The Slatest

ISIS’s Violence Is Its Message

An ISIS fighter in Raqa, Syria, in 2014.

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

With its kneeling prisoners in orange jumpsuits and masked, knife-wielding executioners, the video of the shooting and beheading of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya, released today, features all the trademarks ISIS has become known for. Even before ISIS was ISIS, beheading videos earned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of what was then called al-Qaida in Iraq, the nickname Sheikh of the Slaughterers.

But these videos also earned Zarqawi a rebuke from his boss, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who told him in a 2005 letter that “We are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma,” and that the “zealous young men” surrounding him “do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq,” who would never find such gory spectacles “palatable.” Zarqawi didn’t take the advice.

Nine years later, when social media is allowing videotaped snuff films like today’s to reach an audience Zarqawi could only have dreamed of, it seems that both jihadist leaders had a point. ISIS’s boastful savagery has enraged public opinion in the Muslim world, including among some who might otherwise support its fight against Western-backed governments and efforts to establish Shariah. At the same time, while ISIS doesn’t have much outside support, it does have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of “zealous young men”: The number of foreign fighters flocking to join the group is increasing at an alarming rate. They do not seem put off by beheading videos.

ISIS isn’t the first terrorist group to film acts of torture and violence against prisoners, but the “deliberate cultivation of ultraviolence” is more central to its propaganda than it was to its predecessors. One of its foundational texts is titled Management of Savagery. The U.S. government condemned the Libya video, saying it “lays bare the terrorists’ vicious, senseless brutality,” but that brutality is exactly the point. The group’s “theater of cruelty,” as Hussein Ibish has called it, is aimed less at its enemies than at these potential recruits, and the gore as much as the group’s ideological message appears to be what’s drawing all disaffected angry young men—and some women—to fight with them.   

Zawahiri saw ISIS’s vicious videos as a liability for the al-Qaida brand, but it’s ISIS that’s winning the propaganda and recruitment war. This was underlined by today’s arrest of six Somali Americans, charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, and allegedly recruiting for ISIS in Minneapolis and San Diego. Authorities once focused on the Somali communities in these cities as potential recruitment pools for Somalia’s al-Shabaab, but as a report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point from last fall noted, “reports indicate that ethnic Somali men who might once have been lured by the cultural appeal of [Shabaab] are now instead heading to the unlikely destination of Syria.”

An attack that killed 33 civilians outside a bank in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, over the weekend—the first attack claimed by ISIS in the country—also underlined what experts had been warning of for months: that factions of the Taliban are breaking off to form new groups dedicated to the Islamic State’s brand of media-savvy carnage.

At the moment, it seems less like ISIS is a group using violence to advance a message, than a group whose message is violence, and unfortunately, it’s finding a growing audience.