The ability to shock and terrify

The BBC reports that a police chief in al-Baghdadi, Iraq reports that IS torched 45 people there.

Jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS) have burned to death 45 people in the western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi, the local police chief says.

Exactly who these people were and why they were killed is not clear, but Col Qasim al-Obeidi said he believed some were members of the security forces.

IS fighters captured much of the town, near Ain al-Asad air base, last week.

Col Obeidi said a compound that houses the families of security personnel and local officials was now under attack.

Shiraz Maher explains why IS does things like torching people to death.

Content warning.

Even by the barbaric standards of Islamic State, the murder of the captured Jordanian pilot is particularly gruesome. The 26-year-old is paraded around the site of an alleged coalition airstrike, presumably to witness its effects first-hand.

He is then placed in a metal cage and set alight. The scenes are harrowing, the screams of anguish unimaginably horrific.

The slow, soft focus cinematography – coupled with primitive sadism for which IS’s videos have come to be known – is always designed to shock.

It was quite deliberately aimed at capturing the world’s attention.

That of course is evident enough. They make these videos for a reason, and what other reason could there be?

Questions abound over how or why IS could do this. To understand their mindset requires a brief examination of Islamic, or Sharia, law.

IS believes in a principle known as “qisas” which, in its broadest terms, is the law of equal retaliation. Put another way, it is the Islamic equivalent of “lex talionis”, or the doctrine of an eye for an eye.

Within Islamic law qisas typically relates to cases of murder, manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (such as the loss of limbs) and creates a framework for victims (or their families) to seek retributive justice.

In other words, they believe in a principle that dates from a time when very few people had thought carefully about retributive justice, a time when moral thinking had not made much progress. That was then, this is now. This is the thing that makes religion so dangerous – the fact that it puts a veneer of justification on the refusal to allow morality to make progress. It makes it seem respectable to continue to believe in a “principle” that if it were a secular “principle” would be obviously horrific and sadistic. It makes it seem respectable to embrace sadistic retribution as a principle.

All armies want to develop an edge over their adversaries. Typically this involves investment in better hardware to project more power and menace.

IS knows this is not an area where it can compete.

Instead, what it has is asymmetric power – the ability to shock and terrify with videos such as the one released on Tuesday. As always, we are the audience and the aim is clear – to shock and scare us.

As was the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, as was the attack on the blasphemy conference and the synagogue in Copenhagen. It’s all a big ol’ Surrender Dorothy.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The Atlantic has a long piece by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants”, that provides a lot of context as to how ISIS sees itself and why that appeals to many Muslims.

    Their desire to fulfill prophecies and induce Armageddon (perhaps more properly called Dabiqeddon, as they foresee the Ultimate Battle at the Syrian town of Dabiq rather than the Israeli/Palestinian valley of Har Megiddo) will seem rather familiar to those of us who’ve dealt with apocalyptic fundie Christians.

  2. lorn says

    Not only does it show the world that they are so committed that they are willing to do anything to back their cause. Commitment and confidence in the cause is good. They also show they can usually get away with it. Nothing shows power so much as transgression with impunity. When and if they shift from capturing wide swaths of land and millions in resident populations and negotiate this extreme action is going to make every lesser crime and even the most outrageous demands seem quite reasonable. Anything short of torching people is going to seem like a major step in the right direction. This is going to be an advantage in negotiations, at least in the short term.

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