ISIS’s New Beheading Video; Casus Belli, Or A Trap?
The latest ISIS video is horrible and barbaric but we should not take the bait they are offering before considering the consequences of our actions going forward.
A video by ISIS was released overnight which claims to depict the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kessig as well as, in a separate segment, more than a dozen Syrian soldiers, marking the latest attempt a provocation from the group which President Obama has vowed to “degrade and destroy” in both Iraq and Syria:
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The Islamic State released a video early Sunday showing a black-clad executioner standing over the severed head of what they claim is an American aid worker, a former Army Ranger who disappeared over a year ago at a checkpoint in northern Syria while delivering medical supplies.
The footage — which has not been independently verified — is significantly different from those of four other hostage executions the militants have filmed. Unlike the deaths of James Foley and others, the actual killing of the former Ranger, Peter Kassig, is not shown. And he is not made to deliver a final message. The camera pans across the boots of the hooded killer. Between his feet is a decapitated head, blood smearing the cheek.
“This is Peter Edward Kassig, a U.S. citizen of your country. Peter, who fought against the Muslims in Iraq while serving as a soldier under the American Army doesn’t have much to say. His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf. But we say to you, Obama,” says the British-accented fighter who has appeared in previous beheading videos and has been nicknamed Jihadi John by the British press. “You claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars.”
A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the United States intelligence community was aware of the video and “working as quickly as possible to determine its authenticity.”
“If confirmed, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American aid worker and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” the spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan, said in a statement.
Mr. Kassig’s parents, Ed and Paula Kassig, posted a statement on their Facebook page saying they were waiting for the government’s findings regarding the authenticity of the Islamic State’s report. They asked the media not to publish or broadcast “photographs or video distributed by the hostage takers.”
“We prefer our son is written about and remembered for his important work and the love he shared with friends and family, not in the manner the hostage takers would use to manipulate Americans and further their cause,” the couple’s statement said.
Mr. Kassig, 26, was based in Gaziantep, this city in southern Turkey roughly one hour from the Syrian border, last year, where he ran a small aid group dedicated to helping victims of Syria’s civil war. He was abducted on Oct. 1, 2013, on his way to Deir al-Zour, Syria. Initially held separately, he was transferred late last year to a prison beneath the basement of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo, and then to a network of jails in Raqqa, the capital of the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate. He was one of at least 23 Western hostages held by the group, and his cellmates included Mr. Foley, as well as the American freelance journalist Steven J. Sotloff, who were beheaded in late summer.
The footage purporting to be of Mr. Kassig’s severed head comes in the last moments of a 16-minute video tracing the history of the Islamic State, from its origins in Iraq as a unit under the control of Osama bin Laden to its modern-day incarnation in the region straddling Iraq and Syria. The black-hooded killer is shown conducting a mass beheading of captured Syrian soldiers, who are led out by the scruffs of their necks. Each fighter is shown grabbing a knife from a bowl. Then the victims are forced to kneel. They are beheaded at the same moment.
Kassig is the fifth Westerner, and the third American, to be apparently murdered by ISIS since the summer and, like a few of those before him had previously converted to Islam, a fact that obviously did not save him in the end. As for the video itself, which like its predecessors I did not watch, have no plans to watch, and will not link to, it appears from descriptions that it may be even more horrific than the ones that have come before since it apparently does depict the beheading of the Syrian soldiers, in whole or in part, and purports to show what the narrator of the video claims to be Kassig’s severed head. As with the previous videos, it’s horrible, outrageous, and reveals quite a bit about what motivates ISIS and how they would rule if they would ever obtain greater power and territory. At the same time, though, I think it’s important to recognize these videos for what they are, propaganda videos that are intended to outrage, mock, and terrify people in the West while at the same time standing as some sort of perverse recruiting tool for jihadists and sympathizers both in the Middle East and in parts of the West that have served as recruitment areas for the types of foreign fighters that intelligence officials in Europe and North America have increasingly become worried about. It also seems clear to me at least that these videos seems designed to provoke a response from the West just as many other acts of terrorism are, with the theory being that the response will end up being one that creates more enemies for the West and, in the end, does little to actually quell the threat that it’s aimed at. Given the history of our responses to terrorism in the past, making a bet like this isn’t at all irrational.
In that regard, Jazz Shaw has a response to today’s video release that I am quite sure a lot of people are going to agree with:
It is long past time to put an end to this. The Iraqi army is essentially useless. The Turks have no incentive to help us and would barely qualify as an ally at this point, if they are to be considered allies at all. Israel has the muscle to do the job, but they really can’t get involved for what should be obvious reasons. The Brits are on board and doing what they can, but David Cameron had to move Heaven and Earth just to get his divided government to go along with air strikes. They are not about to unleash an army into those deserts on their own. The rest of the EU will stay on the sidelines and, for the most part, pacify the terrorists. From your trip to Australia, you said last night that boots on the ground might be required “if ISIS acquired a nuclear weapon.” If that is a red line in the sand, it was drawn too far down the field by a huge measure.
