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:

  1. They hate us because of what we do.
  2. 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:

  1. Change our way of life–convert to Islam and become one with the Islamic State.
  2. Change their way of life–convert ISIS to secularism, liberalism, and democracy.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.