Beyond its barbarity, the latest beheading video from the Islamic State offers hints of an organization in transition and perhaps under duress.
Unlike earlier videos of the beheadings of four Westerners by IS executioners, the latest video is devoid of the slick production quality that had counterrorism experts touting the group’s media savvy.
The apparently hasty filming of the final segment, which shows evidence of the beheading of American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, tells some analysts that IS, now under threat of US bombing and surveillance, no longer has ample time to produce a professional video outdoors.
But other counterterrorism experts see a different message in Sunday’s video: IS has become so enthralled with its efforts to instill fear that it doesn’t realize its actions are beginning to backfire.
“We’re continuing to see, including in this last video, a group that is so carried away with its own fanaticism and its own barbarity that it is not seeing how what is meant to compel people to cower and be fearful is actually having the opposite effect,” says Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence for the Near East. “We’re seeing how it’s causing a stiffening of resistance and feeding a determination not to be dominated by these people.”
Recent polls in Arab countries indicate a rejection of Islamic State ideology, while recent fierce ground fighting has pushed IS fighters back from the northern Syrian town of Kobane. Even within Sunni Arab communities in Iraq – areas that in some cases initially showed support for IS aims – resistance to its advances has grown. This suggests to Mr. White that IS’s barbarity might in the long run lead to its demise.
“It says to me that IS is so blinded by its own heinous fanaticism that it doesn’t get it,” says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The bulk of the new video involves the forced kneeling and beheading of more than a dozen men who appear to be Syrian military officers and airmen. Unlike earlier beheading videos that included the final, clearly scripted words of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff and Britons David Haines and Alan Henning, Sunday’s video does not include Mr. Kassig’s execution or any final words.
The British-accented speaker (sounding like the executioner in earlier videos whom British media have dubbed “Jihadi John”), appears to try to explain the absence of Kassig’s final words by stating in a flip manner that “Peter … doesn’t have much to say.”
On the contrary, Kassig, who had changed his first name to Abdul-Rahman when he converted to Islam in captivity, had said much about his compassion for the Syrian people in a recent letter that was smuggled to his parents in Indiana.
A more likely explanation, some terrorism analysts say, is that Kassig refused to give his captors the scripted statement they wanted.
While analyst White doesn’t doubt that the US bombing campaign “has been effective in causing IS grief,” he cautions that it’s too early to view one amateurish video and assume that IS is on the ropes.
Sunday’s video suggests two other possibilities to him.
One is that the first part of the video, which shows uniformed IS fighters with their faces in plain view, is intended as a propaganda video to bolster what may be the flagging confidence of the IS faithful within Syria and Iraq.
“Clearly, where the proverbial rubber meets the road, IS fighters can see the difference between their stunningly easy early 2014 and summer conquests versus the much tougher situation now,” he says.
The fact the executioners include foreign fighters – families in France and Britain have said since Sunday that they see their sons among the IS fighters – could bolster analysts’ earlier claims that these videos are an important recruiting tool.
The other possibility is that IS is “trying to goad the despised American and other Western governments into committing ground troops to go against them,” White says. “They believe they would inflict high casualties on them and that would be the ultimate glory.”