How ISIS Became the FACE of EVIL: The Islamic State’s Gruesome PROPAGANDA Serves Its Purposes and Those of US, Too

The face of evil: Young, red-bearded …

The U.S. government and the Islamic State were made for each other. Each portrays the other as sadistic tyrants. Each has grand power ambitions. Each uses slick propaganda to sell their war to supporters.

The main difference is this is not a contest of equals. Western media claim the “terror group’s tentacles now reach from Algeria to Afghanistan,” but the United States is a global power and ISIS, as the group is commonly known, is little more than a paper tiger.

As analyst Gary Brecher points out, ISIS is a relatively small fighting force with little ability to defeat a conventional army, which is how nearly all wars are won, or govern a population, which is how the peace is secured.

Nonetheless, ISIS has used propaganda to hone an image at once terrifying, effective, and resolute. It’s helped ISIS draw recruits from the West, financing from wealthy Gulf State patrons, and the allegianceof militant groups from Egypt to Indonesia. But ISIS’s real skill lies in exploiting power vacuums in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, resulting from Western intervention and weak sectarian states.

For the West, ISIS serves a purpose as well. The United States, France, and Britain use ISIS to justify domestic repression and imperial rule. The propaganda from both sides shapes not just the perception of the “war on terror,” but on-the-ground conflicts as well. Dissecting the propaganda shows why ISIS is not a grave threat, and how the West uses it to perpetuate a war that shows little sign of ending after 13 years,

ISIS understands how for-profit media works. What was extreme yesterday is routine tomorrow, lessening the political impact. So ISIS keeps upping the ante with mass beheadings, immolations, and parading prisoners in cages.

It produces videos for different audiences such as English-language ones mocking the United States and showing the beheadings of twenty-one Egyptian Copts captured in Libya, and Arabic-language clips of Syrian soldiers being beheaded.

These videos are seen differently in the Middle East than in the West. The one of Jordanian fighter jet pilot Mu‘ath al-Kassasbeh being burned alive lacked English narration or subtitles, meaning it was meant for an Arab audience. It showed Kassasbeh “walking through bombed-out structures, interspersed with scenes of rescuers pulling burned bodies from under rubble.” He was downed on a bombing run on December 24, and in the video he named eight other Arab nations that participated in the mission, along with France and the United States.

Four days after his capture, “A U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed at least 50 Syrian civilians” in the town of al Bab. Dozens of townspeople claim the toll was “several times higher,” meaning well over a hundred civilians may have died in one U.S.-led airstrike. The Pentagon, however, dismissed claims of civilian casualties as “not credible.” It’s a replay of the Iraq War in which more than 500,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003, but virtually no civilians were killed by U.S. forces, or so claims the Pentagon.

By immolating Kassabeh, ISIS was showing it could give the enemy a taste of its own medicine. Syria is one of at least seven nations bombed by the United States since 9/11. A decade earlier the United States gave the world some of the most iconic images ever of people being burned to death.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States bombed a civilian air raid shelter in Baghdad, incinerating at least 408 civilians. At the end of the war, U.S. bombers killed thousands of soldiers and possibly civilians on the “highway of death” in what was likely a war crime.

The illegal 2003 Iraq War began with “Shock and Awe” bombing of targets inside major cities designed to destroy “the will to resist.” In other words, it was an act of strategic terrorism. While occupying Iraq, the Pentagon deployed the devastating AC-130 gunships in dense urban areas like Sadr City.

It used “shake and bake” tactics involving white phosphorous bombs, which causes hideous burns, in Fallujah in 2004 as well as in other cities. And it bombed Iraqi cities so regularly it was rarely news. By June 2006, an estimated 78,000 Iraqis had beenblown up or burned to death by U.S.-led airstrikes.

The same comparison can be applied to other ISIS tactics. The group displays abused prisoners in cages and have beheaded more than 100 people since last year, according to a Wikipedia tally. The U.S. occupation, meanwhile, imprisoned more than 100,000 Iraqis, the majority believed to be innocent, and held thousands in torture mills like Abu Ghraib.

Plus thousands, probably tens of thousands, were massacred by U.S.-organized death squads and in secret prisons established under the U.S. occupation.

ISIS has to be viewed within this history. Its propaganda helps it shape the battlefield. By taking Kassasbeh hostage, ISIS weakened Jordanian support for its participation in the U.S. war. It was also a reminder that at least 2,000 Jordanians are fighting with the extremist group in Syria and Iraq today.

One poll from September 2014 found only 62 percent of Jordanians viewed ISIS as a terrorist organization, and only 31 percent said the same about Jabhat al-Nusra—“the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.” Kassasbeh’s capture led the United Arab Emirates to suspend its participation in the air war, a serious blow as the New York Times called the UAE “the United States’ most stalwart Arab ally in the fight against the Islamic State.”

Similarly, killing the Copts enabled ISIS to trumpet its outpost in Libya, another Arab country pushed into chaos by the West. It also stoked sectarianism in Egypt where Copts were leery of discrimination by the Muslim Brotherhood government. Many supported the military coup in 2013 that ousted President Mohammad Morsi.

After that, Brotherhood activists vented their frustration on Copts, attacking or burning 37 churches in just one incident. ISIS’s attack on Copts inflamed communalism and provokedEgypt into bombing Libya, which had been an open secret since last August. It is now harassing the Egyptian military on two fronts as the main armed Islamist outfit in the Sinai Peninsula declared allegiance to ISIS last November.

