Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now President Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink?

Share

For centuries, governments told their soldiers and their people to “Know Your Enemy”. The problem with the Isis “Caliphate” – and it is a big problem for President Obama after journalist James Foley’s murder – is that we don’t know who it is. We are told of its butchery, cruelty, its kidnapping of women, its burying alive, its viciousness towards Christians and Yazidis and its public beheadings, but that is all. Even the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, comes across as a mad combination of the Mahdi who murdered Gordon of Khartoum, the assassinated Osama bin Laden and Oliver Cromwell, who did to the civilians of Drogheda what the Muslim Lord Protector al-Baghdadi has done to his enemies.

Foley’s ritual slaughter is enough to dissuade even the most foolhardy of journalists from seeking an interview with al-Baghdadi. Never before in the Middle East has so much land been out of bounds to the Western media. So ignorant are we of this Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – a dark land in which the reports we see of it are their own phone videos – that the Obamas, Camerons and Hammonds can only gnash their teeth at this unspeakable enemy. Easy reaction – but not much to go on. Yet Isis knows how to do one thing: confront Obama with his very own hostage problem, the same conundrum Tony Blair faced when Ken Bigley appeared before the video lens. Do you ignore the warnings, thus proving that you don’t care about your individual citizens when undertaking military operations – which is the truth – or do you turn into Jimmy Carter, curtsy to every whim of your enemies, go down on one knee and tell the Pentagon to “Hold it right there”?

Now Obama has seen the next American reporter threatened with beheading. Will he blink? He can’t, can he?

So I suspect the answer will be what presidents and prime ministers have always done best in the Middle East, and announce that Foley’s murder shows not only just how awful Isis is – but how important it is to go on bombing it in order to destroy the wretched institution. In other words, turn the sadistic Isis reaction to the air strikes into the reason why America is carrying out the air strikes. After all, we were bombarding Isis because it was killing Yazidis and dispossessing Christians and threatening Kurds. And Iraq. Now we have another reason to bomb al-Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

For journalists, yesterday was a fearful day. Thirty years ago, Arabs would acknowledge our special role as neutral observers. As the years have gone by – and as journalists have been killed by American military forces and Israeli soldiers and Iraqi rebels (and Arab militias), so our vulnerability has grown infinitely greater. When our chum, the Egyptian Field Marshal Abdol Fottah al-Sissi, locks up journalists for months, precious little do Western governments care about them. When our own masters show so little concern for our fate, is it any surprise that Isis –or Isil or whatever – are prepared to kill them. Sure, we don’t execute them. But that’s not a significance Isis is going to take much interest in.

A yellow ribbon is tied to a tree outside the family home of journalist James Foley A yellow ribbon is tied to a tree outside the family home of journalist James Foley (AP)
There are two truths that the West is going to have to face about al-Baghdadi’s savage and dotty “Caliphate”: these executioners began their careers – or their predecessors did – in the video-murderers of the anti-American resistance in Iraq; and however disgusting their activities, there are hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims who live in the area of the Caliphate and who have NOT fled for their lives. This, of course, makes unhappy reading. If the “Caliphate” is so revolting, disgusting, gruesome in its purity-driven brutality, how come all these people – Iraqis and Syrians – did not flee along with their Christian brothers? Are a few thousand armed fighters really able to coerce so many people over such a vast tract of the Middle East?

Let’s go back to the months and years that followed the 2003 Anglo-American invasion. The rebels or insurgents felt able to demonstrate extraordinary cruelty against their captives. I was once offered a videotape in Fallujah of a man having his throat cut by hooded men. It took me some time to realise that the victim was almost certainly a Russian soldier and his murderers were Chechens. Someone had brought this video to Fallujah so that the future butchers of the resistance could learn from it. This is the epic violence which our invasion unleashed.

Video: Isis warning to the West

And most Sunni Muslims stayed in their towns and cities and went on living there while their brothers – the Isis citizens of the future – went about their grisly work. In other words, the “Caliphate” obviously does not appear to be so terrifying to them as it does to us. Is there a problem here? Or is it just a matter, as the Americans seem to think, that the Sunni tribes – those all-purpose mini-societies which we depend on when things go wrong – have only to be bought over or their national government made more “inclusive” after the departure of al-Maliki to bump off al-Baghdadi? These are the questions we should ask.

In his last weeks, Osama bin Laden was expressing his revulsion at the sectarian nature of “Islamist” attacks – he even received a translation from Yemen of an article I wrote in The Independent in which I described al-Qa’ida as “the most sectarian organisation in the world”.

Things have moved on. At least when I met bin Laden, I didn’t fear for my life.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Communications and External Affairs Assistant

£24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Communications and External Affairs As...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst- (Customer Support) - £29,000

£29000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst- (Customer Suppor...

Recruitment Genius: Laser Games Supervisor

£14500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PPC Executive / Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A PPC Executive/Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A mother and her child  

50 signs that we need to stop spreading the myth of the 'ideal mother'

Victoria Richards
The top ten places where people are most likely to catch an STI have been revealed  

Surveys of people’s sex lives: how do we know what to believe?

Simon Kelner
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness