed in part as a kind of recruitment film,” he adds, “to bring in the people who are inspired by the ruthlessness on the one hand, but also by the expression of leadership and power.”

Indeed at one point in the video the IS fighter says, “You are no longer fighting an insurgency, we are an Islamic army.” In other words, analysts say, the group is declaring to the world that IS is now indeed a state, exercising powers associated with states – from establishing an army to rendering “justice,” including through execution.

Obama appeared to want to counter this claim of legitimacy – and whatever attraction the message might have for vulnerable Muslims – in the statement he delivered from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation Wednesday afternoon.

After saying the world is “appalled” by Mr. Foley’s murder and noting that he personally expressed to the journalist’s family how “heartbroken” the nation is, Obama went on to describe the “stark contrast” between IS and what he called the “civilized" world.

“Let’s be clear about ISIL,” he said, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the group, the organization’s “empty vision” has “no place in the 21st century.”

Declaring the group has “no ideology of any value to human beings,” Obama also said IS “speaks for no religion” as he noted that “their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.” But he appeared to allude to the fact that the extremist group did receive assistance from some Sunni Arab countries when he listed “governments and people across the Middle East” among IS’s victims, and said that there “has to be clear rejection of these kinds of nihilistic ideologies.”

Just the fact that by their action IS elicited a swift and stern statement from the president of the United States could be conjured by the group as a sort of victory, some experts say.

“Of course [Obama] had to say something about this terrible act, but you get caught in a trap where anything you say about it can serve their purposes because it can make them seem powerful,” says Martha Crenshaw, an international terrorism expert at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation in Palo Alto, Calif.

Dr. Crenshaw, who has studied IS’s evolution from its roots as Al Qaeda in Iraq in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq, says the group [while still AQI] did for a time stop its tactic of widely disseminating beheadings and other extreme violence, and she’s unsure why the group recommenced with the Foley execution.

“It’s quite plausible they really thought it would frighten Americans, although I think it’s more likely to anger than to frighten,” she says. “It may also be something as simple as a reaction to the setbacks they’ve experienced” at the hands of the US, she adds, “It might simply be an act of retaliation.”

GWU’s Dr. Post agrees, finding that, “Beneath the bravado, there’s a certain amount of desperation, too.”

But Crenshaw, who is one of the organizers of Stanford’s “Mapping Militant Organizations” website, notes that perhaps a quarter of IS’s estimated 12,000 militants are from Western countries, and as a result she says the Foley video has to be seen as a potential recruitment tool.     

“I do think we have to consider this as some sort of recruitment video, even though it’s hard for us to fathom the appeal,” she says. Having the message delivered by a fighter with a British accent has the potential to tell other European Muslims, “I’m showing the world how tough I am, and you can be tough, too,” she says.

Clearly to someone’s thinking “this [beheading] was some sort of implementation of justice,” Crenshaw says. Noting that IS militants hold captive other journalists besides Mr. Sotloff and aid workers, she says, “Sadly, I suppose we can expect more of it.”

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