ISIS continues to shock, horrify, and make headlines with its public displays of brutality. Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, puts the terrorist group's increasingly gruesome acts in context.
Song: "Prodigal Son" by Sam Amidon
BOB: If an act of terror falls in the desert, and nobody is there with a videocam, is it terrifying? Bruce Hoffman is the Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He believes that horror over the burned-alive video is exactly the point...and has been the point through a hellish string of atrocities. (Warning: disturbing details just ahead.)
BRUCE HOFFMAN: : It’s no different than depredations they’ve inflicted on Christians who they’ve crucified or Yazidi children whose heads they’ve lopped off and put on spikes, or women who they've chained to 2 pick up trucks that take off in the opposite direction. I think the problem is they're deliberately out to provoke us, and they want to get this attention and in fact they want King Abdullah to respond exactly as he has by ratcheting up this struggle. Don't forget that when they paraded this really unfortunate pilot before the cameras, they took him to a scene of a previous coalition bombing. And indeed just before he himself is burnt to death, there's scenes of fighters but also children being pulled out of the rubble of a bombing. So they see this cycle of violence as enabling them to claim this mantle of true believers defending their people against this predatory aggressive religiously corrupt enemy.
BOB: If ISIS is trying to draw parallels to what it deems to be atrocities from other Arab states and from the West in order to impress a Muslim constituency, it doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of that. The outrage in the Arab and Muslim worlds this week has been loud and apparently near universal.
HOFFMAN: Yes, that's entirely true, but those aren’t the people they're trying to recruit or trying to influence. Right thinking people, middle upper middle class, middle aged, older people: that's not the demographic they're looking to appeal to, that's precisely who's horrified by this. They're looking to attract young people who are amped up on violence and who see this group going even further than Al Qaeda did, for example, and really sticking it to the West, sticking it to what they see as corrupt regimes like the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. And, not coincidentally, who they see as being effective. Effective firstly in projecting a compelling message. I'm not defending the message, its an horrific message, but nonetheless, the people they're targeting, it's catnip to them. And the fact that they've been able to in essence redraw the map of the modern Middle East, which no country has been able to do since World War I has given them a certain credibility and gravitas. And I think created this absolutely horrific sense of hubris but nonetheless this sense that they can push the envelope and still survive.
BOB: So there is an ongoing battle not only against the West and against mainstream Islam, but against other jihadi groups for recruits to wage this struggle for a caliphate. And their goal is to just impress as many alienated, impotent, violent, adventure seeking morons as they can before Al Qaeda in Yemen gets to them, for example.
HOFFMAN: I would argue that it's precisely this intense rivalry and competition between mainstream or core Al Qaeda and its far more radical offshoot, ISIS, who after all was expelled from the parent group. That, in fact, is behind a lot of these absolutely horrific acts of violence. They're competing for the same demographic, and at the end of the day, in terrorism, the coin of the realm is violence and I think for many of these individuals this isn't an ideological struggle. The ideology doesn't matter as much as I would argue the feeling of satisfaction and the cathartic rush that they get from what they see as striking a blow against some hated enemy.
BOB: So how does the West and how do America's Arab allies deal with them: as a continuing criminal enterprise, as a political movement, as a group of heavily armed religious zealots? Should episodes like the burning of the Jordanian pilot in any way inform the reaction of government apart from instinctive revulsion?
HOFFMAN: I mean you've put your finger on the problem: they're all those things you describe, which means there's no one approach that will work, given that diversity. I think the response is, bottom line, is they have to be eliminated. They are not an entity that can be negotiated with or, I would argue, even contained, because they're always trying to go beyond the bounds of what we even expect. What we need is a coherent strategy that addresses all those different facets you name. It's also responding to them in a strategic and long term manner, rather than falling into the trap that they set to elicit an emotional response. We have to react in a way that not only weakens them immediately, but systematically dismantles and destroys them over time.
BOB: If at bottom this latest video, like its predecessors, was an attempt to impress the sort of grizzly jihad, what if there were videos that portrayed those people as suckers?
HOFFMAN: I think those types of counter messaging are enormously essential to break the cycle of recruitment that has really sustained ISIS from its earliest days to its current embodiment. It's also, I think, enlisting the victims of terrorism, to show that the ideologies and their theological justifications that are being used are false and cynical ones. But it's something that has to, I think, be crafted on multiple levels: it can't be just one message. We have to overwhelm them with effective counter messages, the way they overwhelm us with their highly graphic depictions of violence.
BOB: Although the US government historically has been just laughably terrible, and every time one of those hamfisted propaganda efforts pops up, we point and laugh. Do you have any confidence that anyone in the administration or in the Pentagon can produce such counter-messaging without making themselves look like fools?
HOFFMAN: You're right to cite the very uneven efforts over the past decade and a half. But two things: one, we did do this and we did do this very well when we had a US information agency during the Cold War, so it can work. But it's got to be properly resourced, and that's the second point. At a time when we're more financially constrained than we were, for instance, 14 years ago, at the start of the war on terrorism, and those constraints and our obsession with metrics means that everything we do has to somehow be quantifiable. So it's easy to say how many Al Qaeda senior leaders we've killed in drone attacks, it's easy to say how many sorties US aircraft have flown against ISIS and how many fighters we believe that these bombing raids have killed. It's much harder to put a number, or it's even impossible to measure, that you've stopped someone from being radicalized or going overseas to become a foreign fighter. So I think the key is we would do better, and it would be more effective, if they were given much more of a priority than they've been accorded throughout the entire war on terrorism.
BOB: Bruce, thank you very much.
HOFFMAN: You're very welcome.
BOB: Bruce Hoffman is the Director of the Center for Security Studies and Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.