Give the psychopaths of the Islamic State credit: They know how to dominate a news cycle.
They’ve suffered a series of military reverses in recent weeks, but they’ve distracted the world with what will go down as one of the most horrifying images of the decade: A slick video of a Jordanian prisoner-of-war being burned alive in real time. Dark Age depravity, meet reality TV.
The “caliphate” figures it’s going to come out ahead by broadcasting proofs of its utter, unspeakable cruelty. Its leaders are media savvy. They’ve apparently concluded that their earlier videos of beheadings – most recently, of Japanese hostages – have already desensitized the world. So they upped their game with the slow, torturous, videographed death of Lt. Muath al Kaseasbeh.
The novelty here isn’t the savagery; it’s the exultant glorification of savagery on global media – to a degree that has made al-Qaida look like a band of milquetoasts. Radical militias and terrorists like the Islamic State have routinely murdered people in terrible ways. Their predecessors have done so for millennia, and some – like the Nazis – did it on a far greater scale.
But most of the others have tried to conceal their crimes against humanity, or at least didn’t advertise them. The Taliban buried homosexuals alive and disfigured women’s faces, but they didn’t build public relations campaigns around those atrocities. The Nazis themselves carried out the murder of millions under cover of warfare and behind a propaganda blitz of denial. When the tide turned, the Germans tried to hide the bodies.
Shocking as the Islamic State’s media campaign is, there’s a logic behind it. It’s not aimed at people who are repelled by beheadings and burnings; it’s aimed at would-be jihadists. In the psychological ghetto of Islamic extremism, over-the-top terror can impress and help recruit young men – including Westerners – who’ve fallen under the sway of radical religious ideology.
In their bizarre world, massacring non-believers by the thousand, throwing gay men off towers, enslaving women and forcing young girls to become “wives” of fighters all smacks of authentic, 7th century Islam.
The Islamic State’s outreach team is doing something “right.” A new report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence concludes that 20,000 foreign fighters have now traveled to Iraq and Syria, most intending to join the Islamic State on the front lines.
A surge of them has come from Western Europe. France has contributed an estimated 1,200 jihadists. Another 600 have joined the fight from Britain. Belgium, with 440, has the highest number per capita. Between them, the United States and Canada account for 230 jihadist recruits. All told, roughly 4,000 have come from the West.
In one sense, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria is a world war. Iraqi and Syrian refugees who’ve escaped areas controlled by the Islamic State report that its holy warriors often speak with foreign accents. Some of those warriors will try to carry the battle home when they return to the West.
Dozens of countries, including Russia and Iran as well as Arab states and the United States, agree that the Islamic State is a dangerous malignancy. The U.S.-led air campaign against the jihadist forces has been helpful, but it’s not remotely enough to dislodge an organization that rules 8 million people by terror and controls large sections of Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State’s atrocities seem likely someday to trigger a devastating international backlash. The immolation of an Arab in a cage on TV should make that day may come sooner.