Following ISIL’s immolation Moaz al-Kasasbeh, many attributed the viciousness of his execution to the fact that he was a Jordanian pilot. The narrative is that the coalition airstrikes have been devastating for ISIL, and this extreme act was a desperate bid to dissuade allied forces from further strikes. By this logic, their tactic backfired: not only did the execution lead to more airstrikes, but caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.
There are many problems with this narrative, comforting as it may be—not the least of which its assumption that ISIL somehow couldn’t foresee that Jordan’s likely response would be to escalate. Or that ISIL was somehow surprised that most of their co-religionists were outraged that the group burned to death a fellow Muslim. Of course, these were rather obvious consequences, and it strains credulity that ISIL was taken off guard by them. Indeed, this deepened engagement by hostile powers and heightened polarization of the Muslim community actually serve ISIL’s strategic interests.
They burned alive Lt. al-Kassasbeh in the hopes of provoking a heavy-handed Jordanian response. ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: the country is among the top producers of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria; ISIL’s movement was started by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian released from prison in 1999 when Abdullah II took the throne. Accordingly, ISIL knows their adversary well–they know that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign is unpopular (despite the monarch’s best attempts to quell signs of dissent), especially given the country’s endemic social and economic problems; they know that the Jordanian monarch is already struggling to maintain his credibility.
And so, to the extent that ISIL is seen as directly challenging King Abdullah al-Thani, of being able to withstand his “earth-shaking” retaliation—it bolsters their own legitimacy even as it makes Abdullah seem weak or inept by comparison. Especially if they can successfully coax Jordan into deploying ground troops: the heavier Jordan’s investment, and the bolder Abdullah’s rhetoric gets, the more pronounced this effect will be.
Outside the region, ISIL is aware that their provocative actions alienate Muslims in Western societies, often provoking Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination. They proudly tout progress in achieving a “clash of civilizations” because, to the extent that the Muslim diaspora feels marginalized or persecuted, the greater the appeal of an “Islamic state.”
ISIL attempts to explain virtually all of its actions under the auspices of religion. However, given that cremation of the dead is disallowed for Muslims, actually killing people by immolation is a clear transgression of Islamic norms. In fact, it is expressly forbidden by the prophetic injunction that “only God tortures by fire.” Therefore, in burning Lt. al-Kassasbeh to death, “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has basically presumed rights relegated to God.
ISIL justified this apparent sacrilege by turning to jihadi-favorite scholar Ibn Tamiyyah, progenitor of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence, from which Salafism eventually emerged.
It was Ibn Tamiyyah who authored the concept of takfir–permitting the righteous, under certain circumstances, to declare fellow believers (to include Muslims) as apostates–and to treat them as such. This is an important distinction because, while the Qur’an mandates that Muslims protect other “People of the Book,” and even shields non-believers under the injunction that there can be no compulsion in religion (2: 256), infidels are held in contempt (e.g. 16:106).
ISIL has subsequently immolated others since the Jordanian pilot—mostly civilians. What they all had in common is that they were Muslims accused of collaborating with the enemy (i.e. “infidels” by ISIL’s standards). They did not, for instance, execute the captured Americans, Europeans, and Japanese by these means—or even their Arab captives from religious minority groups.
However, while the doctrine of takfir may “justify” treating believers as apostates—there is still the problem that this specific mode of execution was expressly forbidden by the Prophet.
Their first attempt to circumvent the injunction was to highlight the myriad Muslims who burned to death by means of bombings by coalition members (particularly, albeit not exclusively, by the United States)–for instance, by the aptly-named Hellfire missiles—arguing that they were basically responding “an eye for an eye.”
These analogies, however, failed to convince most that it was legitimate to burn Lt. al-Kasesbeh. So ISIL relied on another controversial ruling by Ibn Tamiyyah which permits the righteous to defensively engage in depraved and illicit acts against an enemy in order to dissuade them from further aggression.
It is a stunning move for a salafi to suggest that the ruling of a jurist can overrule a direct Prophetic prohibition, given that the fundamentalist movement was literally premised on the assertion that such theological maneuvers were perverse and impermissible. Accordingly, many jihadists have condemned the act, with al-Qaeda holding it up as “conclusive proof of ISIL’s deviance.” Even one of ISIL’s own clerics called for the executioner to be arrested (and was promptly arrested himself).
