Why Islamic State’s brand of horror works so well

February 10, 2015
People walk past television screens displaying a news program, about an Islamic State video showing Japanese captive Kenji Goto, in Tokyo

People walk past television screens displaying a news program about an Islamic State video showing Japanese captive Kenji Goto, on a street in Tokyo Jan. 28, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The grisly killing of Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh by burning him alive sent shock waves across the globe and brought heaps of condemnation from political and religious leaders of all stripes against the new heights of macabre of which Islamic State proved capable. Horror and sickening disgust may represent enlightened persons’ natural reaction to this barbarity, but beyond the condemnation, it is important to understand its reasons and likely consequences in the tumultuous context in which the Islamic State phenomenon has been playing out. Several questions arise in this regard.

The first is whether Islamic State brutality represents the frenzied unleashing of sadism on the part of psychopathic leaders, or a deliberate strategy intended to boost its “larger than life” image and cast a terrifying shadow that makes adversaries tremble and its followers cheer. The consistent manner in which Islamic State has been executing its “reign of terror” suggests the latter. The organization issues pamphlets in which the rape of female captives is justified, routinely strews the heads of victims throughout the city of Raqqa, its “capital,” and engages in other activities attesting that for Islamic State, brutality is not a whim but a matter of core policy.

No less important is the question of whether the strategy works. Judging from Islamic State successes so far, the answer seems affirmative. Since September 2014, as the United States continued its campaign of air strikes against Islamic State, the group has nearly doubled its Syrian domain, and it is now increasingly active in Libya. Admittedly, Islamic State’s triumphant march cannot be fully ascribed to its brutality and barbarism.  Yet brutality and barbarism are part and parcel of its brand, whereby it sets itself apart from competing groups like al Qaeda. It is that special brand that excites thousands of foreign fighters (30,000 according to last estimates) and drives them to risk life and limb on Islamic State’s behalf. By this measure, atrocities that Islamic State perpetrates certainly contribute their share to its accomplishments.

A girl holds a poster of Jordanian pilot Kasaesbeh, who is being held captive by Islamic State, during a candlelit vigil in a show of solidarity with Japan, in Amman

A Jordanian girl holds a poster of pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh in Amman Febr. 2, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

So what is it about bizarre ways of killing and the cult of death that has such a magnetic appeal to so many? Sigmund Freud famously highlighted humans’ profound fascination with sadism and masochism by postulating a death instinct, a universal force that governs the dark side of our psyche. The enigma of death and dying has mesmerized people from time immemorial, bringing thousands of cheering Romans to watch Christians being devoured by lions or gladiators being slaughtered by their victors. The luster of death has hardly dimmed over the centuries. In the not-too-distant American past, lynchings in the South attracted large audiences, as state-sponsored beheadings and stonings in Saudi Arabia and other nations ruled by Sharia law do today. The proliferation and popularity of TV shows that feature cruel and bizarre ways of killing prove that fascination with death isn’t reserved for “another place,” and that morbid curiosity about grisly atrocities has a respected seat in the living rooms of ordinary Americans.

Watching, of course, is hardly the same as doing. One may abhor and be disgusted by what one sees while continuing to ogle it. There is in our psyche a battle between “good and evil,” and civilization works by restraining our destructive impulses and allowing their expression in highly sublimated forms. It is OK to watch atrocities on TV and images of beheadings, but it is profoundly unacceptable to engage in any kind of authentic violence. This allows us to let off our (destructive) steam, which affords catharsis without presumably causing any real damage to society.

The tranquility of the social order is upset, however, when the societal narrative is turned to sanction real violence. This often happens when a category of people is demonized —  depicted as less-than-human, despicable vermin that merits no sympathy or consideration. Destroying the scourge is reframed as the good, justifying all violence in its aid. In the case of Islamic State, their take on Islam provides such a justifying narrative, twisting the Koranic spirit to legitimize unrestrained mayhem against the alleged enemies of Allah.

