Why ISIS is Beheading Americans and What We Can Do About It
by Benjamin Studebaker
Two American journalists have now been beheaded by the Islamic State–James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Vice President Joe Biden has already declared that he wants to follow ISIS to “the gates of hell.” But why is ISIS doing this, and what should the United States do about it?
Let’s start by getting the lay of the land. There’s a lot of disagreement over how much territory the Islamic State holds, but most estimates presently converge on something like this:
ISIS’ holdings are in red. With that out of the way, let’s cut to the chase–why is ISIS going after us?
As an old professor of mine, John Mearsheimer once put it, there are two alternative explanations for why militant organizations target the United States and Americans:
- They hate us because of what we do.
- They hate us because of what we are.
This distinction is very important. If ISIS hates us because of what we do, it hates us because of discrete policies that we could identify and potentially reverse, thereby ameliorating its hatred. If ISIS is mad at us because we’ve allied with the Shiite Iraqi government, bombed its territory, and declared our intent to reduce its power and holdings, then in theory ISIS could be dealt with through some kind of agreement whereby we would stop doing these things and they would stop targeting our citizens.
If, on the other hand, we believe that ISIS hates us because of what we are, things are entirely different. If ISIS hates us purely because we are secular, liberal, democratic, and predominately non-Muslim, then unless we choose to adopt ISIS’ way of life, it will continue to hate us and target us no matter what we do. In that scenario, there are only three realistic options:
- Change our way of life–convert to Islam and become one with the Islamic State.
- Change their way of life–convert ISIS to secularism, liberalism, and democracy.
- Kill them all.
We are unwilling to do #1, so in practice this leaves us with a choice exclusively between #2 and #3. We either convert ISIS to our way of life or we annihilate them.
Ironically, this is the same choice ISIS is giving the people that live under its rule. They can either accept ISIS’ authority and interpretation of Islam or die.
So if we believe that ISIS hates us because of what we are, then we must hate ISIS because of what it is, and the conflict can only end when one of us converts or kills off the other. Achieving either of these outcomes will likely take a very long time and a lot of resources. It’s a bleak outlook whether you’re the United States or ISIS.
It would surely be much better for both of us if ISIS only hates us because of what we do. If ISIS only hates us because of what we do, we could theoretically reach a new equilibrium where we don’t have to mess with them and they don’t have to mess with us. So which is it?
In the videos in which Foley and Sotloff are beheaded, the Islamic State offers its explanation. When it killed Foley, it said:
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. So any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.
When it killed Sotloff, it added:
I’m back, Obama, and I am back because of your arrogant foreign policy toward the Islamic state. Because of your insistence in continuing your bombings in Muhassan, Alboumar, and Mosul dam, despite our serious warnings. You, Obama, have yet again, for your actions, have killed yet another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knives will continue to strike the necks of your people. We take this opportunity to warn those governments who have entered this evil alliance of America against the Islamic state and back off and leave our people alone.
This sounds like ISIS is kidnapping and killing American citizens because it objects to our policies–specifically, our policy of attacking ISIS. This would be hating us because of what we do, not because of what we are. At no point does ISIS complain about America’s secular, liberal, or democratic character. It objects exclusively to America’s military intervention against the Islamic State. Implicit in this kind of grievance is an offer–if we leave ISIS alone, it will leave us alone.
Now, the skeptical reader might venture to say that perhaps this is all a ruse. Perhaps ISIS wants to convince gullible westerners like me that if we leave ISIS alone, it will leave us alone, but in reality ISIS will use the breathing room we give it to launch terrorist attacks against western states. There are however two key reasons to doubt that ISIS poses the long-term threat we are frequently told it poses:
- In its history, ISIS has never attacked westerners in their home countries. It has exclusively engaged with westerners in the Middle East. This suggests that ISIS’ ambitions lie primarily with acquiring territory in the Middle East so as to reinstate a Caliphate throughout the Muslim world. If ISIS attacks the west, it will attract additional opposition, making it much harder for ISIS to achieve its political goals in the Middle East. Fighting the Middle Eastern governments is one thing, but if ISIS must fight the US and Europe, it has no chance of successfully maintaining an independent state.
