Skip to main content

Opinion: What is ISIS hoping its abhorrent beheading video will achieve?

By Erin Marie Saltman, Special to CNN
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Labeled as a
Labeled as a "Message to America," the video of U.S. journalist James Foley's execution has caused shockwaves in the West.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Video of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS militants sent shockwaves across world
  • "Message to America" aimed at striking fear in Western governments and citizens alike
  • Erin Saltman says new frontline for counter-terrorist practitioners is online extremism
  • "Only by empowering vast moderate majority can we turn tide against ISIS." says Saltman

Editor's note: Erin Marie Saltman is a Senior Researcher at Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism in society. Saltman is an expert on political socialization and processes of radicalization, analyzing both Islamist extremist and radical right trends, addressing ways of countering extremism. She has a particular expertise in online extremism and social media usage by terrorist organizations. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- The recent video depicting the final words and beheading of U.S. journalist James Wright Foley by someone that seems to be a British foreign fighter has sent shockwaves across the West.

The video has already been blocked multiple times from various video-sharing platforms, only to reappear as many times, something that once again emphasizes that the new frontline for counter-terrorist practitioners is online extremism.

Labeled as a "Message to America," the video adds another line of fodder to ISIS' tech-savvy and social media-driven propaganda and messaging. The scene is filmed on a high quality device with seamless editing of President Obama's speech authorizing military action against ISIS positions, something which it argues led directly to this, ISIS' brutal response.

Erin Marie Saltman
Erin Marie Saltman

The answer to why ISIS -- which refers to itself as the "Islamic State" ("IS") -- makes and popularizes such videos is simple: They represent a critical threat to the West on two levels.

On the one hand, the video directly warns the West of repercussions if its intervention continues. On the other, it represents a more subtle threat reminding Europe and the United States that their own citizens are vulnerable to being radicalized, that ISIS supporters are present all over the world.

In the past, most ISIS propaganda had focused on the development of the caliphate state and on securing territories within Syria and Iraq. The primary target audience had been Syrian and Iraqi military forces and militias. So, creating an elaborate display of beheading an American represents a distinct change in messaging, turning the threat towards the West.

The act is declared as revenge for U.S. air strikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq. Indeed, the apparently British militant conducting the beheading addresses Obama directly, declaring that any attempt "to deny Muslims liberty and safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people."

Who is James Foley's executioner?
Special ops were sent to rescue Foley
James Foley: In his words

Clearly, here ISIS is attempting to strip U.S. intervention down to the rudimentary "us versus them rhetoric" -- depicting the West, and specifically America, as a force that is continually trying to oppress Muslims the world over.

This is nothing new. In the ISIS English-language magazine, "Dabiq," Westerners are referred to as "Crusaders," linking present day events with historical events where Christians (predominantly, but not exclusively, from the West) have targeted Muslims. As such, the U.S. decision to commence military action in Iraq based on humanitarian concerns, without the equivalent military intervention of other Middle Eastern political powers has played into ISIS rhetoric against America.

ISIS knows that U.S. military action is unlikely to change based on one video. However, by making this threat and demanding that the U.S. stop military interference in the region, ISIS gives itself justification for direct action against American hostages and potentially justifies action against the U.S. directly.

Opinion: Beheading video poses challenge for social media

Using an apparently British foreign fighter to carry out the beheading in the Foley execution video was a deliberate act perpetrated in order to create the maximum impact and gain as much Western attention as possible.

The use of what seems to be a native English-speaker in the video forces Western viewers to recognize an individual who has wholeheartedly rejected his past, and who is committed to ISIS' cause -- willing to carry out the most abhorrent acts of violence in the name of its political program.

Western governments face an ongoing threat that their citizens will become radicalized and go abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Center for Near East Policy, estimates that almost 3,000 foreign fighters have left Western countries to fight in Syria. This is an unprecedented number, already far surpassing the number that left to fight in Afghanistan during the previous 10-year conflict.

The success of ISIS in promoting their cause and attracting fighters from abroad is a combination of an advanced social media strategy paired with a lack of counter-narratives. While ISIS supporters handing out leaflets on London streets may gain more media attention, it is ISIS' online presence that is its most powerful recruitment tool.

Fmr. hostage: US, Europe failed Foley
Was the ISIS militant a British citizen?
Who was James Foley?

ISIS has been a game-changer in terms of using Twitter, YouTube and its own online apps to engage with potential recruits, promote its victories and antagonize its perceived enemies.

Twitter feeds regularly depict an idealized image of a 5-star jihad to draw in young potential jihadists, often mentioning the availability of young local women who are marrying ISIS fighters. These same feeds also boast of "spoils" -- military weaponry and vehicles won in battle. Violence towards the enemy is also a common theme, largely because it threatens those willing to stand up to ISIS, something that cultivates intrinsic fear in future military and paramilitary personnel attempting to face the group.

Right now, we are woefully lacking in both online and offline content that stands up against ISIS messaging.

Counter-messaging needs to come from moderate theologians explaining why Islam does not condone the use of violence. Other community voices must be louder in their arguments against the validity of a caliphate state. Finally, governments must give a clear message about why they are intervening militarily in some areas, like Iraq, but unwilling to act in others, like Syria.

The extremist minority is exceptionally vocal and continues to overwhelm discourse on the validity of ISIS and its actions, particularly online.

Only by empowering and activating the vast moderate majority can we turn the tide against ISIS.

Would you watch the video?

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
ISIS
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
updated 2:47 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Former Kremlin adviser says Obama may be ready to deal with Putin on ISIS.
updated 7:18 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
The owner of an upstate New York food store funded ISIS, tried to send jihadists to Syria and plotted to do some killing himself.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
By producing the magazine, ISIS is taking a cue from al Qaeda, which has advocated terrorist attacks in its glossy publication, Inspire.
updated 2:47 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
After the beheading of another Western captive by ISIS, an international conference convened in Paris to talk about how to tackle the threat of ISIS.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
The beheading of British aid worker David Haines by ISIS has intensified fears for other Western hostages being held by the jihadist group.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
The atrocious murder of David Haines puts the United Kingdom and in particular PM David Cameron front and center in the evolving battle against ISIS.
updated 5:19 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
CNN's Anna Coren is on the front lines with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they fight ISIS in Northern Iraq.
updated 6:08 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Deb Feyerick explores the lives & dossiers of ISIS & Al-Qaeda's top leaders.
updated 10:41 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
The family of aid worker David Haines is speaking out about his brutal murder by ISIS militants. Nic Robertson reports.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
These are the nations involved and what's known about their contributions.
updated 7:29 PM EDT, Sun September 14, 2014
Three brutal executions. Three horrifyingly similar scripts.
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
ISIS has captured the minds of a new generation of global jihadists. What does it mean for al Qaeda?
updated 10:53 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Is it ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daiish?
Here's a look at some of the major instances in which the U.S. military took action against Islamist groups or international terrorism.
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Tom Foreman examines what we donĀ¹t yet know about ISIS.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
To the outside world, they're a force of ruthless yet mysterious insurgents bent on terrorizing civilians and expanding Islamic rule.
updated 4:21 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
ISIS has become the new face of international terrorism in the eyes of the United States and its Western allies.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
As its adversaries regroup, ISIS -- which now calls itself the Islamic State -- may begin to suffer setbacks on the battlefield.
updated 11:25 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
Will ISIS be the first terror group to build an Islamic state?
A CNN interactive showing the presence of ISIS in the Middle East.
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Jim Sciutto explains the similarities and differences between these Islamist jihadis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT