IS and the barbarism of war

The following is an op-ed I recently published in the Otago Daily Times about the barbarism of ISIS and how we might put it in context:

The latest atrocity by Islamic State forces in Iraq in which a captured Jordanian pilot was burned to death has provoked an understandable wave of commentary from around the world. The horrific spectacle created by the killing raises a number of crucial questions for us to consider. Is Islamic State (IS) a new, more brutal kind of rebel group? What purpose can such brutality serve? How should the world respond to the increasing brutality of the war in Iraq, and what does this latest development tell us about Western strategy in the region?

Sadly, this atrocity, and those previously committed by IS, are actually fairly banal in the history of warfare. Depraved cruelty and inhumanity is part and parcel of the very nature of war. To see the truth of this we need only recall what American GIs did to captured prisoners in Vietnam, what British troops did to communist insurgents in Malaya or to suspected Mau Mau in Kenya, or what the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the Interahamwe in Rwanda did to countless civilians in their conflicts. Or, consider the activities of the Latin American death squads during the cold war, the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya, or how state security officials in Uzbekistan boiled people to death in vats of oil. In South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle, it was commonplace for angry township residents to put a tire filled with petrol around the neck of a suspected informer and burn them to death. The truth is that history records innumerable atrocities by rebels and soldiers alike that in fact make the actions of IS pale into relative insignificance. In some respects, IS are still amateurs in the arts of violent cruelty during war.

In addition, we should also keep in mind that what counts as cruelty and barbarism in war is shaped by our cultural values and historical context. Objectively, it is perverse to insist that burning a man to death with petrol is a greater moral evil than using munitions like phosphorous bombs in military operations which we know will burn a great many innocent people to death, including children. It is the nature of every society however, to point out the cruelty of the enemy while obscuring the cruelty of one’s own actions.

From this perspective, and especially considering that this incident is part of a vicious war that has been going since 2003, the actions of IS should not really surprise us at all. The only difference is, that unlike the case of Rwanda in the 1990s, or Boko Haram in Nigeria right now, Western societies seem to be more aware of, and sensitised to, this particular conflict. We seem to care a great deal more about the handful of hostages in Iraq than we do about the hundreds currently dying in Nigeria. In part, this is also due to the successful use of social media by IS who have discovered how to effectively create maximum shock among Western publics.

So what gain does IS get from using such shocking methods?

Read the rest of the article here…

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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5 Responses to IS and the barbarism of war

  1. moha567 says:

    Great piece. Your perspectives on the international community’s silence on the increasing atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the ECOWAS sub-region is extremely enlightening.

  2. moha567 says:

    Very enlightening piece. Particularly thrilled by your insights on the international community’s response on the rising atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the ECOWAS sub-region.

  3. uolscid says:

    Reblogged this on Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID) and commented:
    An excellent article which puts the violence of IS into context.

  4. jbuc912 says:

    I agree with the point you make about ISIS being the direct consequence of Western foreign policy and meddling in the region. However, I would take it a step further and emphasize the covert support Western powers have given radical groups such as ISIS.

    I would like to bring your attention to this news article from FARS News Agency (Iran). I think it ought to be investigated by those opposed to NZ’s deployment to Iraq.

    Iraqi Army Downs 2 UK Planes Carrying Weapons for ISIL

    It quotes Iraqi government officials who are adamant that the US-UK led coalition, created ostensibly to combat ISIS, are in fact giving ISIS material support. I have read similar articles.

    Although it might seem unlikely or counterintuitive for the US and UK to give ISIS support, the historical record demonstrates that Western regimes have used radical groups to pursue hidden geopolitical agendas.

    This has been a policy that goes all the way back to WWI and the Arab Revolt that saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This policy was perfected, under the Brzezinski-Carter doctrine, during the war in Afghanistan in the 1970-80s; it was evident during the war in Yugoslavia with Western support for Bosnian-Muslim militants and the KLA. More recently the CIA has been training anti-Assad fighters at military bases in Jordan and Turkey who have joined ISIS. The so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ is essentially a façade that provides plausible deniability and limited accountability for a covert rat-line that funnels support to ISIS and associated groups.

    ISIS was seen by Western-Israeli intelligence agencies as the most effective force to combat Hezbollah and bring down Assad.

    The anti-ISIS coalition does not seek to destroy ISIS but rather to exploit it.

    Here is the US foreign policy establishment’s attitude towards radical-insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda-ISIS:

    I think that questioning the real motives and agenda behind the intervention to combat ISIS, which is to effectively give covert support to ISIS in the overthrow of the Assad regime, will ultimately undermine the argument for deployment.

  5. Whatever IS and Boko Haram are doing is the level of cruelty they are showing.
    Their way of assaulting, terrifying people are getting dangerous day by day. The use of social media by them is quite effective in horrifying people and gain more attention. As a result to this most of the western citizens are also getting involves in that. More than 30,000 people have migrated there after AL-Qaeeda’s establishment.

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