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The self-styled Islamic State (IS) beheaded another helpless captive on video, the latest incident of the jihadi outfit's heavy reliance on savage propaganda as a weapon of war.
This time the victim was not an American journalist, but a captured fighter from the peshmerga, the Kurdish military. The beheading further bolsters the Al Qaeda offshoot's reputation for murdering captives -- a reputation that has spread fear within the ranks of the Iraqi military, and helped turn IS's offensive in Iraq's northern Nineveh Province this summer into a raging success.
Neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan and its forces have presented much stiffer resistance. While the Iraqi forces stationed in Nineveh were Shiite Arabs from further south in the country, with little personal stake in defending the Sunni Arab area and demoralized by the corruption of their officer corps, the Kurds are fighting for what they view as their homeland and have nowhere they can or want to run to.
Kurdish Iraqi forces have also received ample foreign support. The US has carried out over 100 airstrikes against IS and in support of Kurdish forces this month. And the US, Britain, France, and Iran have all pledged weapons or other support to the Iraqi Kurds in their fight against the Sunni jihadis of IS. That's the context for the group's latest propaganda video, clearly designed to build on IS's reputation for bloodthirstiness. AFP reports:
The video, titled "A message in blood to the leaders of the American-Kurdish alliance," opens with 15 men in orange jumpsuits standing around the Isis flag.
Three of the men ask Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani "and the Kurdish government to end their relationship with the US … military intervention in northern Iraq," the SITE Intelligence Group monitoring service said.
... The video then cuts to three masked men dressed in black standing in front of a mosque with another man wearing an orange jumpsuit kneeling in front of them. They then behead him.
Placing captives in orange jumpsuits was also popular with the group's predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. It's a reference to the orange jumpsuits that prisoners were forced to wear at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba and in US prison camps like Abu Ghraib inside Iraq during the US occupation. Pictures of US forces torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib early in the US war helped feed Sunni Arab outrage which in turn fed the insurgency. Many of the leaders of IS, be they former Iraqi army officers or members of the jihadi insurgency, spent time in such camps during the US-led war in the country between 2003-2011.
Stepping up the propaganda
Videotaped atrocities in an attempt to spread fear are nothing new for the group, but it appears to be stepping up the propaganda effort as world powers, particularly the US, move toward getting more involved in halting the group's spread. Yesterday the group boasted on video about the mass murder of captured Syrian government soldiers in the Syrian province of Raqaa. At least 160 captives were murdered in that case.
The group's use of videotaped murders as both a weapon of terror and a recruiting tool among the minority of the world's Muslims attracted to its methods and messages has sparked a debate over whether social media sites like Twitter and Facebook should do more to block access for the militant group's social media team.
As Elizabeth Dickinson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor after the murder of American journalist James Foley earlier this month:
As social media sites fought to shut them down, the online followers of IS reveled in the butchery of a hostage and called for more, part of the point of the exercise for the group. Social media has become an important fund-raising and recruitment tool for them. While to most people the murder was nihilistic and repugnant, for would-be internet mujahideen it was a moment of celebration.
The online tussle since Mr. Foley's death highlights an ethical dilemma. As IS captured swathes of Iraqi territory in June and eastern Syria over the last month, they also made gains online. In addition to opening dozens of official accounts and media outlets, the militants have spawned a universe of ‘fan boy’ Twitter feeds re-posting their statements and praising their cause.
What can and should be done about extremist group accounts? Left unchecked, their feeds spread a violent message and rally support. But closing down all the feeds is a nearly impossible, even futile chore. And if successful it would also deprive those who seek to track and counter such groups of important data points.
While IS propaganda may have helped the group tactically in parts of Iraq and Syria, the growing awareness of the group's willingness to murder all who oppose them may be doing them strategic harm. President Obama gave a press conference yesterday that devoted a substantial amount of time to tackling the group. While he said the US is still working out a strategy, Obama hinted at more military support for Iraq if it can build a government that includes voices from the country's Sunni Arab minority, something the country's leaders from the Shiite Arab majority have consistently refused to do over the past decade.
Now, ISIL [the US government's preferred acronym for the group] poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and to people throughout the region, and that's why our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader comprehensive strategy to protect our people and to support our partners who are taking the fight to ISIL, and that starts with Iraq's leaders building on the progress that they've made so far and forming an inclusive government that will unite their country and strengthen their security forces to confront ISIL.
... As I've said, rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will, working closely with our allies and our partners. For our part, I've directed Secretary Hagel and our Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a range of options. I'll be meeting with my National Security Council again this evening as we continue to develop that strategy. And I've been consulting with members of Congress, and I'll continue to do so in the days ahead.
Obama also said: "I'm encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don't always agree on many things, increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL poses to all of them."
But what he didn't mention was that Iran, under US sanctions over its weapons program, is also becoming more prominent in facing the group. The reality that US military efforts to help the Iraqi government and the Kurds against IS will inevitably involve some form of coordination with Iranian forces is a major complication.
On Tuesday, Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Kurdish capital of Erbil and thanked the Islamic Republic effusively for its support. "We asked for weapons and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition," Mr. Barzani told reporters. Mr. Zarif, for his part, said: "We have no military presence in Iraq. We do have military cooperation with both the central government and the Kurds in different arenas."
One piece of good news is that while foreign fighters have flooded to the side of IS, much as they did to the side of Al Qaeda in Iraq at the start of the last decade, the numbers by most estimates are still small. There's been a great deal of alarm at the presence of Europeans and Americans in IS ranks: Two troubled American converts to Islam were reported to have died fighting for the group in Syria this month, and earlier this summer a young American carried out a suicide bombing for the group in the country. But, the Westerners are generally treated as cannon fodder by the group, since they came without military skills and with the suspicion they could be penetration agents. And a chart compiled by the Economist shows that in percentage terms, the number of foreigners of all stripes willing to kill and die for the group is very small.
Roughly 300 fighters from Jordan is in some way alarming, though not surprising. Many Jordanians joined Al Qaeda in Iraq – its founding leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was Jordanian – but then as now it was a tiny fraction of the country's population. The estimated number of Jordanian's fighting for IS amount to 0.03 percent of the country's people.