20 August 2014
James Foley works in Aleppo, Syria, August 2012. Photo: Nicole Tung
There is something disturbing about the fact that the murder of a single Westerner should elicit greater shock and garner more attention than the torture and killing of hundreds upon hundreds of Syrians and Iraqis stretching back years, but if this is what it takes to bring home the sadism and cruelty of the so-called caliphate, so be it.
I did not watch the Islamic State’s propaganda snuff movie of James Foley’s murder (the word “execution” is utterly misplaced), and it should not be screened, circulated, or given undue publicity, but the audio clipsconvey one of it’s most chilling aspects: the distinct British accent of his killer.
Just over a month ago, former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove argued that more than 500 Britons who had joined IS were “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures” who would be better ignored. There are indeed plenty of young Britons who travelled to Syria, only to find that they lacked the stomach for the fight.
But the act of beheading a hostage on tape, having forced him to renounce his country, is something quite different. Indeed, it seems plausible that IS would intentionally choose a Briton to oversee this atrocity, precisely because of their intended audience. IS want to dissuade Western powers from taking on their caliphate, and what better way to convey the message than a voice all the more disturbing for its familiarity?
IS has always sought to use beheadings instrumentally, and this is no exception. They were careful to parade another hostage, Steven Sotloff, in yesterday’s video and declare that his life depended on Obama’s “next decision”. IS will be aware that both Britain and America are in the midst of debates, within government and amongst the public, over how far to go.
Although it’s unlikely that IS’ specific intention was to drive a wedge between Washington and London – after all, James Foley himself was American – it’s clear that this is a moment of uncertainty in the West. The grotesque spectacle of beheadings – orange jumpsuits, masked captors, desert landscape, and formulaic, coerced last words – are all intended to resonate amongst Western publics, as they are on today’s front pages, reinforcing that uncertainty, and breaking our will to take on a distant threat.
The role of a Briton should also underscore the scale of the problem that we face. Even by November of last year, the flow of foreign fighters to Syria had become, according to terrorism researcher Thomas Hegghammer, “the largest European Muslim foreign fighter contingent to any conflict in modern history”. The sheer numbers of those involved makes it extremely hard for the intelligence agencies to discern the relatively small proportion who are capable of such brutality and, more significantly, inclined towards perpetrating acts of terrorism in Europe.
Last week’s distribution of pro-IS leaflets on Oxford Street – an obvious incitement not just to violence, but to outright revolutionary terror – was a troubling reminder of the ideological sway of IS’ message and the legitimacy they have built through the past month’s military conquests. What is clear is that there are a sufficient proportion of hardened fighters and hard-core ideologues such that the threat cannot be dismissed as a handful of foolish, adolescent firebrands.
And this, ultimately, is the most important point: terrorist groups have beheaded hostages and prisoners, Westerners and non-Westerners, for many years. What is shocking is not that they are extreme sadists, but that they are extreme sadists with a conventional army and nation-building aspirations. This is what makes them different. By their own admission, their aim is to “drown all of you in blood”. They are incapable of compromise, uninterested in moderation, and hell-bent on territorial expansion. In the face of such intimidation, and such pathetic attempts at propaganda, our resolve to completely destroy Isis, by both political and military means, should only be stiffened.