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The grisly strategy behind ISIS’s taped executions

ISIS fighters in Kirkuk in February 2014.
ISIS fighters in Kirkuk in February 2014.
(Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There's a simple explanation for why ISIS would burn Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive and broadcast it to the world: they're monsters who enjoy killing people. And that is true. But ISIS tends to be strategic as well as barbaric, and indeed there are strategic rationales that could explain this murder, and would be consistent with the group's past actions.

ISIS translates attention into power

ISIS

(CNN)

The video of al-Kasasbeh's murder is arguably the most horrifying murder tape ISIS has released yet, with long shots of the pilot burning alive.

Publicizing this kind of murder is consistent with the way ISIS governs its territory in Syria and Iraq. A UN report interviewed 300 people who lived inside ISIS territory and found a clear pattern of public killings and executions. "By publicizing its brutality," the UN concludes, "the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology."

How does publicizing horrifying murder "attract recruits?" One big audience, especially for these taped executions, is foreigners interested in joining the jihad.

According to a study from the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, up to 20,730 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight in the wars there. The Center's director, Peter Neumann, told me that a huge percentage of these fighters have fought for ISIS. "Of the Westerners [who've traveled to the region], the vast, vast, vast majority — 80 to 90 percent — are joining the Islamic State today," he says (figures for non-Western volunteers are harder to come by).

These foreigners are attracted to, among other things, ISIS's macabre theatricality. After the Jordanian video was released, "Islamic State members took to Twitter to applaud the pilot's death, calling it an eye for an eye," the New York Times reports. By showing that they're the most brutal, hardcore fighters in the block, they signal to radicals thinking about going to Syria that ISIS, not its competitor al-Qaeda, is the right team to play for.

In the weeks before this murder, ISIS's taped brutality had been attracting less attention. Here's a Google Trends search for "ISIS beheading" from July 2014 to February 2015. It shows declining interest in each new ISIS video:

isis beheading google trends

(Google)

By releasing a video that's different and arguably more gruesome than its beheading tapes, ISIS is trying to to re-excite its fanboys, and send a message that anyone who crosses them will meet with a terrible end.

ISIS may be trying to leverage fear into money

ISIS fighter

An ISIS militant in Syria. (AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS makes a lot of money from mob-like extortion and oil in their Syrian holdings. But lately, they've been pressed: ISIS has a shortage of expert oil workers, and coalition airstrikes have pounded their oil production infrastructure. A report by the German BND (its equivalent of the CIA) in November concluded that many public estimates of ISIS's oil revenue are "hugely overblown."

ISIS has another form or revenue: ransoms. "The Islamic State reportedly has been paid millions of dollars in ransom for its hostages, particularly in the past six months, making hostage-taking an important form of financing," the New York Times's Rod Nordland reports. According to Nordland, ISIS has operatives hunting for more hostages, particularly foreign journalists.

Publicizing the horrible fate of ISIS prisoners might be a way of trying to get leverage in future ransom negotiations. They're telling governments that this is what happens to your citizens if you don't pay up.

This stratagem hasn't worked out well recently. ISIS recently demanded $200 million in exchange for two Japanese citizens, but the Japanese government refused to budge. ISIS eventually killed the hostages, but got nothing for it.

And Jordanians are furious with ISIS. Jordan's government, a member of the American-led anti-ISIS military coalition, is promising an "earth-shattering" response.

So while intimidation may be ISIS's strategy here, it might end up backfiring. "Killing the second Japanese was a big mistake and they got nothing for it," Clark McCauley, a professor at Bryn Mawr College, told Nordland. "These people are in many ways their own worst enemies. You just have to give them time and space and their extremity will alienate their own base."