- ISIS is surrounded by enemies. The governments in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iran are all hostile to it, and it also has the enmity of Al Qaeda, the Kurds, and the other rebel groups in Syria. ISIS claims to be the Caliphate reborn–it claims to have authority over all Muslims. This makes it a threat to the legitimacy of all Muslim governments, and consequently all of these governments are hostile to it. It is unlikely to get genuine breathing space regardless of whether or not we continue to intervene against it. Every Muslim country has an interest in destroying ISIS.
The skeptical reader might return fire and point to the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sure, ISIS might not get breathing space right away, but what if one day it does? Wouldn’t ISIS then begin sponsoring terrorists like Afghanistan once did? Shouldn’t we nip this in the bud?
The trouble with this line of argument is that the Afghanistan case demonstrates what a terrible strategic mistake it is for any state to sponsor terrorism against the west. Because Al Qaeda was physically located in Afghanistan, the Afghan government was driven from power by the United States and its allies, and many of its leaders were killed. It was severely punished for allowing organizations located within its territory to attack western countries. Notably, it received this punishment despite offering to arrest Osama bin Laden. This sent a clear message to governments all over the world. If they sponsor terrorists, the United States will come down on them like a ton of bricks, regardless of whether or not they attempt to cooperate with the United States after the fact. By allowing the September 11th attacks to happen, the Taliban leadership signed its own death certificate. Unless ISIS seeks a death sentence, it would be entirely irrational for it to sponsor terrorist attacks against the United States even if it were to get the breathing room necessary to do so.
This is an emotional time. Americans are upset over the loss of two of their countrymen, and it’s easy to get caught up in grief–look at Joe Biden. But the rational strategy is one that best protects America’s security interests in the long-term. An endless war with radical Islam is extraordinarily expensive in both lives and money. Ironically, we might truly be best served by following the very policy ISIS recommends to us: stop intervening in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
This is appalling.
The american public didn’t give a shit when the British journalist died, or we saw kids, women and men getting beaten and decapitated, but the loss of two of your own made the public give a shit, really?
This reminds me of the whole WMD debacle in Syria, where the dead toll got over 100,000 over two years, before they conveniently found some gas.
It’s nothing new–Americans were opposed to WWII until Pearl Harbor. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were extraordinarily expensive, and Americans saw little benefit to themselves or to the region from those previous interventions.
Just shut up !!! You don’t know what we care about !! You aren’t in our hearts !!! You don’t have a clue!!! You just want to assume and you know what they say about assume
Oh shut up !! You don’t know what’s in our hearts !! You only assume and you know what they say about assume
But in your heart is to kill innocent people? If you want to go after someone go after after the government not innocent american citizen. Or whoever else you had dome. I ain’t ain’t got nothing to do with that crap and don’t want no part of it.Yet behead a innocent person?
All governments are corrupt and not perfect. It will always be that way but leave the others alone.
Good article Informative thank you
Thank you for reading!
Organizations like ISIS do not make a distinction between the American government and the American people because the American people fund the American government (and, correspondingly, the military). For this reason, they do not regard the American people as innocent, but rather as complicit participants in the campaign against ISIS. That said, their strategy is not effective–by targeting US citizens abroad, they anger the US population and make it more willing to support the military campaign while doing no substantive damage to the US’ military capabilities.
Doesnt make sense. No matter what the US does their wrong, we go in a protect innocent people getting killed and were wrong, we don’t and were wrong… So tell me, what does the horrible white man do?
Britain can handle its self, does the British give two fucks about those two journalists? Didn’t think so. Why should America have to stand up for everyone? Everyone should have their own army by now, use it. God, it’s not that hard to understand why America didn’t dwell on Brtish people dying. Britain couldnt care less about Americans.
