Groups throughout the region are pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, has not sworn his allegiance and is finding his support dwindling as former followers shift their loyalty. What the Islamic State is offering Salafists is success. It is the first of the modern Salafist movements to seize and hold territory. The caliphate is not just a future dream; it is real and now. It has all of the trappings of a modern state with the various ministries to manage the daily functions; and it has all of the trappings of the ancient Abbasids Caliphate that was the dominant force in the Middle East for five centuries until it fell in 1258.
The successor Ottoman Caliphate that continued until 1924 is treated by Baghdadi and believers of the Islamic State as the lost centuries. Baghdadi presents himself as the true successor of the Abbasids Caliphate and the Prophet. He dresses in the black cloak of the caliph. He is introducing the gold Dinar to symbolize the independence of the new regime. Raqqa in northern Syria, where the current administrative center is located, was for a time the capital of the caliphate.
The lost centuries under Ottoman rule saw the prominence of Middle Eastern culture recede into a backwater. The region proved to be a barrier between the rising Europeans and the riches of Asia. The construction in the latter half of the nineteenth century of the Suez Canal was to make it easier for the Europeans to bypass the area on their way to more fruitful destinations. Only the development of petroleum over the last hundred years has given the region any significance. In spite of its value, what has petro prosperity brought to the Middle East? The vast majority of the population has a quality of life far below their counterparts in Europe and much of Asia. The regimes are autocratic and corrupt. They depend for their survival upon the foreign-owned petroleum corporations that market the black gold and upon foreign armies to assure their survival. Baghdadi does not need to tell the millions of hopeless unemployed young men of the Middle East what they know already. They have suffered through centuries of oppression and humiliation at the hands of foreigners and Muslim pretenders. Caliph Ibrahim is telling true Muslims around the world that they no longer have to accept an inferior status to the infidels and pretenders. The time has arrived to restore the power of Islam and exact revenge. The success of the Islamic State to seize territory and to defeat the enemy armies is being presented as proof of how close to victory the movement is.
A Celebration in Blood
What is more proof of Islamic State’s power over its impotent enemies than to drive prisoners wearing only underwear into the fields to be shot and thrown into the river? Beheading prisoners is to demonstrate the strength of the Islamic State and the weakness of the enemy. They are being denied any sense of dignity by being refused an honorable execution by beheading by the sword. They are being slaughtered as sheep on a sacrificial altar by having their throats cut by a short blade knife. The internet and the television screen have been reformed into altars for the blood sacrifices to a god who delivers victories for the devotions. Putting the ritualized sacrifices on the internet for the world to see tells the believers of their strength and intimidates their enemies. When the president of the United States comments on the horrors or the King of Jordan mobilizes his armed forces to avenge the burning to death of a pilot, Baghdadi knows that he has the attention of the world. That is confirmation to all that he is a man to be respected and feared. The ritualized killing of prisoners is theater; and a theatrical performance requires an audience. Mass communications is the means to tell the world of the strength of the movement. It strengthens the bonds of the believers with the movement, frightens into submission potential victims, and provokes rash responses from threatened governments. What else mass communications does is to require a constant flow of new dramas to keep the attention of a fickle audience that has numerous other choices to satisfy a craving for distractions. This is made truer by the competition of Al-Qaeda for the attention of the world.
The burning of the Jordanian pilot in January occurred shortly before the attack in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo magazine. The video of the burning pilot and the accompanying chanting of the supporters, we will fill the sea with blood” was withheld for several days as a means of overshadowing the publicity hungry competition. Now, Al-Qaeda must trump the Islamic State’s spectacular horror with something even more grotesque. Al-Qaeda follows the practices of striking the far off enemy which means that their next action is most likely to be in Europe or North America. An attack upon a religious center would make a grand show that is certain to provoke a severe response by angered Christians. Provoking an inter-religious war is what Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State would welcome to consolidate Muslims worldwide in the global conflict. Major shopping centers or museums would make fine soft targets that will be certain to inflict high casualties and destroy symbols of importance to the hated infidels. Best of all for the terrorists, there are so many possibilities that it is impossible for any government to protect every potential target. In spite of their ability to attack soft targets, Al-Qaeda does not have the power to topple any government. What is very likely to result from a costly attack is the imposition of draconian restrictions upon the public. That too will prove to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that they are winning by destroying the democratic fabric of Western civilization.
What Al-Qaeda lacks is a real objective beyond inflicting injury. Any thought of a caliphate is far in the future and holding territory plays little part in their strategy of global wide asymmetric warfare.
Whatever new horror is employed by Al-Qaeda will force the Islamic State to find its own spectacular horror to overshadow the opposition. The recent kidnapping of nearly three hundred Christian Assyrians in northern Syria may be the first step in preparing for the next performance.
A more recent display of their power to destroy the enemy has been the use of mass burnings of prisoners in Iraq. Those have attracted little international attention and have been employed more to intimidate the locals. The attack upon a museum in Tunisia by men trained by Islamic State forces in Libya will contribute to the weakening of the economy. Already, an Italian cruise ship line has canceled stops in the country, but the killings of tourists lacks the jarring drama that is wanted to draw global attention to the movement.
The mass burning of three hundred women and children in response to a bombing raid near Raqqa would be certain to draw global attention and could provoke an escalation in the hostility towards the Islamic State and the Muslim world.
We are all being made participants in this theater of the grotesque; and that is precisely what is intended by the use of mass communications. This article was published by Geopolitical Monitor.com.