After a gap of almost six weeks, the Islamic State (IS) released a video yesterday showing, along with the brutal simultaneous beheading of almost two dozen Syrian pilots, the head of American citizen Peter Kassig after it was severed from his body. Standing above his head was the British executor, known as "Jihad John," who killed other American and British citizens, challenging the US to send ground troops into Iraq and Syria.
The IS beheading videos provide an insight into one of the group's important and underappreciated weaknesses: its tremendous fear of a US-led invasion. Despite some claims that the group longs to "drain" the US by drawing it into prolonged warfare, IS has proven itself willing to do everything in its power to do just the opposite. An examination of the messages incorporated in IS's beheading videos, the timing of their releases, and their choice of victims indicate their fear and aim at deterring the US and its allies from launching a ground offensive against them.
For over two years, IS conquered parts of Iraq and Syria with little attention in the West. IS's propaganda, until the spring of 2014, focused on its local enemies on the ground.
For over two years, IS conquered parts of Iraq and Syria with little attention in the West. IS's propaganda, until the spring of 2014, focused on its local enemies on the ground. Its social media accounts contained threats against Syrians, Iraqis, and local groups fighting IS such as al-Qaeda (AQ). Beheading videos were of soldiers or fighters from these groups. As IS was seizing large parts of eastern Syria and cities in northern Iraq almost uninterrupted, it did not formally post online threats or acts of violence against the US or the West.
The watershed event was in May 2014. IS seized the major city of Mosul and took control of banks, strategically important oil fields, and military bases established by the US with virtually no resistance as Iraqi security forces fled the area. This was a rude awakening for Washington, and the world became acutely aware of the ominous events in Iraq. Shortly after, calls for military intervention were made in Washington, to which IS responded with by issuing videos threatening President Obama.
Disregarding the threats, on August 7, 2014, President Obama stated, "To stop the advance on Erbil, I've directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city." The next day, the US conducted its first airstrikes on IS in Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.
Wary of the new development, IS embarked on its own terrorizing campaign. Ten days later, IS, which had kept US and Western hostages since 2012 with no executions of any of them, released its first video "Message to America" in August 19, showing the brutal murder of US journalist James Foley. Confirming the shift of its strategy amid the airstrikes, the video opened with President Obama's August 7 statement and contained the following warning by Foley's executioner, Jihadi John:
Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims... So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.
The video concludes with the fighter holding another American, Stephen Sotloff, threatening that if the airstrikes won't stop, Sotloff will be killed.
The US Airstrikes continued disrupting IS operations in north Iraq, and even resulted in IS losing control of the Mosul Dom. As a result, two weeks after the first beheading, IS beheaded Sotloff. In this video released on September 2, Jihadi John, before decapitating Sotloff, threatened:
I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and [unclear] on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. You, Obama, have but to gain from your actions but another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people...
In the meantime, on August 2, 2014, British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed his intent to join the fight against IS: "...as I've said to use everything we have—our aid, our diplomacy, and our military prowess—to make sure that with our allies we do everything we can to put pressure on Islamic State..."
Now, IS had to shift its strategy to threaten another enemy. Trying to prevent the UK from joining the US in the fight against IS, the Sotloff beheading video also showed a British captive, David Cawthorne Haines, whom Jihadi John used to warn:
We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.
Despite the threats, Cameron continued with his calls to join the fight against IS.
Unlike the Iraqi and Syrian forces—regimes and rebels alike—a US-led alliance could pose a formidable threat to IS. Seeking feverishly to prevent such an alliance from forming, on September 13, 2014, IS released the video showing the beheading of David Haines and issued the following threat to the British:
Your evil alliance with America, which continues to strike the Muslims of Iraq and most recently bombed the Haditha Dam, will only accelerate your destruction, and playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only drag you and your people into another bloody and unwinnable war.
After terrorizing the British people with the beheading and warning of more to come, at the end of the video, IS introduced the next in line for execution, the Briton Alan Henning.
