The group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) is reportedly expanding its reach in the Middle East and North Africa. But it may start losing its appeal to potential recruits through actions that expose its extreme brutality.
The release of a gruesome video showing the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot– weeks before IS offered to trade him for a female terrorist jailed in Jordan – exposed the depths of the organization’s cynicism and sadism. It also united Jordanians, who had been somewhat ambivalent members of a 60-nation anti-IS coalition, in demands for revenge. On Wednesday, Jordan executed two militants at dawn.
Rather than dissuade Jordan from continuing its participation in the coalition against IS, the execution of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh could increase popular support for Jordan to resume flying missions against the terrorist group. Another member of the coalition, the United Arab Emirates, had suspended flying after Kaseasbeh’s capture, demanding better U.S. resources to recover downed pilots; it remains to be seen how that government will react.
One positive development would be if Kaseasbeh’s death helped persuade foreign governments and individuals not to accede to IS demands for ransoms and prisoner swaps in return for captured nationals.
The proposed trade of Kaseasbeh – and a Japanese journalist who was subsequently beheaded – came to naught when IS failed to produce proof that the pilot was still alive. The Jordanian was captured Dec. 26 when his F-16 went down in northern Syria and apparently was executed only a few days later.
Given the events surrounding the Jordanian’s murder, it is clear that there can be no assurance that the jihadis are telling the truth when they claim that their captives have not already been killed. If fewer ransoms are paid, that will dry up the group’s resources – already depleted because of falling oil sales – and perhaps discourage what has become a wave of abductions.
The savage killing of Kaseasbeh could also have an impact on IS recruitment.
Up until now, the group has been expanding its appeal across the Middle East to North Africa and attracting recruits from Western Europe and even the United States who are lured in some cases by the notion of creating a new Islamic caliphate.
According to testimony Tuesday by Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, IS has extended its reach beyond Iraq and Syria to “ungoverned and under-governed areas” in in Algeria, Egypt and Libya.
A recent report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London, put the number of foreigners who have joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria at over 20,000 – more than the number that joined the jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the past, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have been the origin of the largest number of recruits – at least 1,500 each – with 500 coming from Germany and Britain and about a hundred from the United States.
The brutal execution of Kaseasbeh will provide ample new material for those who design public diplomacy campaigns on social media against jihadi recruitment. His death is a timely reminder that most of the victims of IS have been fellow Sunni Muslims.
Two weeks from now, the White House is due to hold a major conference on how to counter violent extremism.
Initially expected to have a largely domestic focus – showcasing pilot projects in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis -St. Paul — the meeting was expanded to include foreign officials in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
It would be sensible to invite Jordanians and other U.S. Arab allies to attend the meeting to discuss how to glean something positive from the nightmare that ended Kaseasbeh’s life. The latest events should inspire new efforts to persuade impressionable youth that the actions of IS are a perversion of the concept of holy war and a desecration of the most basic tenets of Islam.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.