What does ISIS hope to gain with horrific videos?

March 02, 2015 15:46
The Islamic State seems to think that graphic hostage beheading videos are the most "cost-effective" way to gain global attention. Credit: AFP

With the beheading of Japanese and Western hostages and the burning-alive of a Jordanian pilot, Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has shocked the world. Now, why is the jihadist group doing all these things?

According to Alex Schmid, a leading scholar on terrorism, the main goal of terrorist attacks is not for the revenge on the West, but the need for "publicity" in order to arouse fear among the public, spread the message of the organization and to absorb new members and to intimidate enemies.

As a matter of fact, the global network of ISIS is weaker than that of the Al-Qaeda during its golden age. ISIS' capacity to launch big-scale attacks is lower. As a result, the group has to rely on the brutal online beheading videos, as a "cost effective" approach to promote its name and draw attention.

It is not new for terrorists to behead hostages.

It happened in the Chechen War, for example. The first beheading to draw major public attention was from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid Wa’al-Jihad (JTJ), which was the forerunner of ISIS.

In May 2004, JTJ uploaded the first beheading video on a Malaysian website. In the video, a US contractor, Nick Berg, was beheaded. After that, JTJ released more videos about the executions of 11 hostages of different nationalities, including a US engineer, Eugene Armstrong, who was killed in 2004.

In the video, there were animated graphics and a noise-reduction technique to highlight sounds of anguish. A Hollywood movie maker even described the video was "an amateur version of the Hollywood effect".

Apart from spreading fear, beheading has its political and diplomatic goals. According to Ibrahim al-Marashi, an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, one of Zarqawi’s goals was to force the US-led alliance to change its policy.

For example, in 2004, Zarqawi threatened to catch and murder Filipino citizens. The Philippines then withdrew from Iraq. Other goals included stopping private investments in Iraq, and threatening the Iraqis who wanted to join the Western alliance.

Not all Islamic extremists agree on the practice of beheading. The current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to Zarqawi, saying that beheading incidents were against the Islamic teachings.

The more beheading incidents happen, the more conflicts arise among extremists. For example, the burning of the Jordanian pilot was viewed by many extremists as a misinterpretation of the Islamic law.

One might ask, how long can the effects of beheading videos last?

The executions of the two Japanese have drawn widespread attention in Japan. But to the US, the main enemy of ISIS, the impact of beheading videos is fading.

Prominent psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, who is the author of "Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted", said such videos can no longer stimulate Americans, as the videos are more or less the same. As more and more people join ISIS, other Americans seem to ignore the problem, she said. In psychological terms, it is called "cognitive dissonance".

In the era of Zarqawi, the effect of beheading had already begun to diminish. It would be worthwhile to see if JTJ's successor will understand the principle of "diminishing marginal utility".

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal