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News Analysis

Islamic State Must Pay Price for Beheading U.S. Journalist

From the Islamic State's video of American journalist James Foley's beheading

From the Islamic State's video of American journalist James Foley's beheading

by: 
Ryan Mauro

The Islamic State has beheaded American journalist James Foley and is promising to do the same to missing American reporter Steven Sotloff if the U.S. does not end its air strikes against the jihadist group in Iraq. Islamic State supporters are ecstatic on Twitter.

The U.S. must respond immediately to deliver the Islamic State a blow that is impossible to dismiss.

It was a bad week for the Islamic State. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, including female fighters, are battling the Islamic State and recently succeeded in taking back the strategic Mosul dam. American airstrikes are giving Iraqis hope that the success of the Islamic State has peaked.

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has resigned, resulting in Sunni tribal leaders declaring their support for Iraq’s new Shiite President and willingness to work with a new Iraqi government in fighting the Islamic State in return for autonomy. 

These events took the momentum away from the Islamic State, and the terrorist group had to change the headlines. And it did.

The Islamic State murdered Foley, who was probably transferred to the Islamic State  from the Syrian regime that it is fighting to overthrow. That sounds counterintuitive, but Bashar Assad has a complicated strategy aimed at ensuring that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda dominate his opposition.

Even though the Islamic State is calling on its supporters to kill any American anywhere, social media accounts of Islamic State supporters reviewed by the Clarion Project specifically tried to pre-empt criticism over the murder of an unarmed journalist. Photos posted of him in military fatigues are common, as are claims that he was secretly working for the U.S. government. One account described him as a “member of the Crusader army.”

The video of the beheading that the Islamic State released on YouTube showed footage of Saudi King Abdullah, indicating he is the next target. Clarion Project previously reported on an Islamic State graphic indicating that offensives into Jordan and Saudi Arabia were planned, even before conquering Baghdad and southern Iraq.

A senior U.S. official made an alarming admission. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk said the Islamic State is now a bigger threat than Al Qaeda. “[The Islamic State] is better equipped, they’re better manned, they’re better resourced, they’re better fighters, they’re better trained than the Al-Qaeda in Iraq that our forces faced,” he said.

The Islamic State now rules one-third of Syria and one-third of Iraq. It has learned from other Islamists and has focused on putting together a stable and functioning government.

“[The Islamic State] is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world because they combine the fighting capabilities of Al Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah,” said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who worked with General Petraeus in turning Iraq around during the “surge.”

It is generally estimated that the Islamic State has 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, not including allies amongst Syrian rebels and Iraqi Sunnis. Yet these estimates are considered by some experts to be too low.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes the Islamic State has five times that number in Syria alone. The estimate of 50,000 is substantiated by an Islamic State source that spoke to Al-Jazeera, who added that it has another 30,000 fighters in Iraq.

The Islamic State is a major threat to the West. Thousands of Europeans have gone to Syria to wage jihad. Earlier this month, an ex-convict from North Carolina became the eighth American to be arrested before making the trip to Syria this year. Seven of the eight are Islamic State supporters. Over 100 Americans have already gone to Syria.

The pairing up of the Islamic State with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) makes this threat exponentially worse, as AQAP has a proven track record of recruiting Americans, targeting the U.S. homeland and devising creative terrorist plots and weapons.

It is reported that AQAP’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, has sworn his allegiance to the Islamic State. He is one of the most feared terrorists in the world. He masterminded the plot to blow up U.S. cargo planes with bombs hidden in ink cartridges as well as the barely thwarted plot to destroy another  airliner with an underwear bomb. He is thought to be working on new explosives to be hidden in shoes and smartphones.

The gravitation of Al Qaeda affiliates to the Islamic State will accelerate as the Islamic State gains momentum. AQAP has reiterated its loyalty to Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, but has endorsed the Islamic State (without professing loyalty to its leader or its declared caliphate).

Zawahiri and the “central” Al Qaeda aren’t the talk of the town anymore. A leader in Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate is even publicly complaining that Zawahiri hasn’t responded to his letters in two months and won’t admonish the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate.

IS has eclipsed Al Qaeda in all but one area: an attack on U.S. soil. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, undoubtedly wants to fix that.

The U.S. cannot dislodge the Islamic State over the short-term. It requires a multilayered broad strategy. But the U.S. can blunt its momentum and show the world that murdering Americans brings immediate consequences.

Few things are as important to the Islamic State as the perception of momentum. As Clarion Project explained previously, battlefield results are critical to expanding or undermining support for jihadists. Immediate action against the Islamic State isn’t only about retaliation; it’s necessary for the ideological war.

In the coming days, the Islamic State  must be made to retreat. There must be steady headlines reflecting their losses. Top leadership should be neutralized. Claims of momentum must be shown as nothing more than bravado and propaganda.

A solid majority of Americans -- 65% -- support air strikes on the Islamic State in Iraq. Only 23% disapprove, likely reflecting a small segment of the population whose opposition to any military action is unshakeable. And these percentages were compiled before the beheading of Foley.

While is true that the Islamic State has threatened to respond to any action by taking the life of Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped in Syria last August, it must be realized that the Islamic State will execute him even if the U.S. were to end its airstrikes in Iraq.

That’s because the Islamic State’s ideology is not limited to U.S. foreign policy, the mistreatment of Iraqi Sunnis or the Syrian dictatorship. These goals are merely subsets of their grand goal of instituting sharia (Islamic) law across the globe.

The latest Islamic State video provides proof that it believes it is commanded by Allah to wage violent jihad until the U.S., Christianity and all other religions are eliminated. All other demands are stepping stones towards this ultimate end.

The Islamic State said it seeks the "breaking of the American cross." That is not another way of saying it wants to defeat the U.S. military.

It’s actually a reference to Islamic prophecies about Jesus discrediting Christianity by coming to earth and breaking a cross before instituting sharia governance worldwide and eliminating all religions but Islam. IslamWeb Fatwa 124824 talks about the day when Jesus “will break some crosses and command people to do the same.”

The Islamic State believes it is paving the way for the fulfillment of a prophecy; a bloody prophecy that ends the U.S., democracy, religious freedom and leaves only sharia rule.

The beliefs of the Islamic State are a recipe for perpetual war and brutality. The Islamic State must not be validated due to American inaction, delays and half-measures.

 

Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on Fox News.