What ISIS got out of burning a man alive
IF YOU were unconvinced that radical Islam and the struggle against its violent acts are really a war of ideas, the beheadings of two Japanese hostages and the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should convince you. The group understands the nature of this war with an evil brilliance, even as the United States repeats its mistakes.
A few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know that the Japanese Prime Minister pledged US$200 million (S$271 million) in "humanitarian aid" in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as ISIS hostages for months? Or that the extremist group also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed Al-Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?
The world knows now. With three killings, ISIS' messages went viral, and it watched them pay off in strategic gains.
WHAT ISIS ACCOMPLISHED
Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other "war on terror" hot spots. Little seems to have changed.
Yet, via skilful manipulation of the global media, here are some of what ISIS accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:
ISIS humiliated two US allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.
The US - which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil - was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.
A key US partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), announced - based on the Jordanian pilot's capture alone - that it was suspending air strikes unless the US stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The US quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint.
Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against ISIS are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the US conducts some 80 per cent of the air strikes itself.
The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America's war into the open.
Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan's pacifist Constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many more deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge.
Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan's king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush's images of himself in a flight suit now are?
The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.
ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual-motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from US$660 million to US$1 billion.
To its core recruitment audience, ISIS saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. ISIS is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
WAR OF IDEAS
ISIS understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.
Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the ISIS video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.
Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting The Fuse: The Explosion Of Global Suicide Terrorism And How To Stop It, reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fuelled by US intervention.
And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that US forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980.
America's track record in the "war on terror" is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can't shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one.
ISIS has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask: So what do you have to offer?