By Joyce Karam
The beheading of the second U.S. citizen Stephen Sotloff at the hands of the terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a sign of desperation and political impotence and not strength or resilience. ISIS while licking its wounds in Iraq and antagonizing Muslims and non-Muslims regionally, has gone back to the old playbook of shedding American blood to reassure its base of support.
Killing Stephen Sotloff came despite Qatari mediation to help in his release, and a plea from a mother to grant amnesty for her child. The reason for that is ISIS saw more political benefit in the despicable act of murdering him on social media than in seeking ransom or a deal, or sending a good gesture through his release. ISIS is eying such brutality to save face after serious losses in Iraq and to reassure potential recruits of its standing, while claiming its Jihadist stature as the most anti-American group operating today.
Saving face after Iraq
Since early August, the United States has launched more than 124 airstrikes targeting ISIS equipment, checkpoints and forces in western Iraq. The effort, coupled with political progress in Baghdad and a push by the Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the ground, has halted ISIS movements in Iraq. Today, the terrorist group that was pledging earlier in the summer to take Baghdad and Arbil, is very far from attaining both and is losing manpower and territory around Mosul and Anbar.
‘John the Jihadist,’ who was apparently seen in both YouTube videos, is more of a performer and a recruiting tool for the group
ISIS after failing to inflict damage directly on the United States inside Iraq’s battlefield, is seeking reprisal in more cowardly acts in its wider base in Syria. While the group boasts of having some anti-aircraft missiles, humvees and even scud missiles, it has not downed one American plane since August 7 or killed a U.S. military adviser out of the 820 in Iraq today. Responding in neighboring Syria by decapitating two American unarmed civilians is a rash cowardly act, and a sign of weakness from hooded executionists masquerading as liberators.
“John the Jihadist,” who was apparently seen in both YouTube videos, is more of a performer and a recruiting tool for the group. While former Al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden made sure to speak Arabic and appear in undisclosed location in his videos, the ISIS messages are less sophisticated when it comes to location and are targeting a different audience. Both the James Foley’s and Steven Sotloff’s videos are designed to address the English speaking recruits of ISIS while at the same time inject fear and political uncertainty in the West.
Today, according to CNN, ISIS has recruited fighters from Russia (+800) and France (700) as it is from Morocco (1,500). Assuring these recruits that the so-called Islamic State is still standing – at least on social media- and is capable of standing up to the United States and targeting Americans is key to its survival.
In the midst of its fighting in Iraq, ISIS is also battling with Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Syria. In some places, its enemies and rivalry list range from the anti-Assad rebel groups to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to the Syrian regime forces. Targeting Americans will always strengthen ISIS’ hands and promote it as the address of worldwide Jihadism. It also helps in stealing the thunder from al-Qaeda central or other terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia or AQAP in Yemen or Nusra in Syria.
By sitting at the helm of Anti-Americanism, ISIS will boost its recruits and funding across the globe, and cover up other hideous crimes it’s committing against fellow Muslims. ISIS does not propagate its venom against Muslims in the same fashion as when it murders U.S. hostages. In the last two weeks, its fighters have decapitated in cold blood Syrian Journalist Bassem Raies and Lebanese army member Ali Seyyed. The killing of Muslims is not as advantageous in terms of propaganda for ISIS as targeting Americans. The fate of the other Western hostages held with ISIS is tied to its political and military fortunes.
In its videos, ISIS calls on U.S. President Barack Obama to leave Iraq and what it refers to as Muslim lands. Truth is, its brutality against Iraqis is what reengaged a risk averse president in a war he was always against. This same monstrosity is reigniting calls among Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress to expand the campaign into Syria, in order to hit ISIS command and control. Such reaction was perhaps not foreseen by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, but if executed, it will back ISIS further into a corner and deepen its moral and political bankruptcy.