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Why Islamic State kills hostages

ISIS executionsAs we know, one burgeoning income stream for the psychotic would-be caliphate is ransom payments. Despite a covenant between Western states to not pay out for the safe return of citizens kidnapped by terror groups of whatever persuasion, Islamic State has a tendency to release Danes, French and Germans who’ve fallen into their clutches. A rare moment of pity? An attempt to divide the coalition arrayed against it? Or is mercy redeemed through bundles of cash made payable by a labyrinth of back channels? I know what I believe.

This is scant compensation for British and American hostages currently held by IS. Unlike other governments whose commitment to not paying ransoms might be less than absolute, this is one foreign policy both states have stuck to. Is know this, so what does it gain from kidnapping journalists and aid workers, and then bragging about their brutal murders?

Writing of the September 11th attacks, the late Jean Baudrillard argued they were acts of semiotic terrorism. The World Trade Centre, The Pentagon, The White House were targeted not so much for the maximisation of casualties but their symbolism as universally-regarded signifiers of American power. These kinds of operations seem beyond the capacity of IS to pull off, even if it is reasonable to assume some of its ex-fighters have made their way home from Syria and Iraq. But as medieval thugs with a situationist sense of the spectacle, they have to rely on smaller scale but no less shocking ways to outrage and disgust.

As Stalin reputedly noted, the death of one man is a tragedy yet the death of a thousand is a statistic. This is the insight that informs the IS manual on semiotic terror. The parading of the victim, the boilerplate denunciation of the West and its works by Jihadi John, and the fade out before the hostage is murdered – leaving the viewer to play the terrible act through their mind – and then showing the body is carefully calibrated and contrived to disturb, upset and anger. Sophisticated, and all the more chilling for it.

Unlike the Nazis who, despite the scale of their crimes, attempted to conceal them; IS positively revels in its brutality. The murder meted out to British and American hostages is on a continuum of terror and murder. Apostates and infidels, anyone not conforming to their twisted notions of religious purity are right to be fearful should IS gobble up their town or village. This, of course, is not accidental. Projecting violent imagery is psychological warfare designed to create panic among civilians behind enemy front lines. As well as dealing with logistics, Iraqi army and Peshmerga have their resupply schedules affected by refugees fleeing their homes.

But it also has the opposite effect. IS brutality has galvanised the Kurdish response and, suddenly, the West have forgotten the PKK are on its terror list and are showering it and Iraqi Kurds with all manner of weaponry. But to return to the main point, IS criminality projects an image of radical seriousness. To alienated young Western Muslims undergoing bedroom radicalisation, IS are the real deal. Unlike fusty mosque goers preaching understanding and tolerance, these brothers and sisters are wading through blood to build a caliphate. The image of the boiler suited hostage isn’t just about outrage. It’s a recruitment pitch.

Lastly, for the IS fighters themselves – especially those from the West – murdering hostages is a form of substitutionism. It works on two levels. In revolutionary socialist groups, the activist from a non-working class background often has to deal with issues of “authenticity”, even if its a prolier-than-thou superego that’s piling on the guilt. Something similar happens with Western jihadis. They may have suffered racism, Islamophobia, prejudice and discrimination of some sort, but compared to IS fighters drawn from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan they might feel “less real”. Hence they will tend to overcompensate by volunteering for dangerous missions, suicide bombings, or the business of torture and execution.

British jihadis, for example, are reputed to be among the most fanatical, murderous and pitiless fighting under the IS banner. The second level is payback. Try as they might, IS will not goad Western troops into a ground war with them. Drones, special forces, and air power is elusive and next to impossible for them to counter. American and British hostages, unfortunately, are the only means they have at “striking back”. They are stand-ins for targets they cannot reach.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: Al Jazeera

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