On Aug 19, 2014, the Islamic State (IS, earlier known as ISIS) released a video showing the beheading of American photojournalist James Wright Foley. The incident has shocked the world and the US in particular, despite the savagery and brutality exhibited by the IS over past couple of months in Iraq.
The incident may also a be a turning point in terms of how the IS and its “caliphate” engages with the rest of the world, specifically the US and other countries such as Britain, Germany, France, Canada, Italy and Finland who are partnering the US in its intervention in Northern Iraq.
The beheading of the US photojournalist has been preceded by three significant events in Iraq: the first sustained US airstrikes against the IS; the first joint action by the Kurdish and Iraqi military and the first reverses for the IS in Iraq during the battle for Mosul Dam. The last two events shattered the apparent invincibility of the IS against local opposition, especially when they present a united front.
Earlier this month, the IS in a characteristically sweeping strike had taken over Mosul Dam, the city of Sinjar, and a series of towns and villages north and east of Mosul after the armed fighters of the Kurdish state or the Peshmerga retreated, at times without a fight. The capture of Mosul Dam , like the capture of Mosul city earlier, was a high point in the IS’ efforts to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, as the militants now controlled one of Iraq’s most vital facilities.
The Peshmerga and the Iraqi army recently retook Mosul Dam and those same villages, but only after US intervention and a series of intense airstrikes that targeted IS convoys, armoured vehicles, gun and mortar pits, and other military targets. Iraqi Special Forces and Peshmerga had made swift gains during the attack with US air support. The retaking of Mosul Dam was the first time Iraqi, Kurdish and US forces had come together to launch a major ground assault, and is the only place where the IS and its allies have lost ground. A week ago, US airstrikes had also helped Kurdish fighters to halt the IS advance towards the Kurdish capital, Irbil and retake two small towns in the vicinity. The US airstrikes have scripted a small yet significant turnaround of the situation in Iraq.
The IS’ capture of Mosul Dam on Aug 7 came just hours before US President Barack Obama announced his decision to send the US air force back into action in Iraq. Besides the 16 airstrikes on the day of attack on Mosul Dam, nine strikes had been carried out the previous day. During the US air campaign around Mosul Dam a total of 40 reported strikes were conducted: nine on Aug 16, 16 on Aug 17, and 15 on Aug 18. For the first time bomber aircraft were involved in the Iraqi air campaign. It was the biggest offensive since the latest US intervention in Iraq was announced and signalled the expansion of what was originally defined as a narrowly focused mission to protect US personnel in Iraq. Since Aug 8, the US military has struck more than 70 IS targets.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) website, American photojournalist James Foley was kidnapped on Nov 22, 2012, by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria. The beheading video was first released by Al-Hayat Media on the social networkjoindispora.com and starts with a clip from a press conference where US President Obama had announced his decision to use airstrikes against the IS in Iraq. This is followed by the footage of an airstrike, supposedly by the US against an IS target.
Next, the video shows Foley, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and kneeling down, with a masked man dressed in black and wielding a knife standing by his side. Foley appeals to his family and friends to pressure the US government to end its attacks against the IS and also addresses his brother John, a US air force personnel, and asks him to reconsider his, and his comrades’ actions against the IS. Later in the video the masked man says that “any aggression towards the IS is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who’ve accepted the Islamic caliphate as their leadership.”
The video also featured Steven Joel Sotloff, a second American hostage in IS custody, who is threatened with a similar fate if the US does not stop its attacks against the IS. Sotloff was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013 and freelanced for Time, the National Interest and MediaLine. The point here is that the two US citizens were taken hostage by the IS sometime back with the intent to use them as bargaining chips. IS was reportedly demanding a multi-million dollar ransom for Foley. The US airstrikes and the loss at the hands of the Iraqi army and Peshmerga appears to have antagonised the IS to the point of killing one of the hostages to drive home their message on air strikes.
The US military’s recent success in inflicting losses on the IS and retaking Mosul Dam in Iraq appears to be generating wider support for using US air power for further action against the IS’ heartland northwest of Baghdad. Military planners are considering new airstrikes to prevent IS from taking control of another strategic site, the Haditha Dam, which lies in Iraq’s Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province. At the same time US planners are mindful of the fact that armed groups opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria have already acquired an estimated several hundred portable anti-aircraft missiles that are highly mobile, difficult to track and accurate but with limited effectiveness against high flying fighter aircraft.
This is not the first time US has used its air power in its War on Terror to turn the tide of events to its advantage and that of its allies. Neither is it the first time that inability to counter US air strikes has intensely frustrated the militants and terror groups. The IS, like the Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban before it, is going react in an unconventional manner. The characteristic response would be to attack soft targets outside the zone of conflict. Bombings, hostage taking and suicide attacks are likely to be their “weapons” of choice. In case of the IS it is likely to fall back on its growing army of foreign jihadists to literally take the battle “home”.
The IS had released another video on Aug 19 that gave the strongest indication of its intent to strike US targets. The video with the theme “Breaking of the American cross” boasts IS will emerge victorious over “crusader” America. The latest footage speaks of a holy war against the US. The video showed footage of US President Barack Obama as well as strategic ally King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and attacks on US soldiers.
The significance of carrying out a terror attack in the US would be immense for the IS, but countries like US, UK are better prepared than most in dealing with such threats on their own soil. This might deflect the IS, in at least the near term, to seek targets in less-prepared countries where their comparatively loosely organised (yet virtually anonymous) cadres would stand a better chance of success. A course of action that would see IS transit from being a regional menace to a global threat.
(Monish Gulati is a Senior Research Fellow with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at[email protected])
This article was published at South Asia Monitor.