ISIL and the management of savagery

ISIL’s recent display of savagery exposes the group’s growing paranoia over spies and informants.

Iraqi policemen ISIL graffiti
Iraqi policemen cross out out graffiti reading 'property of ISIL' [Getty]

The world is well aware of the brutal savagery shown by ISIL in their unending stream of macabre executions – captured in graphic and sickening detail in videos uploaded to YouTube and social media for consumption by aspiring jihadists, those unfortunate enough to be subjected to their occupation, and curious individuals drawn to images of violence.

Last year, we saw the first of their countless mass executions by shootings and beheadings. Since then, they’ve added to their repertoire of horrific executions, routinely subjecting their victims to crucifixions, stoning, immolation, being thrown from tall rooftops or burying them alive, hanging, or death by multiple amputations.

The estimate of how many have been executed are staggering – the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number of confirmed ISIL executions in Syria alone during the last year at over 3,000.

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Women and children haven’t been spared either, with well over a hundred such executions documented on video or in photographs.

Barbaric acts of cruelty

To most of the world, the executions are nothing more than senseless and barbaric acts of cruelty – stark reminders of history’s most notorious despots and repressive regimes; some would say irrational or self-defeating.

But for ISIL there is a twisted yet deliberate purpose to their savagery – total domination of its subjects through fear and intimidation on the one hand, and outright hate and vengeance towards its enemies on the other.

It is based on a mythic and medieval past where how they execute their victims is as important as to why they execute them. And while there have been far worse regimes in terms of brutality, ISIL seems to openly revel in it, always looking for new opportunities to exploit their terror and find new enemies.

And as disconcerting as that may seem, their insatiable bloodlust and penchant for cruelty actually appeals to a global following of mostly angry, disenfranchised, or maladjusted young men and women all too willing to join their ranks to fight a common enemy – what ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani identifies as “infidels, Shia and apostate Muslims“. Basically, anyone who defies them or does not accept and closely adhere to their strict form of religious ideology.

In his 2004 online treatise: The Management of Savagery, al-Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji wrote what would eventually become the ISIL strategy. In essence, how to destroy “apostate” Muslim regimes so they fall into a state of “savagery”, allowing them to be built back up under a caliphate. Naji believed that violence and cruelty were necessary in order to achieve and maintain control and that no mercy should be shown. According to Naji: “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is nought but violence, crudeness, terrorism, deterrence and massacring.” 

Under ISIL rule there are no options. If you obey, you live. The alternative is unthinkable. For their enemy, there is no quarter.


For those unfortunate Syrians and Iraqis subject to ISIL control, the aim of this savagery is to break them psychologically so as to ensure their absolute allegiance through fear and intimidation. Under ISIL rule there are no options. If you obey, you live. The alternative is unthinkable. For their enemy, there is no quarter.

Desensitised to the shock

As with any horror that becomes a matter of routine in people’s lives, the world and those subjected to it eventually become desensitised to the shock, causing it to start losing its intended effect. For ISIL, that means a continual search for new methods to instil fear and intimidation and new enemies or apostates to subject them to – a never-ending cycle of brutal violence and grisly deaths.

Last week, two women accused of sorcery were beheaded in Syria – they were the first reported beheadings of women by ISIL. Their husbands met the same fate. Also last week, two young boys, their ages not known, were crucified in Eastern Syria for not fasting properly during Ramadan. The intended message was clear. Those who do not follow the strict tenets of Sharia law, as imposed by ISIL, will suffer the consequences.

In Kobane two weeks ago, ISIL took revenge for their defeat at the hands of the Kurds last winter, killing over two hundred civilians in their homes and on the streets as they methodically moved about the city. Their aim wasn’t to reclaim lost ground or even to attack military targets, but rather to raid and plunder as in medieval times.

In another horrific video released two weeks ago, ISIL showed the executions of 16 men in Mosul who were accused of spying for the Iraqi government by providing targeting data for coalition air strikes. But this time, three new methods of execution were used to ensure the message was received and understood by all.  

Four of the men were restrained to the inside of a car and watched in horror as a jihadist armed with a rocket propelled grenade took aim and then fired at them from a short distance away. They could be heard screaming in agony as the car was engulfed in flames following the explosion. 

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIL has committed 3,000 executions in Syria in the past year alone [Getty]
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIL has committed 3,000 executions in Syria in the past year alone [Getty]

Five others were locked in a cage and then slowly lowered into a swimming pool by crane to die a harrowing death by drowning – captured in all its gruesome detail by high-definition underwater cameras. The last seven victims had detonating cord wrapped around their necks that caused immediate decapitation when exploded – which the video showed over and over again in slow motion and in reverse so as to maximise the chilling effect. 

The intended audience for the execution video of the alleged spies wasn’t so much directed towards potential jihadists aspiring to join the ISIL ranks, or even the lone wolf sympathisers looking for inspiration to conduct attacks in their home countries. Rather, it was targeted directly at the Iraqi people as a warning of what happens to infiltrators, informants, or sleeper cells operating against them.

Given their recent setbacks in Syria and a looming battle with Iraqi Security Forces – aided by Iran-backed Shia militias and coalition air support – ISIL faces threats on multiple fronts, and can ill afford to deal with a Sunni rebellion or spies from within.

And that may very well speak to a degree of paranoia by ISIL – leading to even more executions, using even more creative ways to carry them out in order to manage their savagery. For ISIL, it’s all about total domination of its subjects and vengeance against its enemies. And that doesn’t bode well for the Iraqi or Syrian people.

Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.