Now, much has been made of the propaganda and theology of ISIS. In a much-discussed essay, The Atlantic claimed ISIS is faithful to the doctrines of Islam despite the flimsy basis for such claims. Even if one accepts the proposition that ISIS is in the mainstream of Islam, it does not follow that will enable it to gain supporters, build a strong organization, or win wars.

As powerful as ideology, media and propaganda are in shaping our understanding of the world, you can’t eat it or live in it. The Islamic State’s success and failure in Iraq last decade hinged on the economy, jobs, living conditions, personal and community safety, political representation—the same conditions that matter the world over.

ISIS roots are in Jordan with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s ill-fated plotting against the monarchy in the 1990s. After a stint in jail, Zarqawi found fertile ground in Afghanistan for his brand of warfare before the 9/11 attacks and then in Iraq.


The United States turned Iraq into a hotbed of resistance by trashing the economy, punishing Sunni Arabs for the crimes of Saddam Hussein, and employing sectarian parties and politics to rule the country.

Zarqawi snagged the Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq (AQI), which bolstered the flow of foreign recruits and money. AQI is held responsible for many atrocities against Shi’ites, and was one of hundreds of militant groups resisting the U.S. occupation. What made AQI a top player was support from Sunni Arabs being hunted down by the United States and its Kurdish and Shi’ite partners.

Even before Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, AQI was rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and was alienating supporters with its medievalism that was ill-suited to governance. ISI was sidelined after Sunni tribes turned against it and the Pentagon seized the opportunity to put tens of thousands of armed tribesmen on the U.S. payroll.

That changed by 2011 as a general revolt against the vicious Syrian state provided ISI with a new base of operations, and it rebranded itself as ISIS under its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Then in Iraq in 2013 the government cracked down on Sunni protesters killing dozens, occupied Sunni-majority cities with sectarian military forces, and death squads and torture reportedly were rampant once more.

So when ISIS captured key cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah in 2014 it was not a military conquest. It was an uprising of Sunnis desperate for an ally against a brutal government. Even after a decade of American aid, training and tutelage, the Iraqi Army is so poorly equipped, trained and corrupt it collapsed despite its numerical and technological advantage over ISIS.

The hysterical media reportsthat ISIS was encircling Baghdad and the city could fall were ludicrous. It’s one thing for frightened Iraqi soldiers to sacrifice their lives for a venal government in regions where they are hated; it’s another for Shiite and Kurdish militias to protect their homes and families.

ISIS is so weak that less than a year after its greatest triumph, its stronghold in Iraq, the Sunni-majority city of Mosul, is being surrounded by Shi’ite and Kurdish forces as the White House decides whether to deploy U.S. forces in invading it.

Establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria was a propaganda coup for ISIS and the United States as well. The Obama administration blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the mess and engineered his removal. It showed the United States still calls the shots in Iraq while escaping culpability as the prime instigator of the sectarianism and extremism tearing the country apart.

More significant, it indicates that Washington prefers weak states. Strongmen are always easier to manipulate than a state that has some semblance of a division of powers, citizen input and a functioning bureaucracy and social services.

If the Iraqi government had used the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue it’s earned over the last decade to develop the economy and the infrastructure, and meet social needs, Iraq would be far more stable. And it would not have to be propped up by the United States.

To project power from Africa to Asia, Washington needs ISIS to breathe life into its narrative that the war on terror is about incomprehensible evil, defense of freedom, and just vengeance. The propaganda worked initially because it matched a mood raw and revenge-minded after al-Qaeda killed some 3,000 people on U.S. soil. That support drained away during the Iraq War as more than 4,600 Americans were killed.

While the U.S. public has little inclination for another ground war, the use of air power, Special Forces, mercenaries, militias, and proxy forces—all of which minimize official casualties—has enabled the Pentagon to be a combatant or play a covert or supporting role in about a dozen conflicts across the Muslim world.

On one level these wars have little in common. Yemen’s conflict is driven by poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, ethnic divisions, and the legacy of the Cold War. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is classic settler colonialism.


The United States overreached in invading Iraq in its effort to control the Middle Eastern oil spigot. Bahrain’s conflict is an inter-Arab struggle involving autocratic, oil-rich Sunni-led Gulf States that deny resources to poor Shi’ite communities.

The U.S. and NATO-led intervention in Libya was a cynical attempt to hijack the Arab Spring, while Syria has become a proxy war between the West, Israel and its Arab allies against Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. A number of seemingly national conflicts are really an agglomeration of regional and ethnic disputes, such as in Pakistan.

There’s conflict between the state and autonomy-seeking groups in Baluchistan, the rivalry with India over control of Jammu and Kashmir, and warfare with Pashtun groups that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

If there is a common denominator it is U.S. involvement. Many political leaders in these countries are happy to enlist in the U.S. wars as they and the state apparatus benefit immensely with power, prestige, and money. But forcing everything through the lens of “ISIS is a global threat” warps the root causes of the conflicts, and creates a breeding ground for a new generation of extremists.

Yet, it’s far simpler to convince Americans that going to war time and again is necessary because of ISIS rather than confronting the nuanced history and social conditions in each country. For decades the West has demonized one Arab or Muslim leader after another as “worse than Hitler.”

ISIS is only the latest character in this role, and when it’s eventually defeated and scattered, the United States and its allies will find a new bogeyman to pick as the face of evil.


By Arun Gupta, Telesur

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