July 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Medieval Violence

• Recent reports that the Islamic State publicly beheaded two women, along with their husbands, for suspicion of ‘sorcery’ show the reliance on medieval violence by a group known for its high-tech messaging and imagery

• The list of the methods of public executions by the Islamic State includes crucifixion, immolation, drowning, beheading, stoning, and multiple amputations; how the group chooses to kill is as important as why it kills

• Along with the beheading of women (reportedly a first for the group in Syria), the Islamic State has practiced slavery and large-scale sex trafficking with captured Yazidi women

• During a raid last week into Kobani, Syria, the Islamic State murdered dozens of civilians in their homes; likewise, when it seized the town of Palmyra, Syria, the group killed hundreds more, including women and children, for suspected loyalties to the Assad regime.


The Islamic State crossed another milestone in brutality with the reported public beheading in Syria of two women accused of ‘sorcery’. While the group has executed 86 women in Syria in the last year—by stoning and shooting—this is the first known beheading of female civilians by the group. These most recent victims join more than 1,787 civilians, including 74 children, who, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), have been summarily executed by the Islamic State in Syria since last June. The numbers for Iraq are likely to be just as shocking and tragic.

How the Islamic State executes its victims is as important as why it executes them. The group's obsession with a mythic past means its punishments must also fit into that framework. When it comes to public executions, shootings simply do not deliver the desired level of spectacle. This week, SOHR reported that the group publicly crucified five young men in the Syrian town of al-Mayadeen for eating in the daytime during Ramadan. Residents were encouraged to walk by as the men died. Throwing men from the tops of buildings remains another method of public execution, with crowds forced to gather at the bottom.

In addition to executions for alleged crimes such as sorcery and adultery, women have paid a terrible price at the hand of the Islamic State. Hundreds of Yazidi women have been taken from Iraq into Syria for forced marriages to Islamic State fighters, with survivors reporting systemic sexual abuse and degradation. The Islamic State has publicly defended the practice, calling captured women ‘spoils of war’ that its fighters have earned.

In both Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has carried out mass revenge killings of civilians, from the slaughter of the Iraqi Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar province to last week’s rampage in the Syrian border town of Kobani. The group had been forced to leave Kobani under great pressure last winter, which at the time was considered the group’s most resounding defeat since declaring itself a caliphate one year ago. Last week, Islamic State fighters raided the town, not in an attempt to reclaim it but to—in medieval parlance—sack it. The fighters murdered hundreds of Kurdish civilians in their homes and in the streets before retreating. The strategic value of such as raid was minimal, but the psychological and motivational value to the group and its enemies was likely significant.

As long as the group maintains control over populations in both Syria and Iraq, it will continue to exercise medieval levels of barbarism. Atrocities abound in war and armed conflict, but the Islamic State celebrates and escalates these atrocities to previously unimagined levels. For the Islamic State, there is no collateral damage because all of the damage is intentional, and the more savage the better. It is not just to cow its foes or subjects, but to reinforce its self-image. From stoning to beheading, crucifixion to immolation, the Islamic State celebrates the spectacle of public murder in gruesome fashion.


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