ISIS’s final email to American journalist James Foley’s family reads like something out of a horror movie: “…WE WILL NOT STOP UNTILL [sic] WE QUENCH OUR THIRST FOR YOUR BLOOD.”
Even before they beheaded Foley and Steve Sotloff on video, ISIS was perceived by most Americans and much of the world as evil. ISIS fighters didn’t just kill for pragmatic reasons, they seemed to absolutely revel in bloodthirstiness: crucifixions, burying women and children alive, conversion or death. But the manner of Foley’s and Sotloff’s murders and the dissemination of the videos brought it home in an especially primal way for America, engendering a rare degree of relative consensus on the fact that the perpetrators of this act are very bad people indeed.
The ISIS videos are a form of theater for the entire world, in which Foley and Sotloff were cast in the role of victims for the audience to gape at. The victims in such a play have their lines written for them, and when they recite them they probably think it is just another dress rehearsal rather than their final role before death.
Despite our efforts, it is probably impossible as well as unnecessary to understand such evil. But it nevertheless can be described in terms of a hierarchy of the many functions it serves for those who commit it. The very first is intrapersonal: acts such as the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have an internal psychological purpose for their perpetrators, and there’s little doubt that part of the reason they do these things is because they enjoy them. Whatever the wellsprings of sadism are, these ISIS members drink from it; as they themselves say, they “thirst for blood.”
Then there is also an interpersonal message that their dominance and viciousness was meant to convey to Foley and Sotloff themselves, as well as to the remaining terrorist captives, which is that their kidnappers have almost unlimited power over them. But that pales in significance to ISIS’s more numerous targets, the videos’ viewers. With the advent of the internet, the audience for beheadings and other atrocities is potentially far more vast than it was in the days of the marauding barbarians or the guillotine.
The audience ISIS hopes to reach is multifaceted. One segment of that desired audience is the people in the community where the perpetrators currently reside. For the ISIS terrorists, knowing that they engender fear is its own reward, but it also has the more practical goal of attempting to gain the locals’ cooperation, or at least their capitulation, through their desire to avoid a similar violent fate.
Then there’s the audience in the larger Muslim world. ISIS believes there are many potential jihadis, both local and distant, whom they hope to inspire to join up by demonstrating the intensity of their bloodthirstiness and therefore their dedication to the cause. The majority of people in the Muslim world are not going to become jihadis, of course, and many Muslims find such videos repugnant (as al Qaeda discovered some time ago). But as long as a significant number join and most of the rest are cowed, ISIS would consider the videos great successes. The Muslim world has a long history of bitter and violent disputes between factions, and ISIS’s brutality is also an effort to intimidate those it sees as its enemies within the greater Muslim world.
Last but far from least there is the entire west, both individuals and governments, those weak horses whom ISIS hopes will tremble and then appease them out of fear. Although we can probably safely say that most ISIS members have not read Yeats, the message they are delivering to the west is that they are the ones filled with passionate intensity, and the west is the one that lacks all conviction. ISIS is counting on the fact that the west is reluctant to unleash the full force of its arms against them, and that whatever retaliation it mounts will be tepid and limited and ultimately unsuccessful.
But even if the west somehow finds the will to fight back more forcibly, the jihadis are betting that, between their own dedication to their holy cause and the assistance of a deity they see as supporting them, they will prevail. It is sometimes said that terrorists such as those in ISIS are nihilists. But that definition isn’t a good fit, because ISIS members don’t believe in nothing. They profess belief in something, and that something is fundamentalist Islam and the return of the caliphate, with ISIS at the helm.
Likewise, many people call ISIS barbarians. But although they are definitely barbaric in the first sense of the word (“savagely cruel; exceedingly brutal”), the second sense of the word (“primitive; unsophisticated” and “uncivilized and uncultured”) doesn’t fit nearly as well for many of them.