ISIS wants a five-star ticket to publicity. It gets it.
By: Chris Doyle
Surf around the web and there is no shortage of charming decapitation videos. But you may or may not be surprised to learn that many of them have nothing to do with ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Setas and Sinaloa drug cartels behead each other’s members. There is one online video of a Mexican drugs cartel beheading two men with a chainsaw. Nigerian soldiers and Boko Haram have both traded online executions of each other’s members.
I write this because following the wall-to-wall front page media coverage of James’s Foley’s gory online end, you might be excused for thinking that this was unique, some sort of first. It was not even the first time an American journalist had been beheaded. That unwanted honor belongs to Daniel Pearl, killed by Pakistani extremists in 2002. Memories seem to be short.
And why do they do it? Because it works. It is shock and gore via You Tube! We watch – if not the whole videos – we see the images, not least on the front pages of newspapers. The world and his dog express their horror and outright rejection. Politicians engage in a global soundbite competition as to who can sound the most horrified. The end result is that far too much attention is paid to one killing, one atrocity. A grateful ISIS leapfrogs all other extremist groups at the top of the hate list.
The whole kidnapping and execution cycle is a lucrative and profitable business just as piracy has been off the coast of Somalia
Did ISIS execute anyone else in August? Many Yazidis were reportedly buried alive. ISIS also likes to crucify but I must have missed the global outcry when nine Syrians were crucified in Syria in June. Only one survived a marathon long eight hours nailed to a cross. There were unverified reports of beheadings of children in Mosul. How much media coverage did they get? I do not know their names or their life stories. Who remembers the video of the Syrian priest and another Christian man beheaded in June 2013? It is a long time since there has been genuine outrage over the brutal killings and decapitations of Syrians and Iraqis. How often did Twitter, Facebook and You Tube respond to their killings by taking down content or blocking accounts?
Platinum rated hostages
The reality is that American hostages are platinum rated, a guaranteed five-star ticket to publicity. Iraqis and Syrians barely rate a mention except as statistics. ISIS, as al-Qaeda has done in the past, has highlighted to its support base, that there is a hierarchy of victimhood, of those that matter and those who do not. This falls on fertile soil. Few in Iraq will ever forget the simply appalling words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when asked: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” and Albright coldly replied: “We think the price is worth it.” This attitude of indifference to Arab and Muslim fatalities still prevails, not least in Syria where over 190,000 have been killed in three years.
Lucrative and profitable
And so American citizens including those already kidnapped at now even more at risk. Their captors expect maximum publicity or a huge ransom. Typically, we give too much media exposure attention to ISIS’ crime against westerners on the one hand whilst all too often many states cough up hefty ransoms. The whole kidnapping and execution cycle is a lucrative and profitable business just as piracy has been off the coast of Somalia. There are too many European states, despite a G8 commitment not to, which seem happy to pay up, thereby fuelling the whole kidnapping industry and war economies of Syria and Iraq. A New York Times investigation found that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have amassed $125m from ransom payments, $66m of which was paid just in the last year. European governments made almost all of these payments. It is still not clear whether a ransom was paid for the release of Peter Curtis handed over days after Foley was killed, but no group would have given him up for nothing. This is why the release of four French hostages in April triggers questions as to whether the French government paid or not, something it denies.
Frequently the ransom is not even paid to the original kidnappers. All too often a person is captured and then sold on to a series of other groups. The ransom may save one life but a ransom paid to violent militias can lead to hundreds or thousands being killed.
So what chance the West and others can stop playing these fanatics’ game? Do we continue to pay ISIS so much attention and so much money? The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, called for a global ban on paying ransoms but where is it? Should it not have some enforcement mechanism? We should demonstrate by words and actions that all victims matter. Above all those who wish to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda should demonstrate just how much respect they have for all humanity and for Muslim lives, in contrast to these thugs who long ago ceased to deserve the description Muslim.
And finally whilst the threat is real and genuine and action must be taken, we must not do the third thing ISIS wants which is to panic. ISIS is neither run by idiots nor is it the greatest threat to mankind. Its members are neither dummies nor supermen. It may have enacted its own version of an “Islamic blitzkrieg” across large swathes of Iraq and Syria but militarily at least it is not invincible. Climate change, drugs and poverty kill far more for starters. There were 27,199 murders just across the border from the U.S. in Mexico in 2011, surely a much more significant threat to the average American even.
To defeat ISIS a coherent political, military, economic and communications strategy must be developed. It must be sober, not based on the hype of the last few weeks. We have to care about the other victims of ISIS and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and show that they matter too. We have to stop fueling the war economy on which these groups thrive, stop buying their oil, and above all stop subsidizing them with lucrative ransoms.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.