On Feb. 3, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) published a video showing the immolation of captive Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh. Pundits quickly concluded that the viciousness of his execution was ISIL’s desperate bid to dissuade the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition from further strikes. By this logic, its tactic backfired: Kassasbeh’s execution led to more airstrikes and caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.
It is naive to assume that ISIL did not foresee Jordan’s military response or the outrage among Muslims at the burning of a fellow Muslim or the sensationalism of Western media. These were rather obvious consequences. Jordan’s deepened engagement, the heightened polarization of the Muslim community and the increasing U.S. support for intervention serves ISIL’s strategic interests. In fact, it burned Kassasbeh to death to provoke such responses.
ISIL also felt it necessary to escalate the horror of its executions because the decapitations were growing stale, even as the group was running out of foreign hostages. For example, after the beadings of the Japanese hostages, U.S. President Barack Obama responded by urging the media not to exaggerate the ISIL threat. By contrast, Kassasbeh’s immolation drew the Arab monarchies back into the theater and prompted Obama to request authorization for use of military force from Congress.
The barbarity of the immolation also provoked America’s most-watched news network, Fox News, to broadcast the uncensored propaganda video on air and online — causing widespread celebration by ISIL. Its strategy of inducing panic seems to be working. Although most Americans recognize the anti-ISIL campaign is going badly, they overwhelmingly support Obama’s request for war powers, even to the point of deploying ground troops.
ISIL’s immolation of Kassasbeh, then, was not a strategic blunder. It appears to be a well-calculated and highly successful scheme to pull its enemies into the conflict it wants. This seems to be lost on the anti-ISIL coalition that continues to play into the extremists’ hands.
ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: The country is among ISIL’s top recruiting grounds. The former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who is credited for laying the foundation for ISIL’s rise, was Jordanian. (Zarqawi was killed in U.S. airstrikes in 2006.) ISIL knows that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIL campaign is unpopular and that King Abdullah is struggling to maintain his credibility amid the country’s endemic social and economic problems.
To the extent that ISIL is able to withstand Jordan’s retaliation and continue to challenge Abdullah’s regime, it bolsters the group’s legitimacy and makes the government seem weak or inept. This effect will be more pronounced if ISIL can coax Jordan into deploying ground troops in Syria and Iraq.
Outside the region, ISIL is aware that its provocative actions provoke Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination against Muslims. The group proudly touts progress in achieving a clash of civilizations because the marginalization or persecution of Muslims in the West ensures the continued flow of foreign fighters to ISIL.
ISIL knew Kassasbeh’s death would not play well among most Muslims. But mainstream Muslims were never their target audience.
ISIL attempts to explain virtually all its actions under the auspices of religion. However, killing people by immolation is a clear transgression of Islamic norms — forbidden by the prophetic injunction that “only God tortures by fire.” Therefore in burning Kassasbeh to death, ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has basically presumed rights reserved for God.
The group justified this apparent sacrilege by quoting jihadi-favorite scholar Ibn Tamiyyah, progenitor of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence, from which Salafism emerged. Ibn Tamiyyah authored the concept of takfir (excommunication), which under certain circumstances allows the righteous to declare fellow believers as apostates and treat them as such. This is an important distinction: the Quran mandates that Muslims protect other “people of the book,” and even shields nonbelievers under the injunction that there can be no compulsion in religion. But infidels are held in contempt.
However, even if takfir justifies treating believers as apostates, the Prophet Muhammad expressly forbade this specific mode of execution. To circumvent this injunction, ISIL turned to another controversial ruling by Ibn Tamiyyah, which permits the righteous to defensively engage in depraved and illicit acts to dissuade the enemy from further aggression.
Since burning Kassasbeh to death, ISIL has immolated a number of Iraqi civilians for cooperating with security forces. The incidents have a common thread: The victims were all Muslims accused of collaborating with the enemy. ISIL did not burn alive its American, European and Japanese captives or Arabs from religious minorities.
It is remarkable for a Salafi fundamentalist movement to suggest that juridical rulings can overrule the prophet’s direct prohibition. Its attempts at justification failed. Jihadists widely condemned Kassasbeh’s immolation, with Al-Qaeda holding it up as a “conclusive proof of ISIL’s deviance.” One of ISIL’s own clerics even broke rank, calling for Kassasbeh’s executioner to be arrested; he was promptly arrested himself.
Kassasbeh’s burning, then, was part of ISIL’s broader propaganda war. ISIL tries to set itself apart by doing what other jihadist organizations are unwilling or unable to do. It flagrantly violates the rules and norms of its competitors, transcending their limits and co-opting their media attention.
ISIL knew Kassasbeh’s death would not play well among most Muslims. But mainstream Muslims were never its target audience. Instead ISIL’s exogenous recruits tend to be new converts to Islam or the newly devout as well as extreme fanatics from other jihadist groups or opportunists driven by financial, political and other material concerns. Thus Baghdadi is willing to alienate local populations to entice these recruits, who are critical for ISIL’s long-term solvency.
It knows that the indigenous Sunni population will turn on them sooner or later. In fact, Baghdadi took control of what was then the Islamic State of Iraq in the aftermath of the Anbar Awakening — in which the Sunni population in Iraq’s Anbar province, alienated by the group’s brutalities, joined a tenuous coalition with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. The uprising drove the group to the precipice of extinction. It continues to execute locals who oppose it with extreme vengeance to forestall another revolt, derisively referring to opponents as Awakening forces, indicating its continued concern of a new revolt.
To hedge against this risk, ISIL is increasingly shifting its emphasis from local governance, focusing instead on drawing in foreign fighters from the diaspora and raising the next generation of extremists. But even within Iraq and Syria, ISIL’s conquests have prioritized sparsely populated areas, allowing them to basically carve a settler state out of ungoverned territories and partially insulating them from the indigenous population.
While ISIL’s initial recruits were largely Iraqis and Syrians, its future lies with foreign fighters. It is an existential imperative to keep the flow going. And one of the best ways to keep the recruitment pipeline going is to position itself against Middle Eastern autocrats and Western imperialism. The U.S.-led bombing campaign and commensurate counterterrorism trends have resulted in the surge of foreign recruits. ISIL hopes to lure more unpopular actors such as Jordan and the United States more heavily into the theater. The question is whether the U.S. and its allies will take the bait.
The U.S. and its anti-ISIL allies can deprive the group materially by restricting the flow of fighters, illicit funds, resources and arms into the region. This entails cutting off aid to nonstate actors and proxies in Syria and across the rest of the Middle East, as these assets often end up in the hands of radical groups such as ISIL.
Western powers can deny ISIL new fodder for propaganda by reconsidering the extent and modes of their cooperation with Israel and Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs. This would reduce complicity in these governments’ abuses and help spur positive sociopolitical developments in the region. These measures would greatly undermine ISIL without further airstrikes or boots on the ground.