Thursday, August 21, 2014

James Foley beheading baits America to intervene

"Without these videos and photos and firsthand experience, you can't really tell the world how bad it might be."  When you consider that these are the words of James Foley, the very same American journalist whose own brutish beheading at the hands of ISIS was this week filmed and posted online, it's about as chillingly foreboding as it gets.  Foley wanted us to know the horrors of Syria.  He devoted the last stage of his life to it.  But it is by his own horrific death that he has most shockingly told us how bad things might be.

Now comes the search for meaning; for what this horror signifies.  The incorrigible extremism of ISIS, certainly.  But that much has already been proven at length as it has tried to perpetrate a genocide against local Yazidis, and routinely beheaded Christians.  And yet there is something different about this development that deserves our attention: something that reveals not merely ISIS's barbarism, but its weakness.

When you are beheading locals, and stringing up the severed heads for public display, you're clearly doing more than killing people.  ISIS's rampant violence has thus far not merely been a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide, but one more broadly of intimidation and control.  Certainly, it has wanted to exterminate non-Muslims.  But it has also been keen to eliminate Shiite Muslims and or even Sunnis it deems insufficiently obedient.  It has been trying desperately to assert authority over the territory it claims to control. The violence was public and local, with the very clear aim of gaining total compliance.

This was ISIS in Jacobin mode; its post-revolutionary Régime de la Terreur.  In this respect at least ISIS was attempting to live up to its pretentious new brand: not as a group aspiring to a state, but as a state already achieved. Hence, "Islamic State", a rebranding that has always been dubious and was from the very start rejected even by its extreme Islamist cousins.  But at least it could plausibly lay claim to a serious chunk of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border.  This was a movement on the march, whose advance had proven irresistible.


Now there is resistance.  On the ground this has come in the form of the Iraqi military and especially Kurdish militias enjoying perhaps their first ever serious wave of international support.  From the air it has taken the form of US strikes, that have clearly pushed ISIS back from the Kurdish city of Erbil, and helped deliver the strategically crucial Mosul Dam into Kurdish hands.  For the moment, the Americans are pretty chuffed: "their morale is suffering, their competency and capacity has been damaged" declared the Pentagon press secretary this week.

This could, of course, be the Obama administration's own spin.  But James Foley's execution suggests there is plenty of truth to it. This is not a local act of intimidation intended to establish and consolidate the power of a fledgling, self-declared state.  This is a global broadcast intended to draw a reaction from a global audience.  And it is this fact alone – far more than the literal content of the threats ISIS is making – that speaks volumes, here.  This week ISIS left behind its Jacobin pretensions and returned to its al-Qaedaist nature. It went from Terror (which is what the state does), to terrorism (which is what the militant without a state does).

Thus are ISIS's motives abundantly plain.  It is doing what terrorist groups must do: recruiting.  And the best way to do that is to agitate and provoke; to radicalise the environment.  On this score, ISIS is treading an extremely well-worn path.  The aim is to put on a show of commitment and strength; something so confident and shocking that it will impress potential recruits. 

That's why Foley had to be humiliated before being killed.  It's why his death had to be gruesome.  It's a message calculated to give young radicalised Muslims a sense of power.  Indeed, we've seen this before – about a decade ago, from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq.  As it happened, al-Zarqawi's campaign ended abruptly because it was hopelessly counterproductive.  It repulsed the very people it was intended to impress, and the al-Qaeda leadership pulled al-Zarqawi into line.  ISIS, as is frequently noted, is a more extreme incarnation of al-Qaeda, but it is hard to believe it would pursue this if it believed the practice would still be self-defeating.  So it must have reason to believe it will work differently this time.

That reason is most likely that it is operating in radically different circumstances.  Ten years ago the US invasion was young and the carnage was fresh.  America's presence was a major radicalising force in itself, which had energised jihadists all over the world.  For al-Qaeda to behead civilians on film was merely for it to be gratuitous, and to compromise whatever moral appeal it claimed for itself.  But now, America has left.  Its present military reprise is very narrow and limited, nothing like the scale of shock and awe. Moreover it appears determined to keep it that way.