In the interim, IS reverted to a new tactic, trying to show a more civilized side to their organization by introducing a video series wherein British Captive John Cantlie would speak on IS's behalf. The first installment was entitled "Lend Me Your Ears: Messages from the British Detainee John Cantlie," wherein Cantlie spoke "on the truth about the IS and, in particular, how it successfully negotiated for the release of prisoners with European countries, but cannot do so with the American and British governments." In a subsequent video released on September 22, 2014, Cantlie commented on the West's underestimation of IS, stating:
Current estimates of 15,000 troops needed to fight the Islamic State are laughably low. The State has more mujahideen than this, and this is not some undisciplined outfit with a few Kalashnikovs.
Meanwhile, IS waited with the aid worker Alan Henning for three weeks until Friday, September 26, 2014, when the UK Parliament voted overwhelmingly to join the US-led coalition against IS. On the following Friday, October 3, 2014, IS released "Another Message to America and its Allies," showing the beheading of Henning.
Proving that his execution waited for the parliament vote, Henning introduced himself and then stated, "Because of our Parliament's decision to attack the Islamic state, I, as a member of the British public, will now pay the price for that decision." Then, the executioner, again being the Briton Jihadi John, stated that Henning's "blood is on the hands of the British Parliament."
Before ending the video, the executioner, similar to the other three videos, introduced the next victim, the American Peter Kassig. Kassig said, "Obama, you have started your aerial bombardment in Sham [Syria], which keeps on striking our people. So it is only right that we continue to strike the necks of your people."
For more than five weeks since October 3, 2014, IS waited with Kassig's execution, closely watching for the US's next move. Then, on November 7, 2014, President Obama declared the deployment of up to 1,500 troops to Iraq to assist the country's forces in their fight against IS.
This announcement sent a shockwave of panic through IS's leadership, who knew that they would have to work fast to deter the deployment, which they knew might bring them to an end. In the following days, IS produced more than a dozen messages attesting to the group's strength locally and internationally. Furthermore, on Monday, November 10, 2014, only three days after Obama's deployment announcement, IS released five pledges of allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The pledges were made by jihadist groups from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria—intended to threaten the US with attacks from around the globe.
The following day, IS released an announcement about creating a new currency, to illustrate its independent status. More, an hour later, an audio message was released from Baghdadi, stating:
Here is Obama who has ordered the deployment of 1,500 additional soldiers under the claim that they are advisors because the Crusaders' airstrikes and constant bombardment – day and night – upon the position of the Islamic State have not prevented its advance, nor weakened its resolve.
Continuing the barrage of IS messages in reaction to the US deployment, on November 16, IS released the video showing the severed head of Kassig. Prior to showing Kassig's severed head, the video shows the brutal simultaneous beheading of more than a dozen Syrian pilots. Fighters march the men in a line, grabbing knives along the way, and behead the men after "Jihadi John" says:
To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar and tomorrow we will be slaughtering your soldiers. And with Allah's permission, we will break this final and last Crusade, and the Islamic State will soon, like your puppet David Cameron said, will begin to slaughter your people on your streets.
In the video, "Jihadi John" and the narrator repeatedly address President Obama's decision to deploy troops to Iraq, clearly demonstrating the concern IS has about such deployment.
Also important to consider is the serious cost of support that IS has willingly taken on in beheading Kassig.
Also important to consider is the serious cost of support that IS has willingly taken on in beheading Kassig. During the five weeks of holding IS as the next victim, IS received an overwhelming number of calls not to kill Kassig, who is reportedly a convert to Islam, thus making his killing impermissible in Islamic law. One jihadist fighter even wrote about his humanitarian work in Syria, which had even saved even the lives of jihadists.
IS's demonstrations of might, along with their claims of Western engagement in an "unwinnable war," are rooted not in confidence, but fear. The group's simultaneous presentation of brute through beheadings, and tranquil debate through Cantlie, show a by-any-means approach to sway both Western officials and citizens as Western action against IS escalates. The beheading of Kassig is another grim illustration that the group remains vigilant in this tactic, even at the cost of their fellow jihadists' support.