On Tuesday, the Islamic State (aka ISIS), the Islamist group who is also currently attempting to re-establish the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, released a video, titled “A Message To America,” featuring an ISIS member beheading an American journalist. At the end of the video, they also threaten to kill a second American depending on the future actions of the US government.
The video starts off with a clip of US President Barack Obama authorizing the use of targeted airstrikes in Iraq as well as elaborating on ways the US would support the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces in their fights against ISIS. Then, after the title appears and fades away, we see, in the middle of a desert, a man in an orange jumpsuit, on his knees, next to a masked man in all black with light brown boots on.
The man in the orange jumpsuit, journalist for the Global Post James Wright Foley, starts speaking. The words coming from his mouth are obviously not his own. It’s clear that he is reading a message written by his captors. But it still wrenches ones heart to watch knowing that James is uttering his last words.
“I call upon my friends, family, and loved ones to rise up against my real killers: the US government,” he reads. “For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”
Foley then reads the rest of the statement condemning the US government’s recent intervention in Iraq as well as his brother John Foley, a member of the US Air Force.
“I call on you, John. Think about who made the decision to bomb Iraq recently and kill those people, whoever they may have been. Think John! Who did they really kill? And did they think about me, you, or our family when they made that decision,” Foley says, pausing at odd places as if reading from cue cards.
“I died that day, John. When your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people, they signed my death certificate.”
After Foley reads his last words, the man next to him, knife in hand, declares the Islamic State’s grievances with the US government.
“As a government you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs,” he says. “Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims. You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide.”
Then, the man states why ISIS is putting Foley to death.
“So effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic state is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the Islamic caliphate as their leadership,” he says. “So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”
And at that moment, he puts the knife to Foley’s neck and starts to cut. Foley’s last gasps are heard as the screen fades to black. The image that then fades in is of Foley’s bloody, decapitated head placed atop the back of his dead body.
The viewer is then shown another American journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, also on his knees and clad in an orange jumpsuit, as the executioner declares that the life of this other American depends on Obama’s next move.
One can only imagine what must be going through Obama’s mind today. The next moves for either side of this geopolitical chess game are almost totally beyond prediction.
Both ISIS, led by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, and the US government, led by Obama, must now ask the question that Lenin made (in)famous:
what is to be done?
ISIS’s motives behind this beheading, one among many they have done, seem at least partially clear. The US military assistance given to Kurdish forces have recently allowed that alliance to take back the extremely important Mosul Dam from the Islamic State. The recent loss in the battle at Mosul Dam has slowed down ISIS’s military momentum and has dealt a heavy blow to morale.
In a recent statement from ISIS fanboys issued as an update on the battle, they stated very clearly what the stakes were. The update noted that the “dam is vital for the Islamic State to control as it aids them in supplying electricity to many areas and so on.”
After ISIS troops were forced to retreat, the anger at the US for intervening seems to have turned even American journalists into legitimate targets. No one is quite sure how ISIS got their hands on Foley, who was reported to have been kidnapped in Syria in 2012. But any old American would have been good enough for ISIS at that point.
The Islamic State knew that American intervention was the reason for their loss. Something had to be done to stop this. And it’s at this point where ISIS unsheathed one of its most fearsome weapons, its social media savvy. ISIS knows that the American people are war-weary. They know that Americans are tired of meddling in the affairs of other countries and that they’re tired of sending their sons to die in the deserts of the Middle East. They know that Obama is already facing domestic problems, like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
So now, it was time to put even more pressure on him. And there isn’t much else that would get Barack’s attention quicker than brutally killing an innocent American on camera for the whole world to see. On top of that, they waved another American journalist at Barry O., warning that more American blood will spill if they don’t get what they want.
There’s no doubt that these soldiers of the new caliphate will gladly cut Sotloff’s head off if their demands are not met. But if America’s commander-in-chief refuses to meet their demands, what then? Are attacks on civilians inside US borders next? The Islamic State and its supporters have certainly not shied away from that possibility.