The world will hate us Americans regardless. If we wait until it concerns us directly, people will say we only care when our people are in danger. Like you are now. When we take the initiative, pre-empt, or get involved first then we’re accused of attepattempting to police the world. Either way we’re screwed
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I thinkthe reasons why we SHOULD be concerned about ISIS is the uncertainty that the organization poses towards our strategic resources in the region (oil, primarily, but also some luxuries and transportation routes). I think that the so-called ‘outrage’ over the two journalists is at least partially fabricated by the media, if not completely. It is difficult for anyone to feel truly outraged when the issue isn’t personal in some way. So the policy of leaving them alone to fight amongst themselves, which I believe a lot of people support, can’t happen. As long as we have interests in the region, we’ll be interested in the region.
If we could get some guarantess from ISIS / The Caliphate about the things we strategically care about, I think it would be a lot easier for us as a nation to get out and stay out.
I’m not convinced that ISIS really poses a threat to the Middle East oil supply. Most of the oil in Iraq is located in the south of the country near the gulf. This is deep Shiite territory, and it would be very hard for ISIS to take it and hold it due to their very small number of fighters (estimates vary, but 10,000 would be generous).
In any case, it may be advantageous in the long-run if oil prices rise due to climate concerns–a rise in oil prices would encourage development of sustainable energy technology. Iraq’s oil was not exported for extended periods during the last decade. Gas prices rose and the number of big SUVs fell, but we got on okay.
I bag to differ. i think ISIS couldn’t care less about american policies or identity. It wants to get involved in a “small war” with the US for PR reasons. See, I the arab world, South America, left in Europe and other places-
America is seen as the mother of all sin.
Soddom & Ghamora if you will.
Given that, surviving a small war with “the big Satan” would win them:
1. Positive public opinion amoung the arab world.
2.Big money donations for Suadi Arabia, UAE
the be continued
3. Legitimation as a power that must be taken into accouny.
They can be sure that Obama won’t fight them with full power, so, unless the west wakes up, they have nothing to lose.
If ISIS truly seeks to become the “Islamic State”–the continuation of the original Sunni caliphate–it needs to acquire and hold territory. Engaging in warfare with the United States will make this ambition impossible to fulfill.
ISIS is fundamentally different from Hamas/Hezbollah, which score major propaganda victories merely by surviving Israeli attempts to destroy them. Unlike Hamas/Hezbollah, ISIS’ beef is not primarily with a western state (US/Israel/etc.) but with the Shiite governments in Syria and Iraq. For ISIS to gain legitimacy as the Sunni caliphate, it must successfully free the Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria from domination by Shiite-led governments.
This is a very educational article for me. Thank you for writing it. In my own personal mission to explore “why they hate us” (with “us” being more than just the USA, mind you)…I felt your article was well written.
Thank you very much, Shaun! I appreciate that.
Very informative article. Thank you!
You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading.
Thanks for your article and for writing it in a way for people to understand. My question to you is, why do you think the media tries so hard to scare us when it comes to isis? There’s an article saying they are going to find our soldiers at home or wherever and kill them. Is this article true? Where do we go to find the truth and news besides blogs (no offense)?http://www.redflagnews.com/headlines/urgent-alert-isis-threatens-to-obtain-us-soldiers-address-and-slaughter-them-at-home-outrage-please-send-this-to-every-military-personnel-you-know
You’re welcome! There are a small number of westerners who travel to the Middle East and join extremist groups, and some worry that these people will return to the west and use the skills they gain to commit terrorists acts. It’s important to note that there are very few westerners who do this (somewhere between 70-100 is about the median estimate of the various sources I’ve looked at). To give up a comfortable life in a western country and join a civil war in Iraq/Syria on ISIS’ side, you have to be a little loopy. A small percentage of the population in all countries is loopy, and some of those loopy people are dangerously loopy. What’s important is that dangerously loopy people don’t become loopy when they join ISIS–it’s the loopiness that makes them join in the first place, and if they don’t join ISIS, they will find another outlet. There are loopy white supremacists, loopy anti-government survivalists, violently mentally ill people, and so on. If these people were not running off to join ISIS, they might be running off to join Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Yemen, or the horn of Africa. It doesn’t substantively alter the overall day to day threat posed by violently looney people.
