“Another message to America and its allies,” says the grisly video, released Friday by the jihadist group ISIS, or the Islamic State. This time, the victim is British hostage Alan Henning. “Because of our Parliament’s decision to attack the Islamic State, I, as a member of the British public, will now pay the price for that decision,” the doomed man says in his scripted farewell. The video ends with a warning to President Obama: If U.S. air strikes on ISIS continue, an American hostage, Peter Kassig, will be next.
Morally, these are homicide videos. But politically, they’re suicide videos. They’re the means by which ISIS accelerates its own destruction. For months, ISIS rampaged through Iraq, seizing land, wealth, and weapons. No power capable of stopping the militia was willing to stand in its way. The United States, sick of war, hoped to stay out or do as little as possible. Even after President Obama announced air strikes on Iraq on Aug. 7, more Americans opposed the strikes than strongly supported them.
The videos changed that. By issuing threats and ripping off the heads of Americans, Brits, and a Frenchman, ISIS thought it would scare us away. The words spoken on camera delivered that message explicitly: Get out and stay out, or we’ll kill more of your people. But the videos didn’t dampen American, British, or French support for military action. They increased it.
On Aug. 19, nearly two weeks after Obama announced his air strikes, ISIS posted its first video of the murder of a U.S. citizen. The victim was journalist James Foley. “You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs,” the executioner told Obama. He presented Foley’s death as a warning that further assaults “will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
The air strikes continued, and on Sept. 2, ISIS posted another beheading video, this one ending in the death of journalist Steven Sotloff. The executioner, again addressing Obama, called Sotloff’s death a punishment for “your insistence on continuing your bombings.” He concluded:
Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people. We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.
Along the way, ISIS posted other decapitation videos. One featured a Kurdish soldier, with a message to Kurdish leaders: “You have made a big mistake by joining hands with America.” Others showed the murders of captive Lebanese soldiers. On Sept. 13, ISIS posted another video, this time beheading aid worker David Haines and addressing British Prime Minister David Cameron. “This British man has to pay the price for your promise … to arm the peshmerga against the Islamic State,” said the executioner.
Your evil alliance with America, which continues to strike the Muslims of Iraq and most recently bombed the Haditha Dam, will only accelerate your destruction, and playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only drag you and your people into another bloody and unwinnable war.
On Sept. 22, ISIS urged its followers to kill “the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State.” The message singled out “especially the spiteful and filthy French.” A militant group in Algeria, claiming allegiance to ISIS, responded by seizing a Frenchman and threatening to kill him unless France stopped bombing ISIS in Iraq within 24 hours. Two days later, the group released a video of his decapitation.
If, as advertised, these videos were meant to intimidate citizens of the United States, Britain, and France, they failed. In June, well before most Americans knew much about ISIS, a CBS News/New York Times poll asked about the possibility that “U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria will lead to a long and costly involvement there.” Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults said they were very concerned about that risk. But in the latest CBS/Times poll, taken more than a week after the Sotloff video, the percentage expressing that level of concern was down to 40. In fact, after the videos, Americans were more likely to say Obama should have kept troops in Iraq all along. In the June poll, 50 percent of respondents said the U.S. “should have removed all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.” Only 42 percent said the U.S. “should have left some troops.” By September, that gap had vanished. Forty-seven percent said we should have left some troops in Iraq; 46 percent said we should have removed them all.
Public support for arming the Kurds also increased. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Aug. 13–17, prior to the Foley video, a plurality of U.S. adults—49 percent to 45 percent—opposed “providing arms and ammunition to the Kurdish military forces, who are opposing the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.” But in a follow-up ABC/Post poll, taken Sept. 4–7, just after the Sotloff video, those numbers flipped. Fifty-eight percent of respondents supported arming the Kurds; only 32 percent were against it.
Cutting off the heads of Americans, while telling the U.S. public to stay out, clearly backfired. A Pew survey taken Aug. 14–17, prior to the Foley video, asked Americans whether they were more concerned that U.S. military action against ISIS would go too far or that it wouldn’t go far enough. Fifty-one percent worried more about going too far; only 32 percent worried more about not going far enough. A month later, after the Foley and Sotloff videos, that entire 19-point margin had dissolved. The percentage of respondents who worried more that the United States wouldn’t go far enough had jumped 9 points, while the percentage who worried more that we would go too far had dropped 10 points.
The videos can’t account for every shift in the polls. Advances by ISIS on the battlefield no doubt played a role, as did panicky rhetoric from U.S. politicians. Still, it’s noteworthy how much of the surge in enthusiasm for military action occurred during the period in which the videos were released, as opposed to the period in which Obama declared ISIS a threat to U.S. interests and launched strikes against it. In the June ABC/Post poll, only 45 percent of Americans endorsed “U.S. air strikes against the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.” Fewer than half of these supporters (20 percent of the total sample) said they supported such airstrikes strongly. By Aug. 13–17, a week after Obama’s announcement, support had increased by about 10 points: 54 percent supported air strikes, and 31 percent supported them strongly. But by Sept. 4–7, after the Sotloff video, support had climbed much higher. Seventy-one percent of Americans supported air strikes, and 52 percent supported them strongly. From these numbers, one could argue that the ISIS videos were twice as effective as Obama in rallying American support for war.
Support also rose in Britain. YouGov surveys of U.K. adults show two big spikes in public support for “the RAF taking part in air strike operations” against ISIS: one after the Foley video, another after the Sotloff video. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 5, the British public’s net margin of support for air strikes ballooned from 1 to 28 percentage points. The Haines video, released on Sept. 13, did nothing to stop this trend. In fact, the margin of support continued to increase. By Sept. 25, it stood at 33 points (57 to 24 percent), giving the British parliament a mandate to join the fight.
In France, the effect was more dramatic. In a survey taken Sept. 18–19, French adults were almost evenly divided on whether their country should participate in military intervention against ISIS. Fifty-three percent supported joining the fight; 47 percent opposed it. A week later, after Algerian ISIS followers decapitated a Frenchman to punish the country for its meddling, support for a French role in the military campaign rose to 69 percent, while opposition fell to 31 percent.
U.S. military leaders call ISIS a “learning organization.” But a learning organization would have figured out by now that its videos, despite their message to stay out, were having the opposite effect. To rationalize the continuing production of videos, you’d have to postulate that ISIS, while trying to form an infant caliphate, wants to engulf itself in a war not just with the United States, but with European military powers (and Australia and Canada) as well. That’s just too far-fetched.
There’s a simpler explanation. ISIS isn’t a learning organization. It’s a killing organization. And it can’t stop killing, even when what it’s killing is itself.