20 Aug 2014

James Foley: the danger is this murder will not be the last

Nothing is happening by chance. If we characterise militants from Islamic State as simply barbaric and savage we are failing to understand their strategy or the extent of the danger they pose. Their cruelty has a purpose.

They murdered James Foley, a 40-year-old American journalist, 21 months after capturing him in Syria, at a time when they believed it would have maximum impact.

In the video, produced by the al-Furqan Media Foundation – we will not link to it because we don’t want to promote their propaganda – he appears to be healthy, an indication that they had been holding him for exactly such a moment.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, about 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria, 20 of whom remain missing believed to be in captivity.

Before the end of 2012, it was difficult but possible for journalists to cover the war in Syria from the rebel side, but after the jihadi extremists started their kidnap policy it became far more dangerous.

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army, who had previously facilitated trips by journalists, used their contacts to try to release reporters who had been captured but with diminishing success. In other cases, it is reported ransoms may have been paid.

Read more: Islamic State video claims to show US journalist beheading

Kidnapping was used as a tactic by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) between 2004 and 2007. Contractors like Nicholas Berg and Ken Bigley were murdered. They, like James Foley, were forced to wear Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits, but the videos and message were less sophisticated in those days.

The killing of AQI’s leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, in a US airstrike in June 2006, combined with a US programme to pay Iraq’s Sunni tribes to fight Al Qaeda was instrumental in bringing relative peace to Iraq – at least until recently.

The video of James’ killing describes itself as “A message to America” and starts with the speech President Obama gave when he announced airstrikes on Iraq on 7 August. James’ murder was blackmail – we’ve done this and if you don’t stop, we’ll kill another. The reporter Steven Sotloff, also dressed in orange, was shown as the potential next victim.

It’s hard to imagine the dread he and his family are going through now, not to mention the families of all those still held. This won’t stop the US airstrikes – in fact, it’s likely to firm up wavering western resolve to deal with IS. The jihadis don’t mind that – it shows how powerful they are, taunting the enemy.


The fact that the voice threatening James appears to be British only makes further military action more likely, and may pull the British into the war.

The prime minister – who has rushed back from his holiday – has described IS as a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean”, while previously stating that British troops will not go into action to hold them back.

Such reluctance seems increasingly untenable. His great fear is that British jihadis will come back and sow terror here, and that battle cannot be waged only through intelligence.

The video is also a recruitment tool, appealing to angry young extremist men who glory in violence. Jihadis, from al-Qaeda to IS and beyond, debated the role of terror in a document called “The Management of Barbarism.”

Read more: why we shouldn’t share – or view – the video of James Foley’s murder

Al-Qaeda regards IS as too violent. Documents found by Rukmini Calliachi, a journalist then with Associated Press, in Timbuktu in January 2013, showed jihadis in Mali holding back on strict sharia punishments to win the acquiescence, if not the support, of the population. They are reported to have done the same in Mosul.

Such hearts-and-minds tactics, however, would never extend to unbelievers. Jihadis divide people into Muslims and non-Muslims, not combatants and civilians. In the area extending across Syria and Iraq IS is establishing the Dar el Islam – Land of Islam – they last attempted in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Then, westerners, including journalists and aid workers, could sometimes operate with the permission of senior commanders. Not in this jihadi state today. Those who favour the most extreme violence as a tactic are on the ascendant, and the danger is that this murder will not be the last.

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