ISIS talks really big, but the reality is that their capacity to infiltrate and strike at the United States is much lower than many extant threats–there are millions of Iranian Americans, and Iran could easily plant operatives in the US and attempt to cause trouble with them. States typically don’t do this kind of thing, because if the violence is traced back to them they could suffer sanctions or military action. If we were not fighting ISIS, it would be in a similar position to Iran–not wanting to mess with us so as not to draw our fire. ISIS is surrounded by enemies and doesn’t need any more foes. But because we are already attacking ISIS, we lose that leverage. They feel they have nothing to lose, and so they execute our people and encourage those who sympathize with them to attack us.
It’s impossible to get totally trustworthy news from anybody (including bloggers). Everyone has an agenda and a perspective and a circle of people they talk to that influences the way they cover issues. My advice would be to keep in touch with a wide array of sources, both domestic and international, both mainstream and a little more out there. But more importantly, we have to think deeply about the issues we’re reading about and try as best we can to think through the perspectives of the various groups and individuals involved in them. We run into the most trouble when we dismiss a given actor or group as blindingly malevolent. To really understand what’s going on, we have to get inside the head space of the people we’re reading and writing and thinking about. If these organizations pose any real threat to anybody, they have to be run by people who are not entirely unreasonable. They may have loopy goals, but they will attempt to pursue those goals in ways that can be understood and predicted, at least to a degree. Once we dismiss that possibility, understanding is impossible and mindless fear takes over.
So well written. I completely agree with your assessment. America has succeeded in pouring oil on an already out of control fire and fanning it in our direction. We are a nation led by control freaks with huge egos and short memories…the glee on the faces of military hotshots interviewed on CNN every 5 minutes is more than a little disturbing.
Thank you very much!
I call for the united state government to withdrawal all united state citizens from all hostile environment abroad. I condone violence any where I find for war is not the answer only love can conquer hate. How do I know this I am descendant of slaves. Now with that being said my former linage was lynch. Burnt.and hung and sometimes our women were tied up side down in trees and their babies cut out of their stomach with knives and swords and who was behind that agenda were the Ku Klux clan they were and still our terriost. With no means of exceptions of skin heads and Aryan nation let known hidden militia in our police department if I can forgive for all of these harsh attrocities so can you.or hate will only just consume you. I call for immediate withdrawal of all us citizens enough of our blood has been shed. If Isis want to be terriost let them be their in their own country and without our presence they simply want to be left alone. This is a war that so in orthodox we can’t tie our gloves on fast enough. Yes I’m proud of my president but this war and mayhem is not of his doing. People its something he inherited. We need to worry bout our own terriost in our own country until we can defeat this hatered at home how an the hell can we defeat it abroad. Thanks for listening I yield back the remaining balance of my time. Go USA
[…] not do, and the intervention may well be one of those things (indeed, I have expressed that view elsewhere). With that distinction in mind, let’s […]
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Fantastic article, really helped me get to grips with both arguments
Thanks Liam, glad you enjoyed it.
1st of all I want to point out that ISIS wants power, because of that we have freedom and power. 2nd of all WHY BEHEAD SOMEONE? Well, they are mad, think of it this way: if you were mad you wouldn’t kill someone (unless you are crazy or mentally ill) you would probably explain why you’re mad. Lastly if the other countries didn’t like ‘brag'(not really) about how they are powerful or make ISIS mad then this SHIT wouldn’t effect us. BTW I don’t want to sound so religious but if Saintan wouldn’t have been a devil then this world would be just about PERFECT. Why do we have to fight get it over with stupid SISI’s (ISIS backwards).
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Did the children you killed understand your morals ? or your interpertation of your beliefs?
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