ISIS Execution: A Brutal “Message to America”

The Islamist militant group ISIS executed US journalist James Foley as a political message aimed at changing US policy, with its recent air attacks on the group’s forces, says Atlantic Council resident fellow Faysal Itani. It also is meant to portray ISIS as a newly powerful player in the Middle East and thus to win new recruits, Itani said in an interview at the Council. Itani, a former risk analyst on the Middle East, now focuses on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan at the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He spoke after President Barack Obama condemned the killing of Foley and announced that the US would sustain its current policies in Iraq and Syria.

What is ISIS’s motive for this killing?

FI: The most obvious one would be as a desperate act to shape US policy. And, I anticipate they will kill the second journalist they hold, Steven Sotloff as well, if they haven’t already. Past executions fit within a set of belief, ideologies, and rules—such as, those who they see as helping the regime, resisting ISIS, or spying or breaking the law. But, James Foley wasn’t killed because he had done anything. He was killed for purely messaging purposes.

What message was that?
FI: It most likely was meant to drive recruitment and to project a sense of control, confidence, and power—as well as to deter further US military action. Whether or not such a brutal act will in fact help their recruitment efforts remains to be seen. 

What kind of impact do you expect this to have on US policy?
I don’t think this will have any impact. To the president’s credit, in his speech this afternoon condemning the beheading, he continued to criticize Assad and the Islamic State equally. In other words, even in the face of this brutality, he still rejects the possibility of partnering in Syria with the Assad regime to battle ISIS—something that [foreign policy columnists] Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman have backed. 

And what is likely to result?
It’s unclear how Americans will respond to this. Will they want to become more involved on the ground to eliminate the ISIS threat, or will it make Americans want to leave the country even more? Ten years ago, I’d have said that Americans would want to get more involved—but now, the mood is different.

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Image: Journalist James Foley at work reporting from Syria. PHOTO via