That doesn't work for ISIS.  It needs America.  More to the point, it needs American intervention on a much grander scale.  However much it protests that it wants Obama to cease air strikes, it plainly seeks the opposite: to provoke the American public with something impossible to ignore, something so grotesque that it demands retaliation.  ISIS wants the American public screaming for Obama to escalate. 

It's about the oldest terrorist tactic there is.  Provoke overreaction, provide a magnet for radicalisation, swell the ranks and watch the cycle of violence unfold.  Indeed, this is precisely the story of the past decade or so.  James Foley's murder is about whether or not that will be the story of the next one.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University. 

1 comment:

  1. Whether radical, extreme or moderate, it’s still Islam from the same Koran, taught by the same clerics from the same mosques and clerics don’t get to be clerics through moderation. It’s time we rejected the apologists for Islam.
    No religion in history has contributed so little and taken so much, and now it’s time to take it back.
    In 2001, there were 280,000 Muslims in Australia (1.5% of the population) 36% of whom were born here. In 2013 there were almost 500,000 with 85% having been born here and an incredible 44% aged 20 or under.
    There are 373 mosques in Australia with many more under construction or awaiting Green infiltrated council approval, while the Left and Islamic leaders object to telcos being asked to hold metadata for a lousy two years. Why would that be? Do they not want to leave tracks?
    Banks are embracing hideous Sharia law because of the billions of dollars pouring from oil-rich Islamic States like Saudi Arabia, but you cannot expect any less from banks.
    Sharia is the pure form of Islam, watered down versions are simply biding their time, they are prepared to wait for the global caliphate they were promised.
    Under an Islamic caliphate those Muslims who do not accept the pure form of Islam are slaughtered, as has been the case in Iraq. As with Christianity, competing variations of the same faith are the real enemy, apostasy and atheism are ripe for conversion.
    Catholicism may covet your mind but it won’t slaughter its brothers to achieve it. Christianity will lose to Islam and only determined political will can destroy it.
    Australia, per capita, has the fastest growing Muslim population of all developed nations. Last year, more than 10,000 of NSW students were enrolled in Islamic schools, four times the number enrolled in 1998.
    The number of Muslim children aged between five and 14 in NSW increased by more than 20% in the five years between 2006 and 2011, according to the most recent census data. Suburban Sydney is the political and religious centre of Australian Islam.
    While some of Sydney's private schools charge up to $30,000 a year per student, Islamic school fees are between $1000 and $3000 a year with more than a dozen Islamic organisations receiving generous government assistance beyond normal education grants.
    Islamic schools will benefit the most from Gillard’s Gonski funding, given they have a higher proportion of students with language backgrounds other than English.
    The looming problem is the increasing number of terrorist related crimes which are invariably Islam-based and cannot be dealt with by deportation because they will be committed by home-grown Muslims.
    If we were to stop all Islamic immigration right now, the problem will still become exponentially greater each year with the existing population.
    To do nothing is to allow a sophisticated Islamic terrorist State dedicated to destroying the West to evolve unimpeded.
    In Islam, jihad is a religious obligation. It forms part of the duties a Muslim must fulfil. This instruction is repeated ad nauseum in the Koran. How much more evidence do we need?
    The international solution is simple. A coalition of the willing must destroy the Islamic State immediately, preventing its entrenchment. It can be done quickly with ground troops supported by air strikes.
    Obama created this mess and now he must have the humility to join Russia and Syria in mending it.
    Back home in Australia, Islam should be declared a dangerous cult, the proliferation of mosques must be stopped. Halal certification of our foods must be outlawed (it’s an illegal protection racket not even the Mafia got away with and it’s financing terrorism) the 87% of Healthy Muslims who are on disability pensions and welfare must be removed from the gravy train and clerics who preach violence (they all do) must be deported or prosecuted and jailed.
    The Islamic State wants you to see this video because it wants to weaken your resolve
    Pickering Post