Country Risk

Beheading of journalist highlights IS intent to goad US into broader conflict

04 September 2014
US president Barack Obama comments on the killing of journalist Steven Sotloff by Islamic State militants, during a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia, on 3 September 2014. Source: PA


The Islamic State (IS) issued a video on 2 September showing the beheading of US freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, apparently by the same IS operative who had beheaded James Foley two weeks ago.

The IS said that the killing was in response to US raids against Amerli, Zummar, and the Mosul Dam, which had facilitated the capture of these locations by Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iraqi government forces. The IS also threatened to behead David Cawthorne Haines, a British aid worker also held by the Islamic State.

The latest video, rather than reflecting the desperation of the IS, probably reflects its calculus that killing hostages would either stop broader US intervention, making the US look weak and increasing the IS's credibility, or would bring about greater Western intervention, thereby enhancing the IS's credibility as the one Sunni insurgent group genuinely committed to fighting Western influence. Moreover, the IS believes, according to its rhetoric, that Salafist jihadists have already defeated the United States in Iraq, and can do so again.

The independent Committee for the Protection of Journalists estimates that 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria, while Reporters Without Borders places the number at 60 of those who are detained, held hostage, or missing. It is not known how many of these are foreign. Moreover, the number of aid workers held in Syria is not known, nor is it clear which groups are holding hostages.


Further executions of foreigners are likely by the Islamic State. Moreover, the executions indicate that further IS attempts at kidnapping foreigners are likely, particularly along the Syria-Turkish border, and possibly in Lebanon, with the intent of increasing pressure on foreign governments. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory of Human rights reported that IS operatives in the city of Mosul were keeping a low profile and avoiding movement in large convoys for fear of US airstrikes. This suggests the jihadists are following a deliberate and effective policy of blending with the local population, making it difficult for Western countries to conduct airstrikes without causing collateral damage. Were the US to cause significant civilian Sunni casualties in airstrikes, this would be likely to facilitate the IS's agenda of integrating smaller insurgent groups into its structure, while increasing anti-US sentiment and Sunni sympathy for the Islamic State elsewhere in the region.

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