February 4, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Responding to the Islamic State

• The Islamic State’s murder of Jordanian hostage Lt Moaz al-Kasasbeh was both a message to the group’s fighters that it can counter the coalition’s relentless airstrikes as well as an offensive move designed to provoke a high-profile overreaction

• The air campaign against the Islamic State has been relentless while at the same time has receded from the headlines—a double blow to the group in that it suffers the losses but doesn’t benefit from the attendant spectacle

• The drawn-out ‘negotiations’ over this past month—while the hostage was already dead—were likely intended to sow division and tension in Jordan, and draw attention to the issue as long as possible before the gruesome finale

• While Jordan is understandably enraged and will have to strike back, the most effective response might be an escalation that continues to kill the group’s fighters away from the headlines.


The release of the video depicting the Islamic State’s murder of captured Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh was designed to shock the senses of rational actors while motivating and energizing the group’s psychotic membership. It achieved the latter—as the group revels in shocking brutality—but it remains to be seen if it can achieve the former, and compel rational actors to overreact. Jordan will have to respond to this outrage but the manner in which it does will have a huge impact on efforts to deprive the Islamic State of its needed opiate of spectacle, while also destroying its ability to fight.

The inhuman nature of the murder—videotaped for maximum impact—is the message itself. The group’s hostage strategy is to murder their hostages in such a way as to maximize drama and outrage. The hostage killings are how the group shows that it is visibly fighting the hated West—something it has to be seen doing and not just talking about. This brings up an important aspect of the ongoing air campaign against the group. The airstrikes deal the Islamic State a double blow, in that they are losing their fighters who also aren’t seen fighting or dying, depriving the group of its needed theatrics. Their fighters are dying but they’re dying away from the cameras and the headlines, with no dramatic battle to show for it. The asymmetry of terrorism cuts both ways, and in this air campaign, the group’s dependency on publicity is killing them.

The murder of Lt Moaz al-Kasasbeh in such a barbaric fashion was also intended to motivate the group’s fighters who have been suffering hundreds of small cuts, leaving the group bleeding badly, even as it continues to draw in new recruits. Other extremist groups in Syria are exploiting the group’s predicament, and while the Islamic State still holds a great deal of territory in both Syria and Iraq, it is no longer the undisputed ruler and will have to contest with more rivals to the throne the longer it is boxed in.

To escape from this box, the Islamic State needs Jordan and others to overreact, and to provide the spectacle that allows the group to be seen as a fighting force again. As promised, Jordan executed two Islamic State/ al-Qaeda in Iraq prisoners--including failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. Given that both prisoners were Iraqi, this might inflame tribal anger in Iraq at the Islamic State instead of the tribal fear it wanted to instill in Jordan with the murder of al-Kasasbeh. But Jordan's next steps, in which the government has promised that “revenge will be as big as the calamity that has hit Jordan,” are less clear. The desire for national revenge will need to be balanced with the reality that the Islamic State wants such revenge to be as spectacular as possible, so that its fighters die but once more in front of a global audience. The group has no way to counter a high-intensity but low-visibility campaign, so it is seeking to change the conflict into one more conducive to its propaganda efforts.


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