To the chronicle of its depravities, ISIS has now added a new chapter by beheading two Japanese hostages. A Jordanian pilot who was captured by ISIS may be the next to go, if he has not been murdered already. ISIS, which reportedly seized at least 23 foreigners, now has only a few of them left, including a male British journalist and a female American aid worker.
Some are starting to wonder what ISIS has achieved with its high-profile executions. And indeed the countries targeted in its grisly beheading videos–Britain, the U.S., Japan–have not knuckled under. Indeed these executions have had the opposite reaction, leading the U.S. and the UK to begin military action against ISIS along with European and Arab allies. In Jordan, support for its role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been growing, rather than shrinking, as a result of the threats confronting its captured pilot who hails from a prominent tribe. Even Japan, which historically has not used military force abroad, is now threatening retaliation for the murder of its hostages.
So is it safe to say that ISIS’s brutal tactics have backfired? Not so fast. Its barbaric actions may cause revulsion but they also inspire fear among many and help to keep millions of dollars in ransom payments flowing for the release of European hostages. There is even a small subset of Muslims who are inspired by the spectacle of the “Islamic State” waging merciless war on “infidels” (however innocent). These admirers are presumably among the 1,000 or so foreigners a month traveling to Syria to join ISIS and rival groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. Most of all such atrocities keep ISIS in the news and serve as a counterpoint to news of setbacks it has suffered, such as the loss of Kobani in northern Syria to Kurd fighters backed by American airpower.
Certainly since ISIS began its beheadings last summer, it has suffered setbacks; U.S. Central Command claims that 6,000 of its fighters have been killed in that period by coalition airpower. But in that time ISIS has managed to hold onto Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq while actually expanding its control in Syria.
So horrific as ISIS’s tactics are, it’s too soon to call them a failure, largely because the Obama administration has placed so many limitations on American participation in the anti-ISIS coalition (e.g., no “boots on the ground”) and has done so little to mobilize anti-ISIS fighters among the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. As long as that continues to be the case, ISIS will get away with its hideous crimes.