What Happens If ISIS Keeps Beheading Americans?

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Sept. 2 2014 3:41 PM

What Happens If ISIS Keeps Beheading Americans?

ISIS has now beheaded a second American hostage. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the terror group posted a video showing the killing of Steven Sotloff, a journalist who has been held for months but whose captivity was made public only two weeks ago, when he was shown at the end of the video depicting James Foley’s killing.

Though I have not seen the video, a still image circulating online shows a similar setup to that of the Foley killing, with Sotloff kneeling in an orange jumpsuit in a desert landscape next to a fighter in a black mask holding a knife. The New York Times reports:

In the video, Mr. Sotloff describes himself as “paying the price” for the Obama administration’s decision to strike ISIS targets in Iraq. The same masked fighter with British-accented English who appeared in the video of Mr. Foley’s beheading also appears beside Mr. Sotloff, asserting, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”
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The first question brought on by the repetition of this horror is how long it can continue. According to SITE, ISIS is threatening a third captive, a Briton named David Cawthorne Haines. ISIS is also believed to have at least two more Americans in custody. Last week it was reported that one of them is a 26-year-old female aid worker.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

What would ISIS gain by continuing to behead hostages? The purpose of the Foley video was fairly clear—to demonstrate its ruthlessness to potential supporters and make clear to the United States that there would be consequences for its military intervention in Iraq. (The method of execution also may have been a nod to ISIS’s founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and an implicit rebuke to its former partners in al-Qaida.)

But if the first video made these points, what strategic objectives will its sequels accomplish? It certainly seems unlikely to deter U.S. military action. In fact, the Foley killing seems like the impetus that pushed the administration into at least considering expanding military action into Syria.

The killing also seems to have had a measurable impact on U.S. public opinion:

Almost exactly a year ago, national surveys showed Americans opposed strikes in Syria by more than 2-1. But a USA TODAY/Pew Poll earlier this month found Americans backing airstrikes in Iraq by 54 percent to 31 percent.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans now identify ISIS as a “major threat” to the U.S., more than Iran’s nuclear program and second only to al-Qaida. Until recently, ISIS was dealing with a White House that was extremely reluctant to involve itself in more Middle East conflicts. Now it’s facing a U.S. public that wants action and an administration that’s going to have a much harder time avoiding it.

ISIS may be ruthless and fanatical, but it would be impossible to expand as quickly as it has thus far without an understanding of strategy. The group’s leaders surely know that they are likely drawing the U.S. military further into this conflict and believe this is to their advantage. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, with help from the U.S. and Iran, seem to be rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq, so the group’s best hope of remaining a viable and prominent militant group may be to go underground and continue to inflict terror on its enemies. And those enemies aren’t just American. ISIS also recently released videos showing the beheading of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter and a Lebanese soldier.

Hopefully this strategy will backfire before any more hostages are killed.

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