By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff
IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State, the radical Islamist group that now controls large swaths of eastern Syria and northern and central Iraq, posted another slickly produced video online this week that warns its religious and political rivals that they face brutal torture and execution if captured.
But the 36-minute film, “On the Path of the Prophets,” does much more than that, analysts said, and shows that the Islamic State has a remarkably sophisticated understanding of messaging that makes it clear that the group is probably the most tactically and strategically adept terrorist organization the world has ever seen.
The overall impression that analysts draw from the film is that far from being just a group of psychotic killers, the Islamic State’s leaders have thought out carefully how to harness the group’s brutality to spread its influence. The group’s targets aren’t valuable just militarily but also on a number of other levels that underscore the Islamic State’s communications goals.
“Executing several hundred men is one thing,” said Charles Lister, an expert on jihadi groups at the Brooking Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, referring to one of the scenes that unfold in the video. “But to purposely film it in high quality and release it precisely at the end (of the holy month of Ramadan) … is a very purposeful message.”
“Not only is such a message directed towards its direct enemies — the Shiite, Alawite, and Syrian and Iraqi armies — but it also intimidates competitors and rivals towards submission and pledging of loyalty,” he said.
Such pragmatism in selecting targets — combining the practical with the spectacular — adds to the group’s reputation for ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike. The videos also help recruit adherents, despite the brutal nature of what they depict.
“While such horrific brutality is abhorrent for the vast majority of people, the IS is also aware that it does in fact help recruit, too — one need only scan over social media … to see the enthusiastic responses such violence receives among its supporters,” Lister said.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, who studies jihadi groups for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research organization, agreed.
“Around the world, recruiting is something they have in mind,” al-Tamimi said. “IS fan boys in particular go wild with all those killings of Rafidites,” he said, using a derogatory term for Shiite Muslims derived from the Arabic word for “rejectionists.” Radical Sunni Muslims accuse Shiites of being heretics for rejecting the Sunni view of who the rightful heir is to the Prophet Muhammad.
But al-Tamimi said the murder of perceived apostate prisoners was part of an even more cynical plan, an attempt to draw an equally brutal response from regime-aligned forces and militias directed at the alienated Sunni population that has for the most part embraced the Islamic State, at least so far.
“They are hoping (enraged) Shiite militias will rear their heads and engage in ethnic cleansing, which they can then advertise to Sunnis to say, ‘You’re being threatened by the Rafidites. We will protect you,’ ” he said.
And that, according to Lister, plays on a major psychological element that’s been mostly overlooked in the success of the Islamic State’s seizure of much of Iraq: Sunni tribal pride, which suffered for years at the hands of the Shiite-led government that was installed in Baghdad during the American-led occupation.
“In the immediate term, I do think there has been some recognition among Sunni civilians in Mosul, for example, that the IS has brought stability and honor back to the community,” Lister said.
Opposition to the Islamic State may grow over time, Lister said, especially as public punishment for violating the group’s harsh rules increases. “But for now,” he added, “I think many people are simply ‘going with the winner’ and ensuring their own security.”
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