Only minutes after the self-described Islamic State released one of its most gruesome videos, the experts reached a consensus about what its impact would be. The horrific murder of Jordanian Air Force Pilot Moaz al Kasasbeh — locked in a cage and set on fire — was a miscalculation by ISIS, they told us.
It is tempting to hope for a decisive shift in the fight, especially after yet another American, this time the aid worker Kayla Mueller, also died because of the terrorist group.
Across social and traditional media, everyone seemed to be of one mind: ISIS went too far in killing Lt. Moaz al Kasasbeh. It made a mistake killing a fellow Muslim in such a depraved way. The “blowback,” they explained, would mark the beginning of the end for that despicable brand of virulently extremist Islamists.
Allow me to draw a dark outline around that silver lining.
Yes, it is true that the shocking ending to al Kasasbeh’s life has triggered a furious and fully justified wave of rage against ISIS across Jordan and in much of the Muslim world. Jordan’s King Abdullah has harnessed his people’s emotions, vowed vengeance and unleashed a new wave of bombings against ISIS targets in Syria. Islamic authorities and Muslim leaders have denounced the killing as a savage affront against Islamic principles.
That is all true.
And yet, there is no evidence that ISIS has, in fact, lost more than it won by its latest action.
If the battle against the Islamic State were a democratic one, then the immolation of the Jordanian pilot would have amounted to a huge defeat for his killers. Millions of Arabs and Muslims have probably now turned against the group. It is a meaningful advance in the “hearts and minds” battle. But the fight with ISIS is not only a metaphorical war. It is a very real war in which ISIS is making gains, controlling territory, and ruling large populations. Latest figures show 20,000 foreigners have joined ISIS’s ranks.
ISIS’s strategy of displaying its cold-blooded brutality does not aim to gain millions of followers. It seeks two objectives: to intimidate those who defy it and to attract those who feel energized by its ruthless determination. The video, sickening as it is, is likely to help enlist more among that fringe sector.
If murderous actions by ISIS were enough to turn the tide, the tide would have turned long ago. If ISIS killing Muslims created a shift in attitudes, then attitudes would have shifted long ago. ISIS has been beheading Muslims for months, it has been crucifying, burying alive and shocking the world — yes, the Muslim world — for a long time. And that has served its propaganda and strategic purposes.
They may look like brutal, blood-thirsty maniacs. But they know what they are doing.
Videos of beheadings and crucifixions led Iraqi soldiers to lay down their arms rather than fight. Today, Jordanians are filled with fury and putting it into action. But others are cowering.
In addition, the Islamic State is trying to appeal to mostly young men by showing its fearlessness, its single-mindedness and its seeming invincibility. The tactic has worked.
New recruits over the past several months far exceed the number of ISIS fighters taken out by the U.S.-led coalition.
Undoubtedly, it is excellent news in the fight to see the Jordanian leader and his people now raising the stakes, determined to defeat the organization that killed one of their sons.
And it is particularly encouraging that it is an Arab state, in the heart of the turbulent Middle East, rising to the challenge.
But the sudden shift in opinion is not enough to defeat ISIS.
Just a few weeks ago many in Jordan were urging the king to take the country out of the anti-ISIS coalition. Now, in the boiling fury, Jordanians are vowing to defeat the killers. Opinions may shift again.
So far, the call to action has meant more airstrikes. But airstrikes are not enough, and there is no sign of any significant movement towards a ground operation.
The Kurds defeated ISIS in Kobani because they were there, on the ground. Airstrikes offered pivotal support, but were not enough. Pushing ISIS from its entrenched position in Syria and Iraq will require more than airstrikes.
It will require a much deeper commitment from neighboring states and a wider American strategy, including an alternative to the rule of Syria’s secular, brutal dictator Bashar Assad.
That, despite the latest outrages, is nowhere in sight.