Some of the great turning points in the history of warfare have come as a result of a major blunder committed by one of the sides. We may have just seen an example in the Middle East.
The Islamic State group's leaders depend on the psychological impact of terror to influence behavior — of both opponents and potential supporters. They think the more brutal the better, that horrific deeds establish their movement as an unstoppable force that will both frighten off Westerners and recruit other Muslims to their cause. That’s why they put a captured Jordanian pilot in a cage, doused him with fuel, burned him alive, and recorded the gruesome event so that it could be shown to the world at just the right strategic moment.
That moment came, they decided, when Jordanians were questioning their government’s decision to participate with the Americans in the battle. With Jordanian King Abdullah’s long alliance with America a sore subject for many of his countrymen, the Islamic State group's leaders decided to show Jordanians what it was costing them. They released the video, which had been made a month or so before, with the expectation that the Jordanian people would be so disturbed over the consequences of continuing to stay with the Americans that they would demand that the king sever all ties, as a good Muslim should.
The Jordanian response has been precisely the opposite. The showing of the video created an anti-Islamic State backlash and solidified popular support for the Jordanian-American alliance in a way nothing else could have done. After King Abdullah ordered the execution of two Islamic State group operatives who were being held in Jordanian prisons, Jordanians took to the streets in demonstrations in support of his actions, not against them. The father of the murdered pilot, who had questioned the king’s relationship with America before the video was shown, now says, “I ask the international community to carry out just punishment against those terrorist groups that have no religion or traditional values.”
It’s not just Jordan. All across the Middle East, groups and countries that have been muted in their condemnation of the Islamic State group are now in full-throated roar against it. Instead of building its image as the wave of the future, a group to be joined, this act turned the Islamic State group into a pariah organization to be hated and destroyed.
Why was the reaction so immediate and so strong? Previous videos showing the beheading of innocent hostages were equally horrifying; why didn’t their release trigger this effect? I suggest two reasons.
First, the nationality of the victim. Middle Eastern Arabs condemned the beheadings as brutal acts, but the hostages who were killed were Westerners, foreigners involving themselves in activity that was arguably not their business. The Jordanian pilot, on the other hand, was, ethnically and religiously, one of their own — a hometown boy. Videos of his grieving friends and relatives affected other Arab families that pictures of grieving Americans never could.
Second, the nature of the execution. The New York Times reports that “Mainstream Arab leaders reacted to the immolation in a categorically different way to the long string of hostage beheadings that preceded it … burning someone alive is prohibited in Islam as a punishment that belongs to God alone, applied in hell. Beheadings, however, have a long history in Islam.” Thus, those who claim to be the true representatives of Islam are now seen as violating one of its most important religious taboos.
It’s too early to predict, but the burning of the Jordanian pilot may turn out to be a major blunder that changed the course of a war.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.