The beheading of American freelance photojournalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shocked the world. He was taken prisoner in northwest Syria in November 2012 while on assignment for the Global Post. ISIS posted the video of his beheading on social media, depicting the gruesome beheading, as well as an explanation justifying the act.

Why ISIS beheaded James Foley

Beheading is not a new tactic. During the Iraq war Al Qaeda in Iraq carried out many beheadings of their prisoners. Kenneth Bigley, a British civil engineer and Nick Berg, an American Telecoms worker were beheaded and their videos uploaded to the Internet. The act of beheading and its videoing is gruesome and repulsive but it represents a particular type of conditioning and mindset, one that has no guilt or remorse, it is cold and calculated. The mentality of the executioner, as well as other ISIS fighters is that of a soldier. In his 7/7-suicide video Mohammed Sidique Khan clearly articulates the type of mentality I am referring to:

 “We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”

 The act of beheading and videoing by ISIS is a continuation of the ‘shock and awe’ strategy employed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq before he was killed in 2006. ISIS is more sophisticated and tactical and blends this with extreme savagery, and as experts on violent extremism have noted, it is more brutal than Al Qaeda.

If we analyse the beheading video of James Foley we see that he and the other hostage are wearing jumpsuits, similar to those worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees. By using these suits ISIS are inviting viewers of the video and those that hear about the beheading to think and imagine how the group is treating its prisoners. In doing so they are sending a chilling and powerful message to Western governments and engendering moral panic among their populations.

The video also demonstrates that the group is highly sophisticated and has qualified and well trained media team that is adept in using the latest technology and understand branding and marketing. The video could quite easily have been part of a Hollywood movie scene, suggesting that Western cultural references play a central part in the group’s media strategy. It is counterproductive to think about and use vocabulary that portrays ISIS as a group from the dark ages. Such thinking will only lead to flawed and ineffective policies. The group needs to be understood as a sophisticated, militarily astute, technologically advanced and statecraft orientated. Only with such an understanding can effective polices be developed.

The execution of an American citizen has achieved the same goal for ISIS as 9/11 did for Al Qaeda. The killing not only sends a frightening message but also demonstrates that the group can attack Western societies without directly attacking any particular country. The execution strikes at the heart of the American sense of identity and masculinity, as well as traumatising the American public and gaining revenge for Muslim suffering. The beheading is not only a direct challenge but also a tactic to corner the US and its allies and force them into war that they do not want.

The executioner in the video explains ISIS’s motivation for beheading James Foley, which he states is in response to American airstrikes in Iraq. The man has a British London accent, suggesting that he is from London. Prof Paul Kerswill, a linguistics expert at the University of York told the media that he believed the man spoke:

“Multicultural London English most commonly found in London’s East End. He probably has a foreign language background but it sounds like multicultural London English, which is people from all kinds of backgrounds who mix in the East End, a new kind of cockney.”

 The professor indicates that the executioner is a product of multicultural London. But his ethnic origin is not clear but media reports are claiming that Egyptian-born British citizen Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary is responsible for James Foley’s murder. According to media reports, a former hostage has identified the executioner as the ringleader of three British jihadists referred to as ‘the Beatles’. They are thought to be the main guards of foreign nationals in Raqqa, a stronghold of the ISIS Islamic State. The choice of using a British national is strategic, in that he is able to relate to the English speaking audience.

Reminder for Britain

For the British public the execution will remind them of Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013, which was also carried out by using a knife. Undoubtedly, like the Rigby murder there will be repercussions for Muslims. The video also poses a lot of questions for the British government and raises concerns over the effectiveness of its counter-extremism strategy. Since 9/11 the government has spent millions of pounds on surveillance and programmes to prevent radicalisation, yet we still see young Muslims continue to acquire extremist ideas and find there way to conflict zones and engage in acts such as beheadings.

Aside from the governments counter-extremism polices there is a more fundamental question, which needs to be addressed concerning social policy about the environment that led a British man to become a coldblooded killer. ISIS can be blamed for hardening the views of its recruits but an executioner is not born an executioner, he or she is made into one. This type of mindset is not cultivated overnight, it is a process and often takes years to build. As one community worker explained to me:

“Nowadays kids see violence everywhere, on TV, on the Internet, in music, on the street. Kids watch violence videos showing street fights and random attacks on strangers. Violence is everywhere. Some kids grow up in violent areas and homes, which can traumatise them and lead them to carry out violence. Kids grow up seeing, watching and hearing about violence, they are desensitized to violence… Kids join street gangs and engage in knife and gun crime, they are not averse to using violence… The leap from one type of violence to another is not very big.”

 In most cases a prerequisite for individuals to develop a mindset that enables them to engage in violence requires one to have been exposed to a violent environment over a prolonged period of time. The ideal context for this mindset to be fostered is the violent gang culture. British cities such as London do have a problem with violent gang culture, which attracts men and women from all ethnicities and ages. The media often reports cases of turf wars, stabbings and shootings, which are all connected to gangs. It could be that the Raqqa guards are a product of this gang culture. If this is the case then the British government will need to address this in any future counter-extremism initiative.

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