February 3, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State and Savagery

• Like a page out of the 2004 extremist manifesto “Management of Savagery,” the Islamic State has tried to goad the international community into near-sighted reactions without long-term approaches by highlighting the barbarity of its executions of hostages

• This tactic has thus far failed to ignite the overreaction (outside of press reporting) of Western powers, leaving the group without an important recruitment and incitement tool

• The Islamic State needs consistent replenishment of fear to overcome its inherently terrible local governance, and so it depends on shocking savagery to serve as both its recruitment magnet and opposition suppression

• As the group encounters less and less Westerners, given the danger of their presence in the region, it will find increasingly fewer ways to incite the ‘us-versus-them’ battle it needs to survive.


The Islamic State is now finding itself with fewer hostages with which to goad the international community into the overreaction the group needs to sustain its momentum. A significant part of its ‘expansion above all else’ mentality is depending on the ‘West’ to strike out in a disproportionate and near-sighted manner after every Islamic State provocation. The group needs a constant fight to stay relevant, and above all it needs either a sectarian fight with Iraq’s Shi’a or a crusading fight against the West. To date, it has fully accomplished neither, even though it has achieved substantial territorial gains. These gains will prove illusory without the constant sectarian or crusading battles needed to justify the group’s raison d’être.

The shocking executions of international hostages (to say nothing of the far greater numbers of Syrian and Iraqi hostages killed by the group, with far less international notice) have peaked for the Islamic State, as the number of foreign journalists and aid workers traveling to the area has understandably plummeted. Each murder is a tragedy that devastates families and friends, but the killings haven't resulted in what the Islamic State needs the most: overreaction that makes simple what is really a complicated battlefield. The introduction of Western forces is right in line with the unofficial playbook of the Islamic State; the 2004 Internet extremist tract “The Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji, aka Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah, lays out the need for a battle between the extremists and both Muslim and international governments. According to Naji, this battle would only be brought about by acts of intentional savagery—a lesson the Islamic State has learned all too well.

Yet the overreaction hasn’t yet happened in line with the group’s needs, in that visible numbers of foreign troops haven’t engaged in combat in either Iraq or Syria. The Islamic State is truly hated among other extremist and even so-called moderate groups, and thus needs a unifying foe to bind others to its cause. Airstrikes have hurt the group more than they have hurt the overall rebel cause in Syria, and in Iraq the airstrikes have meaningfully hurt the group at no cost to the government or rival Sunni movements. This has left kidnappings as the group’s primary way to incite the West and international coalition supporters.

The murder of Japanese hostage Kenjo Goto, and the previous murder of fellow citizen Haruna Yakawa, doesn’t advance the Islamic State’s need for a visible fight. The Japanese government will likely increase its humanitarian aid to help the very people the terrorist group claims to defend—a fact the group can’t hide with slick social media campaigns. Japan won’t introduce ground troops in Syria and Iraq, making the murders of the two hostages even more counter-productive. The group picked the wrong target, and exposed not only the illogical nature of its hostage strategy but the irrationality of its murderous bent. It can’t help but kill; it knows no other way of operating.

The group still holds Western hostages—whom the group sees as particularly valuable—but their number, through the Islamic State's barbarity, is tragically dwindling. Each hostage represents a true tragedy; individuals drawn to the region to help the innocent and subsequently pulled into a geopolitical fight with the Islamic State. The individual pain of each loss is actually backfiring against the terrorist group, in that each murder is translated into not only national horror but also national resolve. The key, in terms of mitigating the group’s aims, is to avoid overreaction. The “Management of Savagery” textbook can’t account for a thoughtful and effective response. It depends on rashness. The Islamic State is failing in every measure, even as it temporarily holds lands and terrorizes people. Its need for the bloody spectacular to provoke a larger fight is actually its greatest weakness.


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