A month after Islamic State extremists shocked the nation with the cold-blooded murder of two Japanese hostages, the frame of its threat is now becoming clear.
Shortly after the execution of Kenji Goto, the group raised the stakes in unspeakable online violent imagery, showing it burning a Jordanian pilot to death and beheading 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
Most recently it was reported to have abducted scores of Assyrian Christians, including women and children, in northeastern Syria.
The extremist group has been waging a propaganda war with slick videos of slaughter, all the more disturbing because unlike in Hollywood productions the protagonists are real.
Although some observers see the group as simply twisted and deranged, it can be argued that the religious group is anything but — and has a carefully considered methodology.
As a worldwide audience becomes increasingly desensitized to its violent tactics, the group appears to be devising new methods of shock value, not only to instill fear in its viewers but also to stir the passions of its sympathizers and gain more recruits, all the while goading its enemies deeper into a reluctant conflict.
The aim of the imagery is “pure terrorism; it’s hoping to cow the world in awe and fear before its tactics,” Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Islamic and rebel extremist groups, said in a recent email interview.
“No single paradigm explains all the young recruits who join ISIS, but a dominant factor is definitely the ideological appeal of ISIS’ narrative that the contemporary Muslim world has been in decline because there has been no caliphate till now implementing Islamic law to the totality, devoid of foreign influences,” he said. ISIS is a reference to the Islamic State group.
Analyst Alastair Crooke, a former British diplomat and MI6 intelligence officer who writes extensively on what he calls the “Islamic Revolution,” recently argued in a Huffington Post article that Islamic State is hoping to drag the U.S.-led coalition into fighting a ground war in Iraq and Syria.
With right-wing bloggers and pundits now demanding that the administration of President Barack Obama do more by putting boots on the ground, it appears all the more likely that the extremists will achieve what they want — a “holy war.”
“ISIL is still intoxicated with the dream of establishing an Islamic State,” Masanori Naito, a professor of modern Islamic studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, recently said by email. “But, as a more realistic agenda, they might feel enthusiasm in trifling with their ‘enemies.’ It is not likely an agenda for our side.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in the wake of the hostage killings promised to make “the terrorists pay the price,” has said he plans to prepare legislation to enable the Self-Defense Forces to rescue Japanese citizens in similar situations abroad.
Under current law, the SDF can only provide transport in evacuating Japanese nationals overseas. In January before the hostage crisis came to light, Abe pledged to implement $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries opposing the Islamic State — something critics argue may have provoked the group in the first place.
But after the beheadings of Goto, 47, and Haruna Yukawa, 42, were shown online the rhetoric quickly escalated. Whether overtly or not, the incident may exert considerable influence on the debate for a change in security policy and expanding the role of the SDF abroad.
If the existing law is amended, SDF personnel on foreign peacekeeping operations may be able to use weapons to help civilians and foreign troops under armed attack. The U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution currently prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes.
“It becomes a question of leadership,” said Brigitte Nacos, a professor of political science at Columbia University in the U.S.
“Is he (Abe) a leader who can lead public opinion, use his office as the Americans would say ‘the bully pulpit.’ to explain that the time has come that you have to have better trained special forces who in cases of hostage taking can try to rescue people?” said Nacos, an expert in public opinion and terrorism.
An opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News last month found that 60 percent of respondents supported the Abe administration’s handling of the hostage crisis despite its tragic ending. Nearly 58 percent said Japan’s support for Middle Eastern countries should be limited to nonmilitary support.
A CBS News poll last month found that for the first time a majority — 57 percent — of Americans favor the United States sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State extremists, compared with 47 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed last October.
Nacos said the impact of any one incident varies from country to country, as exemplified by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
“Part of the public reacts with more fear and part of the public reacts with more anger,” she said.
But Islamic State is not the only one trying to shape public opinion. Ironically, others are helping the militant group with its doomsday message as the key agent of a coming apocalypse.
Fox News political commentator Bill O’Reilly, in a recent televised segment entitled “The Holy War Begins,” ripped into Obama for making “no effort” to stop Islamic State extremists.
“This is now a so-called holy war between radical jihadists and all others, including peaceful Muslims. The holy war is here and unfortunately it seems the president of the United States will be the last one to acknowledge it,” O’Reilly said.
But according to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, U.S. military aircraft have conducted more than 2,400 sorties against Islamic State since the campaign started last summer. U.S. officials estimated in January that the attacks had killed more than 6,000 of the group’s fighters.
By most accounts, Islamic State, which is estimated to control one-third of Syria and one-third of Iraq, does not possess the military capability to invade the United States or its allies. Nevertheless, drawing the coalition into a ground war in Iraq and Syria would go a long way in proving its prophecy of a so-called holy war.
“President Obama’s recent request to Congress for the limited use of American ground forces in Iraq or Syria indicates that ISIS’ strategy has at least had partial success,” Crooke writes, adding that the burning to death of the pilot Mua’th Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh was an attempt to polarize Jordan and to push it toward civil war.
“The gruesome manner of Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh’s death, of course, is classic revolutionary polarization strategy: outrage ‘authority’ and provoke it into a heavy-handed overreaction that is directed against ISIS sympathizers — and there are many in Jordan — and what were just sympathizers will metamorphose from passivity into committed insurgents,” he said. “Thus ISIS has just ignited the internal sphere in Jordan.”