Why ISIS Wants Its Brutality to Be Public

ISIS capture an Iraqi soldier. Screenshot from Syria4YouandMe’s video.

By Barbara F. Walter

ISIS capture an Iraqi soldier. Screenshot from Syria4YouandMe's video.
ISIS capture an Iraqi soldier. Screenshot from Syria4YouandMe’s video.

ISIS has captured the world’s attention, in part, because it has been so brutal and public. The videos and photos are devastating. Public executions, lashings and amputations in public squares have become commonplace. Last week, ISIS videotaped themselves as they massacred over a thousand ex-Shiite soldiers – most were civilians who had recently joined the Iraqi army and were returning to their homes.

The public nature of this brutality seems self-defeating. Yet I argue that ISIS’s decision to advertise its viciousness is part of a larger intimidation strategy designed to eliminate local resistance. The U.S. needs to understand this strategy in order to counter it effectively.

Public executions are a strategy of social control that are designed to frighten an audience into submission. In an article called the Strategies of Terrorism, Andrew Kydd and I argued that insurgents were likely to publicly assassinate citizens in places were territory is contested and uncertainty exists about who was in charge. In order to gain control over territory (especially Shiite occupied territory), ISIS needs to convince the local population not to fight back. To do this, they must first convince them that (a) any resistance will be punished harshly, and (b) the government is too weak to help them.

But an intimidation strategy is not likely to work under all conditions. It is much more likely to work in areas where control over land is uncertain and contested. This is why it is no surprise that most massacres have taken place in areas along the periphery of ISIS control. In Iraq, ISIS is playing on the doubt that exists that the Iraqi government will be able to hold Shiite areas. Once it is clear that ISIS will not be able to hold this territory (because of air strikes or the enhanced capability of its enemies) then public executions are less likely to intimidate local populations and their use is likely to decline. Greater security then, begets more security and creates local defenses over which ISIS cannot move.

  1. I believe the atrocities could serve several purposes at once. First, it could intimidate, as suggested above (but it might also stiffen resistance). Second, by grossly exceeding social norms, it can give the participants the heady feeling that they are superior beings above reason, law and custom. Finally, it may serve to provoke foreign intervention, which will help with recruitment and support, as evidently they have in the recent past.

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