February 11, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Greatest Enemy

• The death of Kayla Mueller, held by the Islamic State for 17 months, continues the group’s assault on aid workers and journalists, two professions that represent everything the group can’t abide

• It’s more than just opportunity that drew the Islamic State to target hostages from aid and news agencies; these hostages, who have risked everything to provide care, solace, or information to the vulnerable and oppressed, are the most powerful enemies of the terrorist group

• Groups such as the Islamic State feel they have an advantage over their many enemies because of the fearlessness of their fighters and the willingness to take great risk for their cause; but, with their utter dedication and motivation to act in the name of charity and information, the hostages negate that extremist advantage

• International condemnation has no effect on the group, as they simply don’t care about either the hostages or criticism, and it thrives on polarization by forcing people to take sides.


Kayla Mueller closed a letter to her parents, written while she was being held hostage by the Islamic State, with the phrase “All My Everything.” Those three words represent the greatest enemy to the Islamic State, in that it shows complete commitment to the cause of providing aid to those in need. The Islamic State has targeted both aid workers and journalists not only because they were nearest to the battlefields and thus were targets of opportunity, but also because the goals of those two professions—providing aid and information—are anathema to the group.

Groups such as the Islamic State boast about what they see as their followers’ superior commitment to a cause, and their willingness to take great risks. This commitment to cause has proved to be a huge advantage in battles in Iraq and Syria, as the group rolled over lesser committed and motivated opposition. The aid workers and reporters that the group has taken hostage match the extremists in commitment to a cause. The presence of visibly brave and committed people is a serious threat to the group’s perceived monopoly on motivation, and so they strike out against such people, to deadly effect.

By murdering reporters, the Islamic State has been trying to create a fact-free zone in which their reporting is the only on-the-ground reporting to be found. The same logic applies to aid workers. By murdering aid workers, the group creates an environment in which it alone can provide needed services to desperate people. That the group is responsible for such desperation doesn’t factor into the Islamic State’s calculation. Anyone who provides an alternative to the monopolies of information and charity that the group has created in its failing Caliphate has to be targeted.

The international condemnation over the Islamic State’s hostage killings will have no effect on the group’s behavior (though military responses will, in the short term) because the group simply doesn’t care what its enemies think about it. And because the Islamic State and its ilk classify almost everyone as an enemy, near-universal condemnation is ignored as easily as the condemnation from one person. The group thrives on polarization, in the dividing of people into opposing camps. Barbaric murders force people to take sides, and the group doesn’t care that far more people oppose than support it; it’s the division, the us-versus-them backdrop that it needs, since that truly is how it sees the world.

The rise of the Islamic State stemmed from many negative trend lines merging into one horrific accident of history. The fall of the Islamic State will take immense effort and commitment between many parties and actors. Airstrikes have diminished the group greatly, but ahead lie difficult battles in cities and towns. Each party and nation opposing the Islamic State will need to act as Kayla did, and give “all their everything” so that the Islamic State’s proclaimed monopoly on commitment ends.


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