Early Sunday morning a web-based video claimed to show the dead body of Peter Kassig, age 26, a US citizen. The army veteran had started a small humanitarian not-for-profit operating in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey providing basic medical services and supplies to refugees. In 2013 he was captured by Syrian insurgents. The group claiming responsibility for his execution is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).
If confirmed, this would be the fifth beheading of a Western captive by the group. The Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS or Da’ish) has become notorious for using an extensive toolkit of organized violence: beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed using means clearly designed to engender fear and compliance.
The Kessig video is the longest IS production yet. While it includes a warning to Western — especially US and British — leaders, the propaganda is designed mostly to advance the IS brand-strategy and to recruit young men. The beheadings are a hook to ensure Western media attention that will prompt the target audiences to seek out the videos (they are not that difficult to find) where the rest-of-the-story is persuasively pitched as an answer to their search for adventure and meaning.
It seems to be working. Most recent intelligence estimates find at least 15,000 foreign fighters from up to 80 nations are currently attached to a variety of insurgent groups — not just IS — in the Syrian civil war and its overflow into Iraq. (Potentially an interesting comparison: During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 the total number of international volunteers serving with Republican forces is estimated have totaled 35,000.)
But it may also be emerging that even as IS is achieving some tactical success among a very small slice of disaffected — mostly — young people, it is prompting a blow-back by many others that could have significant strategic implications.
As was the case with David Haines and Alan Henning, British aid workers previously beheaded, the evidence seems overwhelming that Kessig was only involved in delivering compassionate care to those displaced by the Syrian civil war. There is also no evidence that the two journalists who have been dramatically beheaded had any particular animus toward the Syrian insurgency. The killings have not only been brutal. They have, to most minds, been innately unjust. For most Muslims this is a perversion of their faith.
The video above was developed — apparently independently — by a group of mostly young British Muslims following the execution of David Haines. It crystalizes a movement that has spontaneously emerged and is growing online very much contrary to the purposes of IS.
See more at https://twitter.com/hashtag/notinmyname. Social media — not so much YouTube — is where most of the activity is taking place.
A shared revulsion to IS is also prompting others to perceive, conceive, and act in ways previously unseen. On Friday, probably while the terrorists were putting finishing touches on their snuff video, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others were gathering for an unprecedented Muslim prayer service hosted by the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC. The sermon by Ebrahim Rasool included, “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility but keenly aware that it is not a time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The challenge for us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people… whose very existence threatens extremism.”
As the American experience with war has too often demonstrated, tactical skill can seldom overcome a strategic deficit. How ought our anti-IS strategy reflect the strategic vulnerability of our adversary?