Tactic of terror: What’s behind the gruesome strategy of the Islamic State?

Another video portraying the beheading of a foreign hostage was released Saturday by the Islamic State. What's behind this gruesome strategy? Tom Sanderson from the Center for Strategic and International Studies joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the issue.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For more about the tactic of beheadings adopted by Islamic State fighters, we are joined now from Washington D.C. by Tom Sanderson. He is co-director of Transnational Threats Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. So, what purpose do these videos serve?

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    Well, many purposes. One, it certainly is designed to terrorize the West, the population, the public representing that particular individual, into potentially in the hopes of ISIS deter for their action. You know, these groups know, especially ISIS knows that some nations pay ransoms to release their individuals and they know that if they present this as the option for not paying a ransom, that perhaps they can split the coalition that the partners have signed up to confront ISIS.

    So that's one reason — terrorizing and potentially splitting. The other certainly about the empowerment both for themselves and for those young men they are trying to recruit. At this point in the current state of the battle, the U.S. can hit ISIS with impunity: we'll have drones in the battle, we have aircraft now — we don't need boots on the ground — so ISIS can't hit back and bleed us, but they can through our civilians, through the reporters, through NGO workers, humanitarian workers or whatever.

    So this to them levels the plain field to some degree. It's also about revenge, clearly — the orange Gitmo jumpsuit is about hitting back, and it's very difficult to strike the U.S., so this gives them that opportunity to satisfy that need of actually inflicting the pain on the West.

    That brings me to the third part, that is, the recruitment element, the propaganda tool. And this is very satisfying for young men who come from countries where they are marginalized, where they are subject to harsh treatment, where they feel denuded and impotent. And this gives them a sense of power that they are probably never had before.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, on the first point, when you said this is — maybe a way to fracture the parts of coalition — it seems to be galvanizing the West against them.

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    Yep. Yeah, right now, and the people that they've hit are the U.K. and the U.S., and we have been very resolute in our act and our disposition toward ISIS. But I think in the future, you could see more of these attacks, more of these beheadings against citizens from coalition countries as an effort to split them, to split the partnership.

    Whether this will work or not, I don't know, but certainly it is one of the few tools that ISIS will be able to use against that coalition. So I would expect to see this as an effort in the future.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is it working on the recruiting front?

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    I think so — I certainly think that the, again, these young men, 10,000 or more, you know, upwards of maybe 15,000, who come see this as one of the few methods that ISIS and themselves, by extension, can take against the West. And again, it's not coincidental that the orange jumpsuit is being used here.

    So I do think it serves as an effective propagation, a propaganda tool for these young men who, again, are coming from places where they are marginalized and there is no sense of empowerment.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is there a point of diminishing returns here for Islamic State with these videos?

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    Well, it's difficult to say. I think there are diminishing returns for the beheading videos. It could be that simply the first one that came out with James Foley really shocked Americans and shocked the West, but as they continue, if they do continue and I hope they don't, it could be an diminishing effect for ISIS as they conduct these.

    I think Americans will continue to stiffen; our resolve is strong right now, so I think that ISIS will find that they don't have the same kind of effect. But it remains to be seen what sort of impact it has on the U.S. public, the publics of our partners, both locally in the region as well as in Europe, and then among those recruits.

    So it's very difficult to determine its long term effect.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what about the media's role, or responsibility in how these images are repeated, over and over again.

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    Yeah. Well, I think we've seen a clear change where media is trying to conduct a blackout of these videos, and I think that's very good, which points to the fact that there is the propaganda value here for the video.

    So I think that it's been good that Twitter and other media forms, including visual media, have been able to shut down and reduce the incidences of the videos being shown. So that's good. But I think there's always a way around that, and I think ISIS is going to be able to find those ways and reach the people that they want to reach.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Alright, Tom Sanderson from The Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much.

  • TOM SANDERSON:

    Great, you got it.

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