This is exactly the sort of reaction ISIL was hoping for.
Al-Kassasbeh’s immolation is part of ISIL’s broader propaganda war. The group tries to set itself apart as being willing and able to do what other jihadist organizations are not. It flagrantly violates the rules and norms of their competitors, transcending their limits and their co-opting media attention.
ISIL knew al-Kassasbeh’s death would not play well among most Muslims. But mainstream Muslims were never their target audience. Instead ISIL’s exogenous recruits tend to be new converts to Islam, or the newly-devout, as well as extreme fanatics from other jihadist groups, or opportunists driven by financial, political and other material concerns. Al-Baghdadi is willing to alienate local population to entice these recruits, who are critical for ISIL’s long-term solvency.
ISIL knows that the indigenous Sunni population will turn on them sooner or later. Remember, al-Baghdadi took control of the ISI in the aftermath of the so-called “Anbar Awakening”—wherein Iraq’s Sunni population, alienated by the ISI’s brutal oppression, were convinced to join a tenuous coalition with the central government and the United States; an uprising which drove the ISI to the precipice of extinction. ISIL continues to execute locals who oppose them with extreme prejudice to forestall another revolt, derisively referring to opponents as “Awakening” forces, indicating their continued concern of a new uprising. Again, ISIL burned Lt. al-Kassasbeh and the three other Iraqi Muslims largely as an example of what happens to traitors.
To hedge against this eventual revolt, ISIL began cultivating a presence in North Africa in October 2014—a month after the U.S.-led bombing campaign began. Increasingly they are shifting their emphasis from local governance, focusing instead on drawing in foreign fighters from the diaspora and gaining access to children to raise as the next generation of extremists. But even within Iraq and Syria, ISIL’s conquests have prioritized sparsely populated areas, allowing them to basically carve a settler state out of ungoverned territories, partially insulating them against the indigenous population when things go awry.
While ISIL’s initial recruits were overwhelmingly Iraqi and Syrian, their future lies with foreign fighters; accordingly, it is an existential imperative to keep the flow going. And one of the best ways to draw in more foreign fighters is to position themselves as fighting Middle Eastern autocrats and Western imperialism: foreign recruits have surged as a result of the U.S.-led bombing campaign—commensurate with broader counter-terrorism trends. This is why ISIL is trying to lure these unpopular actors more heavily into the theater.
Al-Kassasbeh’s immolation was meant as provocation. ISIL felt it necessary to escalate the horror of their executions because the decapitations were growing stale, even as they were running out of foreign hostages. For instance, after the beadings of the Japanese hostages, U.S. President Barack Obama responded by urging the media not to exaggerate the ISIL threat. The response to al-Kassasbeh’s immolation, on the other hand, was escalation—drawing the Arab monarchies back into the theater, and prompting Obama to suddenly push forward his request for the Authorization for Use of Military Force from Congress.
The barbarity of the immolation also provoked America’s most-watched news network, Fox News, to actually broadcast the uncensored propaganda video on air and online—causing widespread celebration by ISIL. Their strategy of inducing panic seems to be working: although most Americans recognize the anti-ISIL campaign is going badly, they also overwhelmingly support Obama’s request for war powers, and even to the point of deploying ground troops.
Accordingly, far from being a grievous error, ISIL’s immolation of Lt. al-Kassasbeh seems to have been a well-calculated and highly-successful move. So long as the anti-ISIL coalition fails to understand their enemy’s strategy, they will continue to play into the extremists’ hands.
The most effective way to kill a group like ISIL is to starve it to death. U.S. policymakers can deprive ISIL materially through measures restricting the flow of fighters into the region, especially if joined by policies to cut trafficking of illicit funds, resources, and (especially) arms. This would entail the U.S. and its allies cutting off aid to non-state actors/ proxies in Syria and the broader region, as these assets have generally ended up in the hands of ISIL and other bad actors.
Western powers can also deprive the militants of new fodder for propaganda by reconsidering their extent and modes of cooperation with Israel and Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs absent substantial political reform. This would simultaneously reduce Western complicacy with these governments’ abuses, even as it helps spur positive change to the socio-political environment in the region. The media can help by discussing Islam, ISIL, and terrorism more realistically and responsibly, with greater nuance and context. All of these measures would greatly undermine ISIL without a single dropped bomb or boot on the ground.
But unfortunately, U.S. policymakers tend to view military options as the first and best solution.