In 2004, an Al Qaeda ideologue uploaded a book to the Internet that shifted jihadi thinking across the globe.
It argued that the way to establish an overarching Sunni caliphate in the Muslim world was not with scattered terrorist attacks on the West but with a sustained campaign of violence in Muslim countries. It advocated targeting important infrastructure to force government forces into a defensive crouch and sowing economic and human chaos in target countries to help create pockets of autonomy and an eventual expansion of control.
The book had a powerful and lasting impact, particularly in Iraq, where in 2006 the local Al Qaeda affiliate changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and set about winning territory and imposing its harsh version of Islamic law. That group evolved into what's now called the Islamic State, which, with the territory it has won in Iraq and Syria since 2013, is the most powerful jihadi army in modern history.
The author, Abu Bakr Naji, wasn't coy about his intentions. Scholar Will McCant translates the book's title as "The Management of Savagery." It declares the rulers of every Muslim nation to be apostates and thus liable for killing, along with all Jews and Christians.
"One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring," begins the chapter on "Using Violence." "Those who have not boldly entered wars during their lifetimes do not understand the role of violence and coarseness against the infidels in combat and media battles."
The author praises burning victims alive because of the "effect of rough violence even in times of need" and speaks of the need for propaganda to spread word of the jihadis' viciousness so that "feelings of hopelessness will creep into the enemy and he will begin to think about leaving the arena."
But even then, there were limits. The author called for women and children to be spared, for instance.
But the Islamic State is the management of savagery on steroids. It not only kills women and children, it makes sexual slaves of them. Its elaborate snuff films range from burning people alive, to drowning them in iron cages lowered into pools, to cutting their heads off with small knives. It tosses people it says are gay from the roofs of tall buildings; it crucifies people for failing to observe the fast during Ramadan. Torture of captives before they're killed is routine.
Rebel group turns tables on IS
But while they hope their reputation for brutality will deter their enemies – which range from the Iraqi and Syrian governments to other rebel groups, some aligned with Al Qaeda – what's happened instead is an expansion of viciousness and cruelty.
Recently a Syrian rebel group called the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), which is backed by money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, turned the tables on IS with a snuff film of its own. The style of the roughly 19-minute video both mirrors and mocks the IS execution videos with video-game style graphics, ominous music, and the Abu Ghraib prison-style orange jumpsuits that IS usually dresses its victims in.
But in this video the killers are in orange, the victims – 18 alleged IS fighters captured in Syria's Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus – are dressed in the black favored by the group.
While IS murderers usually wear masks, the Jaish al-Islam killers openly show their faces. The IS men are denounced for practicing takfir – for declaring fellow Muslims apostates and therefore subject to killing – for spreading conflict among Muslims, and for working with Bashar al-Assad.
It's a common belief among many rebel groups in Syria that IS are either cat's paws of President Assad or at least living in a form of symbiosis, on the theory that their viciousness is so unpalatable that it makes the survival of the regime look like a better option.
Savagery a daily part of life
After a video narrator recites a series of allegations of collusion between IS and Assad – sprinkling in calls for the massacre of Syria's Shiite and Alawite minorities for good measure – the 18 men are led out into a grove dragging balls and chains, pushed to their knees, and delivered shotgun blasts to the head by 18 different killers.
In the IS style, there is a heavy focus on the gore at the moment of their deaths. But what's most arresting is the closeups of each condemned man's face before their murder. In all likelihood the victims were killers themselves, but their hopelessness and fear is chilling, as is the total lack of hesitation or doubt by their killers.
Unspeakable crimes have become a daily part of life for fighters on all sides in Syria's war – Assad's forces are little better, with rampant torture in its jails and indiscriminate and collective-punishment bombing campaigns that destroy whole villages. More than 220,000 people have been killed in four years of war – about 1 percent of the country's population at the start of the civil war – and 11 million people have been displaced from their homes.
The methods and counter methods of savage propaganda have not had the effect of ending the war. Far from it. They've created an expanding number of people and militias who practice torture and murder on a daily basis. Unless this game can be changed, it could fuel more savagery for years to come.