The civilised world is united in revulsion at the depths of barbarism plumbed by ISIS. The terrorists had only just released footage of a middle-aged homosexual man being thrown off a five-storey building, when they published the video of 26-year-old First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh — the Jordanian fighter pilot whose plane went down in December — being burned to death.
Demands for revenge against the perpetrators of such unfathomable inhumanity have been universal.
The Grand Sheikh of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university called for the crucifixion of Islamic State militants over the burning. Even Al-Qaeda — itself no shrinking violet when it comes to committing acts of horror — condemned the killing as proof of Islamic State’s depravity.
Scroll down for video
Murdered: Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian fighter pilot burned to death by ISIS
For its part, ISIS has clearly decided that there is method in killings that stun the mind with their horror. Even psychopaths can have a strategy.
Since ISIS began its rampage last summer, it has used extreme terror both as a recruitment tool and as a weapon to intimidate enemies. A much larger and better equipped — but demoralised and unpaid — Iraqi army fled before Islamic State’s fanatical cadres as they cold-bloodedly massacred prisoners.
Christian civilians and those of the Yezidi tribe in Iraq were cowed into submission by the use of violence as punishment, and their women subjected to sexual slavery.
But given the worldwide disgust at such savage tactics, the question is, why is ISIS still being allowed to get away with it? If the world is united in condemnation, why are these barbarians not being wiped from the face of the Earth?
The answer lies in the ancient hatreds and festering tensions — religious, social and tribal — that bedevil the Middle East. Hatreds that were once held in check by strongmen (despots and brutal dictators such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq), but which have now been unleashed by the naive intervention of Western powers determined to replace their authoritarian rule with democracy.
Islamic State came into being only because Saddam had been toppled, and President Assad of Syria has been crippled by the Western-backed revolution in Syria.
So the terrorist organisation now roams at will over vast tracts of land in Syria and Iraq, making forays and attacks over national borders and committing terrorist atrocities deliberately designed to stoke up tribal tensions in neighbouring countries and undermine their rulers.
Even though the pilot had, in fact, been murdered on January 3, ISIS continued the negotiations in an attempt to prolong the agony of his capture
ISIS has clearly decided that there is method in killings that stun the mind with their horror, as shown with the video released showing Kasasbeh’s death (pictured)
It is no coincidence that Islamic State chose to make a Jordanian citizen the victim of its most extravagantly grotesque video yet. The country’s difficulties mirror those of a number of nations across the Middle East, with a fractious populace barely kept under control by a government under increasing pressure.
ISIS regards Jordan, which borders both Iraq and Syria, as the equivalent of low-hanging fruit, ripe for plucking.
It is a poor, small country with just six-and-a-half million people, and no oil or other natural resources. It is heavily dependent on foreign aid, whether from sympathetic Gulf monarchies or the U.S.
And, crucially from Islamic State’s point of view, it is one of the four Arab nations actively engaged in fighting ISIS with their air forces — along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (although the latter halted its combat flights after the Jordanian pilot Kasasbeh fell into ISIS hands).
Despite the medieval barbarity of its violence, Islamic State’s political game-playing is becoming more sophisticated by the day. Pictured: Rebel militant soldiers on the frontline in Aleppo, Syria
Many of Jordan’s people (who are Sunni Muslim, like ISIS) are strongly opposed to its participation in the war. And ISIS played on this in its month-long negotiations for a prisoner exchange involving the tragic pilot.
Even though the pilot had, in fact, been murdered on January 3, ISIS continued the negotiations in an attempt to prolong the agony of his capture, and stimulate protests back in Jordan about the country’s participation in combat flights.
The strategy worked. The threats to kill him enraged many in Jordan’s south. The pilot hails from one of the largest tribes in the southern city of Karak, and his family openly criticised King Abdullah’s monarchy — the kind of dissent which, in Jordan, can mean jail.
The pilot’s father passionately declared last week that the fight against Islamic State ‘is not our war’, though today he wants to kill every member of Islamic State.
ISIS regards Jordan, which borders both Iraq and Syria, as the equivalent of low-hanging fruit, ripe for plucking. Pictured: Jordan’s King Abdullah II
Anti-government sentiment in Jordan is growing, and last year the southern city of Maan hosted the country’s first pro-Islamic State demonstrations as locals complained they were being economically marginalised.
‘It is Jordan’s right to defend itself against Islamic State, but not to start wars or fight on others’ behalf,’ one activist said. ‘This is not our decision to take part in these wars. The decisions are made in Washington.’
Jordan also has a history of violent Islamists. The psychopathically bloodthirsty leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the forerunner of ISIS) was a Jordanian national, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose name signifies he came from the mining town of Zarqa, about 17 miles north of Amman.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph (leader) of Islamic State, was one of Zarqawi’s protegees before the latter was killed in a 2006 U.S. air strike. There are also an estimated 2,000 Jordanian nationals fighting with ISIS, who one day will find it easy enough to slip back home.
Furthermore, since 1948 onwards, Jordan has taken in successive waves of Palestinian refugees, perhaps totaling two million people, plus another million-and-a-half more refugees fleeing recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria. This has only added to the growing unease among the indigenous Bedouin population.
So Jordan is a natural target for Islamic State, which calculatedly seeks out weak points among its opponents.
When, last autumn, Islamic State terrorists attacked and captured the Kurdish town of Kobane on Syria’s border with Turkey, they knew that the Turks — nominally Western allies — would not raise a finger to stop them because they consider the Kurds of Kobane their mortal enemies. Only after the US-led coalition launched airstrikes against Islamic State was Kobane retaken by the Kurds.
Likewise, Islamic State has deliberately targeted the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Its control is disputed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, and it is currently in Kurd hands. Here, ISIS doesn’t just want to get its hands on oil fields, but also to trigger wider Arab resentment against the Kurds, who are distrusted by the Arabs and waging war against ISIS, and who regard Kirkuk as their Jerusalem.
ISIS — a hardline Sunni organisation — also deliberately foments sectarian tensions in the Middle East between the Sunni and their own mortal enemies, the Shia.
The terrorist group uses anti-Shia propaganda as a recruitment tool, particularly by presenting itself as the only viable opposition to the much-loathed, Shia-backed government of President Assad in Syria.
ISIS terrorists deliberately targeted the Syrian city of Kobane last autumn (pictured), they knew the Turks — nominally Western allies — would not raise a finger to stop them
The terrifying truth is that ISIS appears to be winning this war against an indecisive and inadequate coalition. So what can that 70-nation coalition do to combat it?
So far, Islamic State’s opponents have relied upon desultory, pin-prick air strikes to ‘degrade’, if not to destroy, the organisation. Since August 8 last year, coalition aircraft have carried out about a thousand sorties over Iraq and another 800 over Northern Syria where IS has its headquarters at Raqqa.
Although this may seem like a lot of air activity, in fact, it is a fraction of the number of lethal strikes the Israeli Defence Force flew against Hamas in Gaza, for example. Whereas the Israelis sometimes flew 300 such missions per day, the coalition against IS only managed that number in a month, mainly because Turkey won’t allow the coalition to use its bases.
And while the coalition may boast that ISIS lost a thousand men in Kobane over a five-month period, the terrorist group actually gained 2,500 recruits over that period, so has ended up stronger.
No, if we are to truly engage in war with ISIS, we should not be bashful about how we wage it.
I believe we should launch devastating attacks on ISIS’s nominal headquarters in the city of Raqqa in Syria. Vast bombardments, using B52s, would inevitably mean civilian casualties. But unless we are ready for this to drag on for several years, it seems to me this is necessary to obliterate its command and control systems.
It may be an unsavoury choice, but Churchill had to make many of those for the greater good — in the firebombing of Dresden, for example.
The problem with sending troops to fight ISIS is that they would inevitably stoke local tensions further. Western forces cannot be used because the entire Arab world would object. More depressingly, the Arab nations — which are terrified of even getting involved in airstrikes — would not dream of sending in ground forces.
This means the only real opposition to ISIS from the Arab world is the Shia Iraqi national army and various Iranian-backed Shia militias, or even the Iranian regular army — though the danger is that Tehran would take part only in return for a deal that allows them a nuclear bomb.
The prospect of U.S. war planes providing air cover for an Iranian-directed ground force is a nightmare scenario for the Sunni Arab coalition states such as Saudi Arabia, since at a stroke it would extend Iran’s influence deep into their orbit.
ISIS understands all this only too well. And despite the medieval barbarity of its violence, its political game-playing is becoming more sophisticated by the day.