Explained: Why the Islamic State kills, why it has a free run

In burning alive Jordanian pilot Lt Muath al-Kaseasbeh, the Islamic State breached a new frontier of brutality.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: February 6, 2015 10:35 am
isis_m The West prefers to instead prop up the Iraqi army and regional forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. Building armies, though, takes time — and until then, IS is likely to thrive.

Why is IS executing prisoners?

The ultra violence is to a plan: terrorise potential opposition — like traditional tribal leaders — in territories it controls, provoke enemies into disproportionate retaliation that might rally around populations under IS rule. Jihadist ideologue Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah had argued in a 2004 tract, The Management of Savagery, that a condition-precedent for the creation of an Islamic state was to force its varied adversaries into an alliance — and that, he had argued, could only be brought about by calibrated violence. IS has had some success too — its brutal killings of Shi’as have led to retaliatory killings by Shi’a militias in southern Iraq, polarising the population, and winning the jihadists new recruits. And western involvement in the war is drawing in ever-more European recruits.

Why hasn’t the alliance beaten back the IS?

For one, the US isn’t actually committed to defeating the IS. President Barack Obama had stated his objective as “stopping the current advance”, which he did in the battle for the Mosul Dam, and at Kobane. The US and its allies do not want to get drawn into another long, expensive ground war. Experts like Doug Ollivant and Ken Pollack note that air power achieves relatively little against insurgents embedded in urban environments. Proponents for intervention, like analyst Pete Mansoor, concede that a ground assault will require around 15,000 US troops.

The West prefers to instead prop up the Iraqi army and regional forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. Building armies, though, takes time — and until then, IS is likely to thrive.

One reason India has stayed away from the fight is that it doesn’t want to provoke terrorist attacks at home. Russia and China have stayed away too, even though they have their own problems with Islamism.

Does the brutality shown by IS have anything to do with religion?

In the eyes of the IS itself, yes. Their leaders claim legitimacy for their actions from the Quran’s verse 47:4, which states that the heads of unbelievers must be struck off until they have been “crushed completely”. And yet, the IS’s ultra-violence isn’t something that has never been seen before. The Taliban, and their jihadist adversaries, have committed brutal war crimes, Pol Pot slaughtered 1.7 million and ran a school for torture, body parts have been hacked in ethnic-religious conflicts in Africa, and Mexican narco-cartels have castrated a captive alive and peeled skin from his face before beheading and hacking the body in pieces.

Again, the IS’s supporters are in many ways curiously modern: deriving their aesthetics from Hollywood B-films or ultra-violent video games. There’s some evidence that many IS warriors aren’t particularly interested in Islam, and use it only as a cloak to practise violence. Didier François, a hostage who escaped, said his captors didn’t even have a copy of the Quran.

THE HOSTAGES

20 foreign hostages are still known to be in IS custody. The fate of at least 100 others — including 39 Indians — is unknown. Thousands of Iraqi and Syrian nationals too are hostage, among them, Yazidi women kidnapped to be sold as slaves, and ordinary people held for ransom by criminal groups operating under the IS umbrella. A 26-year-old American woman is in IS custody, for whose release the group has demanded a ransom of $ 6 million.

THE IS FORCES

Estimated to have 15,000-20,000 fighting men, about 3,000 of them foreign nationals. In addition, it fields some 10,000 militia, made up of tribal and criminal affiliates. They are typically organised into highly-mobile motorised units of 200-300 fighters, backed by pilfered Iraqi army equipment, including T-72 tanks, anti-tank weapons, artillery and missiles. These units specialise in hit-and-run urban combat, often using suicide attacks for shock effect. They have no permanent military headquarters, logistics centres or communications facilities.

THE ALLIANCE

The US, UK, France, Canada, Australia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have carried out air strikes against the IS. Iran is waging a parallel war against the IS, and supplying the Iraqi armed forces. In all, 62 countries have contributed some form of military or financial aid to the effort. Plus there are the 271,000-strong Iraqi Armed Forces, the 150,000-strong Syrian army, and the 150,000-strong Kurdish Peshmerga militia.

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