"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.