The gruesome video claiming the life of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not a sign of strength for the terrorist group. It is, however, indicative of the sheer brutality of its fighters and a tactical move to escape its Iraq woes by striking in Syria, the safer and more conducive sanctuary.
While it is still unclear how Foley ended up in ISIS’ hands even though the group did not have a strong foothold when he was first captured in Aleppo in November of 2012, his killing fits perfectly the ISIS playbook. It is a playbook that puts it at odds even with its parent organization, al-Qaeda, but can offer a glimpse into the group’s thinking and ambition leading to Foley’s killing.
Daniel Byman, director of research and a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, tells Al Arabiya News that ISIS is “highly ideological but that does not make it irrational.” He defines the group as having “very effective propaganda, and unlike al-Qaeda, its focus is on regional and local wars and guerrilla conflict” instead of a global war.
The Foley killing, following the serious setbacks ISIS has incurred in fighting with Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, is a message to the group’s supporters rather than a “message to America” as the video was termed. The group who is relinquishing control of the Mosul Dam, and is being pushed back from Western Iraq, needed to reassure its supporters that the one-month-and-a-half old “Islamic State” is not crumbling and that it has the muscle to hurt the United States, as it stood helpless receiving the 84 airstrikes.
The video combines ISIS two assets: savagery and propaganda. It is through the first that it has managed to terrorize Syrians and Iraqis while taking over cities like Raqqa and Tikrit and Mosul. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has strongly relied on beheadings, lynching, and other barbaric acts ever since it emerged in Iraq at the helm of Abu Musaab Zarqawi in 2004. Its current leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi is drawn into publicity stunts which include an English monthly magazine and a Youtube station. This helps ISIS attract money and foreign recruitments in the likes of the alleged British Jihadist who spoke perfect English while holding the knife to Foley’s throat.
Relocate to Syria?
The killing of Foley in northern Syria while ISIS is on the defensive in Iraq, is a reminder that of the group’s territorial expansion and ability to operate with relative ease inside Syria. Byman who is an expert on counterterrorism, says “ISIS can be pushed back in Iraq with a combination of Iraqi and Kurdish forces and U.S. airpower”. This push is gaining political momentum with the Iraqi polarizing Prime Minister Nouri Maliki stepping down, and the beginning of the talks on a new inclusive government headed by Haidar Abadi.
The new Iraqi dynamic especially if the Abadi government reconciles with the tribes of Anbar -who mostly sided with ISIS in June-, could at the very least complicate the group’s calculus inside Iraq. Byman warns, however, that “it will be hard to inflict deeper blows on ISIS without addressing the problem in Syria.” He adds that the “group can train, recruit, and organize from Syria and its leaders have sanctuary there when necessary.”
Syria, where ISIS chose to retaliate by killing Foley, is a recruitment hub for the terrorist organization given the state of the conflict, and the porous borders. Just last month, ISIS has reportedly attracted at least 6300 fighters into Syria, and is making advances in Aleppo while it loses territory in Iraq. Crucial to ISIS power in Syria, has been according to Byman “its willingness to have limited tacit deals with the (Syrian President Bashar) Assad regime while both focused on other militant groups.” In Iraq, however, ISIS is “at war with several groups that might not otherwise be hostile” such as the Kurds and the Yazidis.
Opportunistic and flexible
According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence officials describe ISIS as “patient, well-organized, opportunistic and flexible.” They also don’t see ISIS collapsing on its own.
For his part U.S. President Barack Obama, even after Foley’s death, has shied away from expanding the scope of the airstrikes into Syria. Byman does not expect such an escalation either. “For now I do not see the airstrikes expanding to Syria” he says, adding that “the Obama administration was reluctant to enter the fray” in the last three years, and the current reality can prove to be more messy for a risk-averse President.
Foley’s killing is an opportunistic publicity performance for ISIS. It allows it to recapture some momentum among its ideological barbaric base and resurface in Syria where it is less likely to be targeted by U.S. airstrikes or marginalized through a political solution in the near future.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam