Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra insurgents wave their flags in Idlib province, northern Syria.

Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra insurgents wave their flags in Idlib province, northern Syria. Edlib News Network/AP

The Real Reason ISIS Takes Hostages and Beheads Them

From the outside, the group’s actions look insane. But the brutality is meant to provoke a wider war—a war that ISIS is convinced it will win. By Simon Cottee

It isn’t all shock and gore. Sometimes, it’s mock and bore. Consider the video that ISIS released a few weeks ago of the British hostage John Cantlie “reporting” from the besieged town of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. The video’s theme is the unreliability of Western media coverage of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, expressed in a tone of mocking contempt. The larger theme is the invincibility of ISIS and the duplicity and weakness of the West. The video opens with some striking aerial footage of war-ravaged Kobani, filmed from a drone. But it’s a big yawn thereafter.

On Sunday, however, ISIS released what is arguably its most horrifying beheading video to date, reverting to the shock-and-gore doctrine that has come to define it. The viewer doesn’t see the actual beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig, but is shown his severed head, lying at the feet of the suspected British terrorist known as “Jihadi John.” The scene is preceded by the mass beheadings of 18 men whom ISIS claims are members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces. The victims are paraded about by knife-wielding jihadists and the camera lingers on the hostages’ faces as they kneel, stricken with terror. The pounding of heartbeats commences, just one of the video’s many special effects. Then the cutting starts, all at once. Unlike in ISIS’s previous beheading videos, there is no merciful cutaway. The viewer sees everything.

It is worth pausing to consider the logic behind this staged mass beheading and how it differs from the notorious doctrine that defined the opening stages of the 2003 war in Iraq: “shock and awe.” Comparing the two tells us something important about ISIS and its reverence of the intimate kill—and ours, too.

Face-to-face killing isn’t the same as killing at a distance. It is sensually different. And it is harder.

When the navigator of the Enola Gay, the first plane to drop an atomic bomb, returned from that historic mission, he recalled that he “had a bite and a few beers and hit the sack.” The death and destruction that his mission visited on the Japanese city of Hiroshima was staggering, resulting in around 135,000 casualties. Yet Theodore Van Kirk claimed to have lost not a single night’s sleep over his actions. Whereas when William Manchester, a U.S. Marine and veteran of the Second World War, killed a Japanese soldier at close range, he vomited over himself and was convulsed by feelings of remorse and shame.

Many scholars agree that violence is difficult, and that killing is especially so. In Violence, Randall Collins, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that “everyone thinks violence is easy to perform, whether one brags about it, fears it, or hopes to eliminate it.” But the reality, Collins argues, is very different: “It is hard … and most people are not good at it, including those who are doing the bragging and swaggering.” This is because violence goes against people’s “physiological hard-wiring.” Killing at close range, he says, is especially challenging: “There appears to be a special difficulty in confronting another person face to face and sticking him with a knife-edged blade.”

The idea that violence is difficult was first developed by S.L.A. Marshall, a U.S. Army historian during World War II. Marshall found, through research that remains controversial, that typically only 15 percent of frontline troops fired their guns in combat, reaching 25 percent in the most effective units. Collins, who draws on Marshall, argues that the main barrier to killing is what he calls “confrontational tension,” and that what soldiers most fear in combat situations is not the prospect of dying but of killing. “It is easier to put up with injury and death than it is to inflict it,” he writes.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, agrees: “There is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” According to Grossman, distance is the crucial variable in killing: the nearer the “kill target,” the harder it is to do, whereas “from a distance, I can deny your humanity; and from a distance, I cannot hear your screams.”

Or as the eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it in his influential study Modernity and the Holocaust, “It is difficult to harm a person we touch. It is somewhat easier to afflict pain upon a person we only see at a distance. It is still easier in the case of a person we only hear. It is quite easy to be cruel towards a person we neither see nor hear.”

In recent months, ISIS fighters have seemingly turned this scholarly consensus on its head. They have made killing look easy. And they have mastered the art of the intimate kill. The staged beheadings of James FoleySteven SotloffDavid HainesAlan Henning, and, now, Peter Kassig are shocking examples of this. But they are only the tip of a colossal iceberg of depravity and sadism.

From the outside, the group’s actions look insane. But they aren’t. There appears to be a point to the brutality. It is meant to be polarizing. It is meant to force people to take sides. It is meant to provokea wider war—a war that ISIS is convinced it will win.

“We must make this battle very violent,” wrote the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji in his 2004 book The Management of Savagery. Naji—whose thinking paralleled that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has since morphed into ISIS—argued that merciless violence was necessary for the creation of a “pure” Sunni caliphate. Softness, he warned, spelled failure, citing the example of the Companions of the Prophet, who “burned [people] with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need.”

The conventional wisdom holds that ISIS’s savagery will be its undoing—that it will alienate ordinary Muslims, and that without their support the group cannot succeed. But what this view overlooks is that ISIS’s jihad, as its progenitor Zarqawi well understood, isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It is about breaking hearts and minds. ISIS doesn’t want to convince its detractors and enemies. It wants to command them, if not destroy them altogether. And its strategy for achieving this goal seems to be based on destroying their will through intimate killing. This, in part, is what the group’s staged beheadings are about: They subliminally communicate ISIS’s proficiency in the art of the intimate kill. And this terrifies many people, because they sense just how hard it is to do.

The beheadings also serve as a dramatic counterpoint to al-Qaeda’s use of remote improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in attacks, and to Western shock-and-awe-style military campaigns. The subtext of the videos appears to be: You—America and your allies—kill with drones and missiles. We—the true Muslims—kill with our bare hands. You hide behind your military hardware and lack the courage to fight. We stand here tall, holding aloft our swords and the Quran. We will conquer you because our will is greater than yours, because there is nothing we will not do in defense of our just and holy cause.

One could argue that there is precedent in Islamic theology and history for this kind of ruthlessness. But the approach also has echoes in the Western world. Consider the logic behind the Allied shock-and-awe “area bombings” of German cities during the Second World War, where thousands of innocent civilians were murdered for the purpose of ending the war and stopping the advance of fascism in Europe. Or the logic behind the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The policy of attacking the civilian population in order to induce an enemy to surrender or to damage his morale,” wrote the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, “seems to have been widely accepted in the civilized world.”

ISIS has transmuted the shock of intimate killing into a mythical aura. A Kurdish man fleeing ISIS and the Syrian town of Kobani, for instance, recently told a British newspaper, “IS are animals. They’re not human. They have a bloodlust the like of which I’ve never seen—it’s as if they enjoy killing. They revel in cutting heads off—it’s like their trademark.”

ISIS is terrible and terrifying. Despite the Islamic State’s recent setbacks on the battlefield, this is now the dominant media narrative about the group both within and outside the Muslim world. It’s exactly the narrative ISIS wants to promote.