Woodrow Wilson desperately wanted to avoid going to war and the nation was largely behind him in that reluctance. But when the time came, in April of 1917, he pulled up his big boy pants, went before Congress and requested a declaration of war. In that address he said, The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. We have seen how other nations will respond and you do not have the luxury of an assembly of world leaders ready to fight at your side. You may have to lead the way onto the battlefield alone. This is the terrible, lonely responsibility of the job you sought. With luck, others will follow, but leading from behind is not an option here.
It’s time to meet ISIS on the field of battle and bring an accounting which is long past due.
As a preliminary matter, I do have to agree with Jazz somewhat on his representation of President Wilson’s approach to the First World War in the years before 1917. While it’s true that Wilson maintained a public stance of neutrality between the Allied and Central Powers, subsequent history has made clear that there was a clear bias in his policy choices in favor of the allies, including but not limited to openly allowing American arms and other aide to go to Great Britain and France in defiance of the German blockade, which can hardly be descried as a the actions of a true neutral. If anything, hindsight would view Wilson’s actions in the years before 1917 as an effort to bait the Germans into provoking the United States into developing a causus belli that Wilson could use as an excuse to enter the war, which the Germans were foolishly only to happy to provide. If anything, the lesson of World War One isn’t that we need to act sooner rather than later, but that we need to be far more careful about what kind of conflicts we allow ourselves to get involved in, which is unfortunately a lesson that we obviously did not learn as our involvement in everything from Vietnam in the 1960s to Iraq from 2003 to 2011 has shown us all too painfully.
This is a lesson that I would suggest we are not really taking into account as we rush head long into a conflict against ISIS that could set in motion events that only make the Middle East, and American national security, worse off in the long run. There’s no question that ISIS is a brutal force that could potentially become a threat to the West at some point in the future. At the moment, though, it is quite clearly more of a threat to the political future of Iraq and Syria, where it continues its efforts to expand and consolidate its territorial advances. If it has ambitions beyond those two nations, they are more likely to lie in the direction of Lebanon, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia than they are the United States or Europe. To the extent they pose a direct threat to the West it is as either a source or inspiration of terrorist attacks that are more on the level of the Boston Marathon bombing or the recent attack in Ottawa. While we most assuredly must do something to prevent those kinds of attacks, it seems questionable to me at the least that meeting ISIS “on the field of battle,” which suggests in the end the same kind of land war that Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us to avoid is the best way to do that. Indeed, I would suggest that drawing the United States and the West into that kind of long, sustained war is exactly what ISIS is trying to provoke because they believe that it will draw the wider Islamic world to their side and reinforce the general impression in that part of the word that the U.S. and the West are their enemies.
All of this is to say that I do not believe that this horrible video, or any of the ones that preceded it or which may follow, should, in and of itself, be a significant factor in determining how we proceed forward with regard to ISIS. I’m willing to accept the idea that there is some response to the threat that they pose to the region that we need to discuss, but the problem I have had from the time that the President began taking action in the summer has been three-fold,. First, there does not seem to be a coherent idea of what our goals are. In just the space of a few months we’ve gone from a humanitarian mission, to one designed to protect American diplomats and aid workers, to one designed to aid the Kurds trying to retake the Mosul damn, and, now, to what effectively amounts to a declaration of war against ISIS without an actual declaration of war. Second, without a coherent goal, there can’t be a coherent strategy, which is why we find ourselves relying on ground support from entities such as the Iraqi Army, which has been knocked back on its heels so badly that it needs to be retrained and refocused, which is clearly a long term project, so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels who clearly are more concerned with deposing Assad than fighting ISIS even if they can be trusted (which is doubtful), and Kurds that are understandably more concerned with defending their own territory than defending an Iraqi or Syrian nation that has done nothing but victimize them. Third, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of coherent vision of what the end game looks like. For example, are we going to fight the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, or are we going to recognize that perhaps the borders drawn by French and British diplomats at the end of World War One might not be best suited for the future of the region going forward? Finally, as I noted yesterday, even if we have answers to all of the first three it is simply inappropriate for the President to proceed on his own without Congressional debate and authorization. After all, if we are going to take ISIS on as serious as some are suggesting, then it ought to be after some kind of public debate about the goals, strategy, and end game ratified by the representatives of the people, not the decision of one man acting behind closed doors on the recommendation of his hand picked advisers.