Will ISIS brutality backfire?

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: ISIS has launched a sophisticated PR campaign to scare Iraqis
  • Ghitis: The group likes to publicize its horrific deeds, but this will surely backfire
  • She says, incredibly, even al Qaeda has criticized ISIS for being too ruthless
  • Ghitis: ISIS's brutal tactics create enemies; Iraqis will not embrace the group's rule

They want all of us to cringe -- and they have succeeded. The Islamic radicals suddenly barreling across Iraq want to make sure people are horrified at their deeds.

Leaders of the organization that calls itself ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have launched a sophisticated propaganda campaign that turns the most basic principles of public relations on their head. No PR executive would advise a client to shout to the world details of his most gruesome acts and the extent of his cruelty, but that is precisely what ISIS is doing, and doing so very deliberately.

The images of mass executions, of men digging their own graves before being shot in the back of the head, are splashed on the world's newspapers, television news and social media.

And that's exactly what ISIS wants. It is an important strategic tool that's already paying off in the battlefield. But it also points to a weakness that brings into question the long-term viability of ISIS's territorial gains.

Frida Ghitis

There is no way to fully verify that the photographs and videos are real, but there is reason to believe they are. After ISIS bragged about committing a massacre, claiming it executed 1,700 Iraqi security personnel, the U.N.'s human right chief said the militants have conducted an "apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions (which) almost certainly amount to war crimes." Multiple sources confirm that ISIS executed hundreds of Iraqis, including many who had surrendered.

When ISIS posted chilling images of mass executions on a Jihadi website, an Iraqi military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Wassim al-Moussawi, reportedly verified their authenticity.

By advertising its brutality, ISIS is frightening at least some of its enemies into surrender. The tactic has proved effective, but recent history shows the plan sows the seeds of its own defeat, ultimately creating more enemies and closing off any possibility that the population will embrace the group's rule.

Combining a campaign strategy with battlefield advances is easy to see.

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A few weeks before ISIS launched its lightning attack on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, it had already softened the ground with their gasp-inducing campaign. The objective was clear and the results were a rout, a disaster for the Iraqi government.

A professionally-produced video, "The Clanging of the Swords IV" -- the fourth in a series -- opened with a map of the target region, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Then it went on to show ISIS gunmen executing Iraqi soldiers. Iraqi Shiite men with shovels digging their own graves, drivers at ISIS roadblocks pulled out of their cars and shot.

When ISIS launched its offensive, demoralized and frightened Iraqi soldiers terrified of ISIS and feeling little loyalty to the government in Baghdad, shed their uniforms and fled.

The media campaign helped capture Mosul, but the group was just getting started. One grisly tweet showed the head of a decapitated Iraqi officer and read, "This is our ball. It is made of skin. #WorldCup." It was another warning in the advance towards Baghdad. ISIS wants to establish a caliphate, an Islamic state governed by its extreme interpretation of Islamic law. The group has already conquered parts of Syria and is ruling there by its version of Sharia, but its territorial objectives are larger.

The shocking images are also meant to trigger an explosion of sectarian hatred between Sunnis and Shiites so that ISIS can emerge from the fighting with an expanded Islamist state.

The tactic, which ISIS has used in Syria and its predecessors used in Iraq, shows how difficult this battle will be for those aiming to stop the Islamists' advance. ISIS will observe no limits in killing civilians and terrorizing the population.

But experience shows that ISIS extremism provokes popular revulsion, which engenders a blowback against the group.

The organization had it start in Iraq, when its videotaped beheadings of hostages and its bombings of civilians in the streets proved too much even for Al Qaeda.

Named "Al Qaeda in Iraq" then, under Jordan's Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, AQI was so brutal that Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahri sent Zarqawi a remarkable letter urging him to ease up. "The Muslim populace...will never find palatable the scenes of slaughtering the hostages." Could he stop with the (justified) decapitations of Shiites, he asked. "Is it something that can be put off until the force of the Mujahed movement in Iraq gets stronger?"

Resentment against AQI's viciousness spawned extremism among Shiite militias and stoked an Iraqi civil war. The Sunni side was dominated by AQI, and the Shiites formed death squads of their own. By late 2006, Sunni tribal leaders fed up with the killings started the Sunni Awakening, which ultimately partnered with the United States and largely defeated AQI.

AQI, renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and later the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- ISIL), joined in the civil war in Syria. It tried to join other Islamist groups, even declaring it had merged with the Nusra front, Al Qaeda's proxy in Syria. But Nusra and al-Qaeda rejected the merger. Eventually, the clash with Al Qaeda ended in a dramatic clash between ISIS and other Syrian opposition groups and a total break with Al Qaeda.

Incredibly, al Qaeda, the perpetrator of 9/11 and countless other mass murders of civilians around the world, criticized ISIS for being too ruthless.

The horrifying ISIS videos and photographs presage much more carnage ahead for Iraq. But they also signal that this twisted PR campaign will spawn a wave of popular resentment that will no doubt undermine and weaken the group's hold on the country.

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