Has ISIS's latest horror show backfired in the Middle East?

ISIS knows it has a captive regional audience and seems ever willing to ratchet up the message: Scare the soldiers, enrage the people. But is this latest atrocity, the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot, a tipping point in the Arab world?

Revenge talk in the air as moderate Jordan, Lebanon riveted by gruesome killings

Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh stands in front of armed men in this still image from an undated video released by Islamic State militants on Tuesday. The video purports to show Kasaesbeh being burnt alive, and Jordanian state television said he was murdered a month ago. (Reuters)

In grotesquely expanding its growing gallery of horror, by burning alive a Jordanian pilot, ISIS is taking a significant risk.

The overriding message, mixed in among several in its highly produced video, is clear. Don't fight us, it seems to say. If you do, prepare to burn in hell.

That ISIS reserved its most barbaric public execution to date for a fellow Sunni Muslim, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh — and its most venomous criticism for a Sunni Muslim leader, Jordan's King Abdullah — only underscores that message, that a nearby "traitor" deserves a worse death than even a "non-believer" from abroad.

The risk in such a message, though, is in how members of the intended audience react: Do they cower in fear, or erupt in rage. And, if rage, where specifically might that anger be directed.

In its 23-minute video, ISIS lays the groundwork for what it hopes will be anger against the Jordanian king for participating at all in the U.S.-led effort to destroy the so-called Islamic State.

It is an effort by ISIS to divide, to destabilize, to make the case for rebellion and, thereby, to open the regional door further to the group's influence.

Will it work? One thing you can be sure of is that, despite all the official calls to do otherwise, this video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times from start to finish, on cellphones belonging to the region's anxious.

Avoiding the video would be a luxury that many in the Middle East would feel they cannot afford.

Because while Western airstrikes and the odd skirmish with Western troops get a lot of media attention around the world, for those countries neighbouring the Islamic State this battle is existential.

They may be longer-term projects, but Lebanon and Jordan (along with the rest of Syria and Iraq) are in ISIS's sights, and the group's self-documented history of brutality illustrates where its interests lay.

On the front lines

Don't forget that one of the first foreign soldiers to be filmed while being beheaded by ISIS — long before the U.S. airstrikes began — was Lebanese. He was captured as ISIS militants stormed across that country's border with Syria in an apparent bid to take territory.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Jordan's King Abdullah at the White House on Tuesday as Islamic State militants released a video showing the death of the captured Jordanian pilot. (Reuters)

Sgt. Ali al-Sayyed, from northern Lebanon, was 29. He too was Sunni Muslim, like the ISIS militants, and unlucky to be captured during that incursion last August.

After his capture, al-Sayyed appeared in a video apparently pledging loyalty to ISIS. It is very likely he was in no position to say no, but imagine how demoralizing that would have been to his fellow soldiers.

Then, a short while later, a gruesome video emerged of him being beheaded.

That was just the start of a psychological war waged specifically against ISIS's regional opponents and the citizens of those countries who support the fight back.

In fact, in the same incursion into Lebanon, more than two dozen other Lebanese soldiers and police were captured, some held by ISIS, others by affiliate Jabhat al Nusra — and they are still not home. Among them are Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, suggesting that the whole of Lebanon and the diversity it stands for is fair game if they dare fight  ISIS.

These captured soldiers are not the subject of a global hashtag campaign. Their plight is somehow lost in the noise of some 60 nations fighting ISIS.

It is also forgotten that while Lebanon isn't part of the anti-ISIS coalition, it has still had to contend with fighting ISIS at its doorstep, a fight that long predates the arrival of foreign aircraft.

Despite efforts at negotiation, there have been more beheadings of Lebanese soldiers in recent months, and so more dreadful video for the region to pore over.

Living next door to ISIS not only means losing lives, but also being inundated by the echoes of their gruesome messages.

Rumours of influence

In Beirut now, ISIS lurks everywhere. Rumours persist that they have reach and influence deep inside the capital. Try watching the news there without hearing Daesh, the Arab acronym for their name.

Like the weather, ISIS warrants a daily roundup and forecast. Even on days when they haven't issued another ultimatum, or when they hadn't yet again engaged the Lebanese army and killed more soldiers.

And what is your recourse if you are a Lebanese family waiting for news of a son or a brother languishing for months in the hands of such a group?

You might camp out downtown, and occasionally burn tires to block roads in protest. You might scan social media for news. You might, as one Lebanese mother did, learn of the violent end of your son's life on Twitter.

"Annihilate ISIS," said Saif al-Kasaesbeh (C), father of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, seen here at the headquarters of the family's clan in the city of Karak on Wednesday. Jordan hanged two Iraqi jihadists on Wednesday including a female militant in response to an Islamic State video showing al-Kasaesbeh being burnt alive. (REUTERS)

For the rest, there is little to do but watch in horror, or erupt in anger.

ISIS knows it has a captive regional audience and seems ever willing to ratchet up the message: Scare the soldiers. And enrage the people.

But will more gruesome killings succeed in turning Arab people against their governments for fighting ISIS?

The barbarity of the latest killing might actually achieve the opposite.

Many Arabs — even those opposed to their troops fighting alongside foreign ones against Muslims opposed to the Syrian regime — are enraged at the killings.

Many influential clerics have denounced it as un-Islamic, inconsistent with the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, and simply outrageous.

For ISIS's immediate neighbours, the group's barbarity is unlikely to lead to a change in course.

For Jordan, unlike its previous military commitments to U.S.-led military efforts in the region — which were roundly criticized at home — this time it is about survival.

And now, for its enraged people, it may also be about revenge.

Little wonder Jordan has vowed to redouble its efforts in a war that is a little too close for comfort.

ISIS's gamble may not quite pay off as it hoped. But its ghastly channel is still being watched.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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