Once unbounded from societal restraints, unmitigated violence holds multiple attractions to its practitioners. For one, it instills a primordial fear in the hearts of its enemies. The very idea of dying is profoundly scary to most people; the idea of dying in incredibly humiliating and painful circumstances multiplies the dread. In addition, the dispensation of cruel and unusual punishment lends the perpetrator an aura of overriding force of godlike proportions. It creates a myth of potency that many people, especially those disempowered and belittled, may find irresistible. Identification with an aggressor is a way to feel powerful and safe. “I am the danger,” quips Walter White to his wife Skylar in a striking episode of the TV series Breaking Bad. He means to reassure her and allay her anxieties because the role of perpetrator is antithetical to that of victim, and there is psychological safety in being at the initiating (rather than receiving) end of violence.

Finally, though not of least importance, the readiness to go to extremes of cruelty by disregarding universal norms of humanity and compassion signals a depth of commitment to a cause — a total devotion and assurance in its justness and utter legitimacy. Such confidence, too, is compelling and of particular appeal to people who are confused, uncertain and perplexed. The untold violence that Islamic State practices attests to the depth of its ideological commitment. It thus provides a much desired sense of purpose and personal significance to those who join the group.

These strategic advantages notwithstanding, there is another crucial side to heinous violence that bodes ill for its perpetrators: The unleashing of evil mobilizes a concerted effort to defeat it on behalf of the good. It unleashes one’s own powers of destruction to eradicate the plague. The outrage and disgust that grisly cruelty evokes can create a powerful backlash; previously separate factions can unite behind a sacred purpose and feel empowered to put an end to the atrocity. Before the execution of al-Kasaesbeh, the Jordanian population was polarized in its attitudes toward Islamic State; it spoke in resolute unison afterward. Other voices in the Middle East and elsewhere echoed the outrage and grim resolve of the Jordanians. Possibly then, this time Islamic State may have crossed a red line, and the advantages it used to reap from its unbounded violence may be offset by the storm of outrage that gathers against it.

16 comments

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30.000 foreign fighters? Please explain foreign? Did you get this info from Brian Williams? Please!!

Posted by Hermist | Report as abusive

I think the intent is to create fear as a method of justifying fascist leadership. In reality however, repeated exposure to gruesome violence only creates permanent mental cripples. I doubt the ISIS or ISIL people understand that however, as they are likely just brainwashed followers. Anyway, control of an army of mental cripples is more of a liability than a strength. But, if you have no other way of resting control from democratic processes you are willing to take the chance that entire countries fall, since for those hunger for power, control over a destroyed nation is better than not having control.

By the way, does anyone remember the self immolation of the monks of Vietnam? Think about how this flips that and what it means about those who hope to manipulate us.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

An interesting counter point to Freud’s death instinct is given by Wilhelm Reich, in “Character Analysis”. Reich is the persona non grata of psychiatry/psychology, mostly due to his research on orgone energy. Yet, his views on societal sexual repression, which also tend to make others in the profession (not to mention the rest of us) feel uncomfortable with his work, are remarkable for their perspective on the origins of sadism/masochism, among other things. Radical Islamic beliefs are based in a very sexually repressive, patriarchal social system. One could argue that Reich puts the cart before the horse, but the same could be said for the death instinct. Either way, the cross cultural commonalities (not just Radical Islam) with sexual repression and violence are far too glaring to discount.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

I keep this quote on the front of my mind every time someone frames a war in terms of good and evil:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.”
– Alexander Soyzhenitzyn

Both sides consider their soldiers to be heros, their dead to be martyrs and their enemies to be terrorists. Is it any less murderous to kill civilians using unmanned drones and fighter aircraft than to cut off their heads and parade them in public? Both sides gloat about their kills in the media.

