An American is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, apparently intended to echo the garb of al Qaeda insurgents captured and imprisoned by the United States. He kneels next to a man dressed all in black, his face masked, a knife in his hand. For many, this has become an enduring image of the terrorist and insurgent group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,
ISIS, or simply the Islamic State, as it now calls itself.
In a video posted to the Internet on August 19, 2014, and widely distributed over social media, the American recites a speech, advising President Obama to cease air strikes against the Islamic State.
His tormentor speaks, flaunting the British accent that is so central to his performance, warning President Barack Obama that attacks on ISIS would result in the spilling of American blood. He puts the knife to the American's neck and the camera cuts away to show the victim's severed head, displayed on the back of his lifeless body. Only the beginning of the grisly act is shown. But it is the fear in the American's eyes that is hard to forget.
The dead American was photojournalist James Foley. He was known as a "brave and tireless journalist" who was determined to describe the impact of war on ordinary people's lives.1 Before he became a journalist, Foley had been a teacher and an aid worker. He had been abducted in November 2012, and had been beaten, starved, and waterboarded for nearly two years before he was finally beheaded.
Now the story of this good man had come to a terrible end.
For many people around the world, the methodical, sadistic cruelty of the video was shocking and unbearable, provoking an entirely human desire to avenge Foley's death using any means necessary. In the Western world, in the twenty-first century, the idea of a beheading was something unreal, archaic, a vaguely understood and little-contemplated relic of a distant past. While there are important exceptions, we have grown used to a less barbaric world, so that when the media bring pictures of terrorists' deliberate savagery to our attention, we recoil.
Other jihadists had used beheadings for this purpose before. Chechen insurgents were known for brutally beheading prisoners. In Bosnia, jihadist fighters once videotaped themselves playing soccer with a decapitated head (Serbs and Palestinians reportedly did the same at different times). But al Qaeda in Iraq—the predecessor to ISIS—made the practice its trademark.
The campaign of horror began with the 2004 beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg, who had been captured by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It was performed on camera by the group's leader, Abu Musab al Zar qawi, and attracted international attention. Unlike the Foley video, Zar qawi was depicted carrying out the entire beheading with a knife; the camera did not cut away. The act was not swift; it took unbearably long seconds to complete.
The video's impact ensured that more videos would follow, many of which were even more brutal and graphic. The victims included Americans and other foreigners, including British, Russian, Japanese, Bulgarian, Korean, and Filipino citizens.
It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women together, with the later victims forced to watch the first die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, piled out of a vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving off scot-free.
The videos were distributed physically on DVDs in Iraq, but they became an Internet phenomenon. Unlabeled online file repositories were linked to by members of jihadist message boards, and the videos were passed around the Web, violence porn with a mission to intimidate and enrage. They succeeded.
It was the birth of a media model that has been transformed, expanded, and refined to a science over the course of years by the group that would eventually spring from the ashes of the American occupation—ISIS, a jihadist army so brutal and out of control that it was officially disavowed by al Qaeda.
ISIS has made its name on the marketing of savagery, evolving its message to sell a strange but potent new blend of utopianism and appalling carnage to a worldwide audience, documenting a carefully manipulated version of its military campaigns, including its bloody 2014 rampage across much of Iraq and Syria. ISIS is using beheadings as a form of marketing, manipulation, and recruitment, determined to bring the public display of savagery into our lives, trying to instill in us a state of terror.
Although some observers followed the rise of ISIS with alarm from late 2013, the Obama administration gave the problem short shrift. In an interview with the New Yorker in January 2014,4 the president himself dismissed concerns about the group and other jihadists fighting in neighboring Syria:
The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
The administration continued to downplay the upstart jihadists for months. In June 2014, when ISIS seized control of a substantial chunk of Iraq, in an efficient military campaign marked by the retreat of apparently terrified, U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers, most within the administration were caught off guard, asking themselves why they hadn't seen the "jayvee team" coming.
Despite the military drama, which sent tremors through regional and Western security services, most Americans and other Westerners were disillusioned and exhausted by more than ten years of a costly War on Terror.
Those who bothered to notice agreed ISIS was a problem. But maybe not our problem, they said. When President Obama authorized air strikes on ISIS positions, depriving them of a fraction of their stolen territory, he quickly moved on to discussions of the economy.
But ISIS would not be ignored. It began by courting American anger specifically, at first with taunting tweets launched over social media, using established marketing and spam tactics to ensure that its invitation to war played not just in Washington, but all over the globe.
For months, ISIS had flooded the Internet with images of hundreds of unnamed Iraqis and Kurds being executed by gun and knife and crucifixion, their heads mounted and displayed on pikes. All of it seemed so far away to those few who even heard about the atrocities, which the media covered sporadically at best.
Then ISIS upped the ante—deliberately re-creating the Nicholas Berg video for a new generation, with a new cast of characters, beginning with the murder of James Foley.
It was perhaps the ending of the video that sealed the incident's place in history. After graphic evidence of the murderous deed had been displayed, there was one final scene: the British jihadist yanked another American up on his knees, by the scruff of his orange jumpsuit — Steven Sotloff, another kidnapped journalist.
"The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision," the killer said in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. This was not a one-off communiqué. It was a promise of more bloodshed to come.
Extensive media coverage highlighted the case, as journalists publicly mourned one of their own, and ISIS spread images of the execution far and wide on social media, even prompting Twitter to intervene in ways it had long scorned, by suspending dozens of ISIS supporters' accounts.
By the time the second execution came, exactly as promised, followed by the addition of a third victim to the queue — this time a British citizen — a slow rumble was spreading through America and the world. ISIS expanded its targeted messaging to include "the allies of America," with special attention to the United Kingdom, and threats to bordering countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In corner stores and restaurants, on television and radio broadcasts, over dinner tables and on social media, people began to ask: Why can't the most powerful nations on earth stop these medieval-minded killers? The questions soon transformed into an anger not seen since the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"These guys need to be killed," a middle-aged police officer with a friendly face was heard saying in an even tone to a store owner in Cambridge, Massachusetts — one of the most notoriously liberal cities in the United States — and the sentiment was repeated again and again, around the world, at greater or lesser length, and with greater or lesser intensity.
Who are these men? Where did they come from? What do they want? How are they transforming the nature of terrorism and the war the international community is fighting against it? What can we do about ISIS? What should we do? These are the questions that fuel this book.
Adapted from ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR. Copyright 2015 by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. Excerpted by permission of Ecco Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.