ISIS seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to stop the US, as well as any other Western nation, from intervening in Iraq and Syria. Once that happens, the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and Bashar Al Assad’s regime will eventually crumble, as they have repeatedly shown, once faced with the Islamic State’s superior military capabilities. The Islamic State know that they then can shoot, crucify, and behead their way into power.
Al Baghdadi and ISIS believe they have God on their side, and contrary to what Dostoyevsky said, with God, everything is permitted.
Obama’s motives behind US intervention in Iraq were not so transparent, but they can be inferred.
The genocide of the Yezidis was the first reason given, but as people actually took a look for themselves at what was happening on the ground, it was soon discovered that the crisis in Sinjar was not as bad as previously thought. There were far fewer Yezidis stranded in the mountains than expected, and the supposed mass killings of Yezidis were exposed as nothing but rumors. There’s no doubt that the plight of the Yezidis under the caliphate is unacceptable, but the situation doesn’t match up with the picture painted by the rumors.
The same applies to Iraq’s Christians. Their plight has been greatly exaggerated by America’s Christian right wing. You’d think that Christians (and Christians only) were being killed on levels on par with the Jewish Holocaust. While Iraq’s Christians have had to flee from Al Baghdadi’s theocratic army, who want to turn them into either Muslim converts or dhimmis, their situation doesn’t demand US intervention any more than various other extremely oppressed minorities around the world. But once again, America’s Christian right is loud and hard to totally ignore.
The treatment of religious minorities by the Islamic State gave the US a foot in the door, but when it comes down to it, Obama, leader of the American Empire, simply cannot allow the US-installed Iraqi government to fall to Al Baghdadi and his army of holy warriors. The so-called democracy installed by America in Iraq, which eventually descended into an authoritarian and sectarian Shiite government, was supposed to prevent that region from being ruled by anti-American Islamists. But now, precisely because of the Iraqi government’s brutal Shiite sectarianism, a group of Sunni theocrats have been able to take control of large parts of Iraq as well as win the support of a sizable portion of the Sunni civilian population. Iraq’s Shiite civilian population has, as a result, suffered much of the Islamic State’s wrath.
The existence of yet another hyper-religious, anti-American regime in that region of the world, with all its important natural resources (i.e. oil), simply does not align with American interests, the Empire’s interests.
And this regime has no intention of confining itself to Iraq and Syria. The caliphate seeks to encompass all so-called Muslim lands and, like all totalitarian regimes, the entire world if possible. This is why competing theocratic regimes in the region, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been supporting anti-ISIS forces. Obama, along with a number of other regimes, know that Baghdadi’s caliphate has to be stomped out while it is small or else it will soon rage out of control.
Obama has never been one for overkill though. He doesn’t use sledgehammers to kill ants. He prefers a minimalist approach to the use of military might. Thus, he prefers the use of drones and targeted airstrikes over boots on the ground and full scale invasion. But this approach to the problem posed by the caliphate has backfired now.
With the world watching and Sotloff’s life depending on his next move, the Emperor has been placed in a difficult position. If Barack continues the airstrikes, he risks more innocent American blood being shed. The Islamic State will not hesitate to kill Sotloff and even more Americans abroad as well as set up attacks within America’s borders as retribution. If Obama stops the airstrikes and refrains from intervening, he will look weak and will be effectively handing control of Iraq and Syria over to ISIS. A full-scale re-invasion of Iraq is almost totally out of the picture. The American public, as well as the US government’s budget, simply would not allow it, and it would only postpone ISIS’s goal for another few years until US troops leave Iraq once again. It’d be nothing more than a big waste of lives, resources, and money.
So by the looks of it, Caliph Al Baghdadi, after losing some pieces, has managed to call “check” in this geopolitical chess game with Emperor Obama. And Obama’s only choice at the moment seems to be to retreat and thus keep this game going rather than blindly throwing his own pieces at ISIS.
For now, Obama can only try to save innocent American lives with the hope that an opportunity to strike ISIS comes along later. Until then, the world will be eagerly watching this game to see which side finally calls “checkmate.”