ISIS and the use of violence

May 8, 2015

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, regularly release videos showing the executions of their captives.


Some are shot at point blank range and others are beheaded.


In January, Jordanian Pilot Mu'ath al-Kaseasbeh was burnt to death in a cage.


The group is renowned for its savagery, inspired by a strict interpretation of sharia law which itenforcesin the regions in Iraq and Syria until its control.


But why is the Islamic State so violent? What are the reasons behind their ferociousness and does anything distinguish their actions from those of other jihadist groups?




According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, there is a difference between Al Qaeda and IS in terms of the ‘use of violence and the propaganda of violence.’


‘Al Qaeda is also a very violent organisation – but it keeps its brutality largely off camera as opposed to IS who will tweet about beheadings and show videos with every gory detail to the world.’


IS is highly social media savvy and image conscious, far more so than Al Qaeda. As Gartenstein-Ross testified to a US Senate Committee today,


‘The proficiency of IS and its supporters as communicators can be discerned from the group’s production of tightly choreographed and slickly produced videos, from its apparently deep understanding of how to catch the Western media’s attention, and from IS’s exceptionally skilled coordinated distribution of its content on platforms like Twitter.’


Gartenstein-Ross highlights the importance of Al Qaeda to IS’s development, noting that Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group from which IS emerged, was essentially defeated by 2008-2009.


The Islamists differed in the lessons they took from that failure.


Whereas certain figures in Al Qaeda thought that their Iraqi arm’s use of violence had ended up working against them (Gartenstein-Ross notes that Al Qaeda ‘tried to clean up its image’) the Islamists who became leading lights in the Islamic State decided that being more overtly brutal was the solution.


AsGartenstein-Ross notes, the violent propaganda of IS ‘outstrips all other jihadist organisations.’


Theology and Goals


Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, former Imam of Brixton Mosque and founder of STREEK UK, notes how the literalism of IS’s theology plays an important role in their use of extreme violence.


‘The degree of their violence is based on distortions of the religion and is characteristic of extremist groups in Islam.’


The violence is extreme precisely because of IS’s misappropriation of the Qur’an.


‘The fact that not one single recognised scholar in the Muslim world supports ISIS underscores their illegitimacy.’


Isaac Kfir, a member of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) argues that to understand IS’s application of violence, ‘there is a need to examine what is the goal end of the Islamic State, and this is something that remains unclear.’


‘There is no clear document that lays out the plan compared to Bin Laden’s Declaration, Qutb’s infamous Milestones or Azzam’s Join the Caravan.’’


Kfir argues that IS employ violence in a different way to most other terrorist groups.


‘Generally, in traditional terrorism studies, violence was always a means to an end: the violence was meant to terrorize a civilian population so that a government would compromise (reach an agreement with the terrorists) and therefore there was less of a focus on actual violence and more on terrorizing the population.’


Rather than simply being a fringe terrorist group, IS is competing with other state systems (the governments of Iraq and Syria) for legitimacy.


‘Simply, what they try to achieve is a complete breakdown of the state system.’


Programme Associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Tanya Silverman has a different take.


For her the Islamic State ‘is engaging in violence in the way any other war in history has played out.’


‘Consider their violence to hostages, i.e, beheading and burning individuals in cages. This is an age old scare-tactic that aims to a) show them as being more powerful than they are which then, b) deters others from wanting to go at logger-heads with them.’


‘I think of Vlad the Impaler. It’s a warning to enemies, and a way of building an identity of power.’


For Kfir too there are historical resonances.


‘It is very similar to what the Mongols would do as they marched across the plains of Asia: Genghis Khan and the Mongols when faced with a walled city would often give the people an option: surrender and live (albeit as slaves) or resist and surely die.’


‘I would suggest that when it comes to Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, brutal violence is seen as a way to ensure obedience: either surrender to their will and live (albeit in an Islamic theocracy) or die.’ 




For Dr Haqq Baker IS’s violence has a number of causes.


‘In short, fear and the wanton display of power, control and brutal domination is the point of their violence. The intention to ‘strike fear’ into the enemy is the main objective – and to be frank, it is working.’


‘It also provides empowerment to susceptible Muslims previously unable or afraid to articulate or impose themselves forcefully due to a number of reasons, among them being the perceived oppression by majority societies, be it the Shia in Iraq and Syria or in western societies.’


There are multiple causes behind IS’s extreme violence and Gartenstein-Ross notes the group’s internal and external dynamics, ‘IS is full of ingroup love and outgroup hate’, and situates the viciousness in recent historical context.


‘The Iraqi civil war was an extraordinarily brutal war in which lots of extreme violence was employed by a variety of actors.’


‘This influences what is considered shocking.’


Another factor is the character of the commanders of the Islamic State – as Gartenstein-Ross says, the Islamic State is an organisation ‘where the leadership has set the tone.’


Silverman draws attention to the importance of the group’s self-conception.


‘It’s important not to frame their violence solely in identity creation and power. They are also trying to fulfil some notions of their identity that were already there and that is that they take strongly the idea of kafir, infidel.’




The extreme violence perpetuated by IS has not deterred people from across the globe flocking to their new state to join the movement.


If anything, it has encouraged them.


20,000 people from across the world (including more than 3000 westerners) are estimated to have travelled to the region and joined the jihadists.


The Islamic State, despite coming under attack from the US-led coalition has embedded itself across Iraq and Syria.


Killings, torture and sex crimes are commonplace.


As well as harming the population and their enemies, IS also destroys the physical culture of the region by dynamiting ancient cities, smashing priceless art and even turning churches into torture chambers.


The violence the group employ has a number of causes and is enacted with multiple goals in mind.


Islamic State want to terrify their subjects and project an image of power and control.


There is a strong theological character to IS’s violence, stimulated as it is by their interpretation of sharia law and belief in the approaching end times.


They wish to destroy the legitimacy of the states they have overthrown and know that extreme violence is a powerful propaganda tool.


For their new recruits the violence is sometimes alluring, as Gartenstein-Ross puts it, the violent propaganda is a ‘winner’s form of communication.’


‘What they do will become perceived very differently once they are losing.’


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