I see only two ways this crisis can be resolved. One is to respect the other side and view them as human beings, not demons. I don’t see that happening. So the alternative is to keep killing each other until both sides are beat into submission. That’s what ended the 100 Years War. When you think about it, this war has been going on since World War I which saw the defeat and dissolution of the caliphate in Turkey. It is showing no signs of letting up. 100 years and counting.

Posted by Gerpal | Report as abusive

This analysis seems sound. If treated as a “Chapter 1″ of understanding the psychological draw of this group, I would suggest that “Chapter 2″ might consist of an examination of how this group’s appeal is established in its recruits through brainwashing and the operation of a cult.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

Daesh is satanic. Salman Rushdie was right.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

People must see the need group action and believe that might does not make right or they will always try to put their own monster in charge of their place. Which means they will suffer every other one’s monster as well as their own.

It is beginning of political reason to seek seek leaders that will look to support actions that have been shown to actually work for the good of the majority without hurting many others.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Responding to the title:
To act saying NO is easier than saying yes.
Build is more difficult and requires intelligence, to destroy ……… what follows depends on how we are using our brain

Posted by ochar | Report as abusive

All of these points can be applied to the US military and its tactics of dehumanizing the enemy, creating hatred for Muslims in the minds of recruits, fostering an environment of super machoism, and sabotaging critical questioning by infiltrating the ranks with fundamentalist Christianity. Yes, that’s the face of the US overseas.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Some Americans feel even more disgust with Obama’s drone killing of civilians and Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians. There are no “good” guys in these wars.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Some Americans feel even more disgust with Obama’s drone killing of civilians and Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians. There are no “good” guys in these wars.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

The author is as sick as his writing. There’s nothing just about acts of violence, no matter how they’re performed.

Posted by T.L. | Report as abusive

Fascinating how state terrorism is celebrated and rouge terrorist are demonized. The French and US genocide in Vietnam is just an historical body count, with maybe a mild oops thrown in. Movies, the most popular form of entertainment on the planet is drenched in blood and gore. Religion is at the helm of this madness, but evolution has failed to cure the epidemic.

Posted by sage1945 | Report as abusive

>>“I am the danger,” quips Walter White to his wife Skylar in a striking episode of the TV series Breaking Bad.

Huh? What does this mean? I have never seen Breaking Bad, whatever that is, and don’t understand anything about the context to which you refer. I just think you’re making this up for the purpose of an op-ed.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

ISIL’s brand of horror only works to unite every country against them.

That is not a good strategy. That is not a winning strategy.

The success of ISIL in Iraq is more due to the schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis than to the ‘horror’ of their methods.

ISIL fighters behave like children–vicious children, but children nevertheless. The author and other commentators like to ascribe some deep strategic thought to ISIL when the simple explanation is they are brutal extremists only doing what brutal extremists naturally do: murder.

You don’t see many articles talking about how many ISIL fighters have been killed so far–just like you never heard about how many Iraqi’s died in the last war–only US and civilian casualties.

Iraq and Syria are like poison honey–attracting Muslim radicals from around the world to the terrorist killing fields. Every day ISIL fighters are dying. The US and its allies are prepared for the long-term extermination of ISIL–and they have the resources to accomplish ISIL’s demise.

So when the article above talks about how ISIL’s tactic of ‘horror’ is ‘working’, I have to wonder how deeply the author considered the issue.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

As barbarous as ISIL is there were many comments in these pages for over ten years that were just as barbarous.

There are no “good guys” now – they are all criminal and all are compromised one way or anther.

ISIL could easily be seen as the Khmer Rouge of the Middle East and that madness appeared because the US bombed the Cambodians into temporary insanity.

The fact that 14 years of continued warfare, and that blatantly corrupt governments were installed with US help and flooded with cash and bribery, is being rejected by the ME. The fact that ISIL only gets stronger should argue that the US should never have set foot in the ME. The more that is thrown at them the stronger they get.

What else could you expect? You don’t need Freudian psychology to explain the violence. Think biology instead.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive