The Legacy of Imperialism and the Brutal Logic of ISIS


The self-proclaimed Islamic State, better known as ISIS, released a video of the execution of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh earlier this week. The act portrayed within this video set off a new round of speeches condemning ISIS and vows to destroy the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. In Jordan, citizens took to the streets demanding justice on behalf of Kasasbeh and calling on the government to take its revenge. When viewing a list of ISIS’s crimes it is only natural to wish for the eradication of the organization, even by brutal means if necessary. While it may seem counterintuitive, this is most likely what ISIS wants.

Since ISIS shocked much of the world last June with its rapid advance into Iraq and successful operation to take Mosul, the organization has effectively deployed propaganda in an effort to reach out to prospective recruits and advance the organization’s narrative. The Vice News documentary ‘The Islamic State’ and the reporting of journalist Juergan Todenhoefer demonstrate ISIS’ ability to portray itself as an organized, just, and well-governed state despite several reports contradicting this narrative. With this in mind, it is no mistake that ISIS willingly displays its own brutality to the world and eagerly awaits the world’s response. In the minds of ISIS and their sympathizers within this propaganda there is a much subtler and poignant message, a message of justice.

For most people there is no justice in burning another human being alive, that act remains inexcusable, but when looking through the historical context of the region and the historical experience of many Arab-Muslims the message becomes clearer. The legacy of Western imperialism has left deep metaphorical scars on the psyche of the Arab World and until now permanent scars on the map of the region. While imperialism is built upon the military and economic superiority of the colonizing power, it only succeeds with the collaboration of some among the native populations. It is not lost on most Arabs that the current regime in Jordan does not exist without the help of the British and the backing of other Western powers in modern history. The legacy of Western imperialism is often blamed for the regions struggles and the suffering of the Arab people as some Arab rulers are accused of being lackeys of the West, making decisions that benefit the US and Europe at the expense of their own people.

This legacy of imperialism is intrinsically tied to the West’s recent military adventures in the region. Whether it be the Iraq War, NATO air support for Libya Rebels, or the recent coalition against ISIS, all of these military adventures require some level of local support but not all of them are perceived to benefit those willing local participants. Prior to Kasasbeh’s execution, many Jordanians remained ambivalent toward the U.S. sponsored coalition against and believed the campaign against the terrorist organization was not their fight. Some questioned Jordan’s decision to join the coalition believing it wasn’t their fight.

ISIS propagandists were fully aware of this sentiment when they released this most recent video. It is no coincidence that the video’s release occurred during Jordan’s King Abdullah visit to the White House (Jordan claims the pilot was likely killed on Jan. 3). The video shows King Abdullah pledging his support for the U.S. coalition against ISIS as well as displaying the destruction caused by the coalition’s air strikes in Syria and Iraq before moving on to the capture and execution of Kasasbeh. The intent of the video is so much more than an effort to shock and terrify its viewers. It is meant to call attention to death and suffering caused by the imperialism of the West and the punishment reserved for those willing to collaborate with it. In the mind ISIS’ leadership the brutal method of execution is no worse than what Jihadists have experienced at the hands Bashar al-Asad, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak or many of the other Arab autocrats who have been propped up by imperial powers. In the warped mind of ISIS, the execution of Kasasbeh is the fulfillment of justice on behalf of all those who died in coalition airstrikes.

In the aftermath or Kasasbeh’s execution, Jordanians’ ambivalence toward ISIS has quickly disappeared. Whether this will serve ISIS well remains to be seen but it is exactly what this group of fanatics wants. In their worldview, there is only black and white, good and bad, wicked and righteous. There is no room for ambivalence, gray, uncertainty or moral ambiguity. By coupling Western imperialism with the fight against them, ISIS believes the Arab world will in time join their side. Thankfully, I’m glad Jordan is proving them wrong.