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Tuesday, February 03, 2015 

The Islamic State will fall.

(Please take your trigger warnings and do one.  That said, this post discusses and describes some fairly distressing stuff, so you probably shouldn't read it.)

When the news came through Islamic State had captured a Jordanian pilot, my immediate thought was he was going to suffer.  Whatever indignities or torture both mental and physical IS's western prisoners have undergone, and if they were beaten, the group was careful not to leave injuries that would be seen on video, they have been nothing as to how the group treats other Muslims or groups deemed heretical.  The Yazidi women taken as slaves; the men crucified in the centre of Raqqa; the relatives of an Iraqi army commander made to dig their own graves before they were beheaded; Islamic State's brutality, much as it often appears an end in itself, is also meted out as a warning, just as other regimes have prospered in the short term through establishing a monopoly on violence.

For all the words expelled on why beheading and decapitation especially horrify, the most immediate reasons being our heads make us who we are, and to separate the head from the body is to dehumanise someone utterly, with the entire history of decapitation as a form of execution playing in the background as atavism, the main reason it became the favoured method of execution for jihadis is more prosaic.  Other than a bullet in the back of the head, it's relatively simple to carry out, and done "properly" it kills quickly, in a matter of seconds.  It also obviously provides an instant "trophy" that can be held aloft and displayed.  How soon brain death occurs is a matter of scientific debate, and how much pain the victim experiences can only be speculated upon, further depending on specific circumstances.  If the executioner isn't a sadist, or doesn't intend to make it as painful an end as imaginable, whether through using a blunt knife, not fully severing the windpipe or wrenching at the head when the neck has only been half cut, all things jihadis have done in executions they have filmed, there are worse ways to die.  Not many, but there are.

One such way is to be burned.  If beheading reminds of the guillotine, of masked executioners wielding axes, of seppuku, burning alive is even more primeval, archaic.  You think witches, Joan of Arc, women convicted of treason.  It's also more instantly associated with Christianity than Islam.

The murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh has, all but needless to say, nothing whatsoever in common with Islam and instead everything to do with politics.  The cynicism of Islamic State is not so much over the method of execution, and instead the emotional torture of his relatives.  If the Jordanian government is correct, al-Kasasbeh was put to death exactly a month ago, yet his murderers spent the past week raising hopes in both Jordan and Japan that men they may well have already killed could be released in a prisoner swap.  It also means that IS has had the best part of a month to put together their most despicable and elaborate murder set piece yet, which is exactly what their 22-minute release is.

Back in December Will Self was correct in pointing out none of the videos of the western hostages the media said depicted their execution actually did, in as much as showing the act itself.  They all faded to black as the knife was put to their neck and the cutting motion appeared to begin; when the image came back in, the now severed head of the victim had been placed upright on the back of their now prone body.  This raised the question of whether the British jihadi who addressed the camera in each video was the person carrying out the murder, or whether someone else did once the camera stopped filming.  If there were any doubts, these were answered by the release of a video showing the execution of a group of Syrian officers which gloried in showing the act in full, the British man staring at the camera as he sliced open his victim's throat.

There is no cutting away either from al-Kasabeh's terrible ordeal.  Before the accelerant which trails from the cage he has been placed in is lit, and such is the ferocity of the fire it could well be jet fuel rather than mere petrol, he's led through bombed buildings.  Indeed, destruction surrounds the place chosen for the execution.  It's presented as pure revenge, as being eminently justifiable to IS's supporters, as well as for maximum impact.  Boris Johnson was rightly criticised for his idiotic remarks about jihadis all being porn obsessed wankers, but there are jihadis who do fit that description, only they have a bloodlust equal to that others have for naked flesh.  IS more than any previous jihadist group caters to this market, and it does so in the style of the most vacuous and disposable Hollywood action flick, al-Kasabeh's pained, terrified expressions as he awaits his fate sliced together in a montage over in less than 5 seconds.

What happens to al-Kasabeh isn't only as the broadcasters will say, too graphic to show, it's almost too horrific to describe.  If we have any knowledge of images of death by burning, it's probably of Thích Quảng Đức, or Buddhists in Tibet, either filmed at a distance or in poor quality.  Al-Kasabeh dies in agony, up close, and in high definition.  His screams seem to go on long after he stops moving, after his body has reached the stage at which it constricts, only ending not long before it topples backwards.  Almost immediately, but probably cleverly edited to look that way, a digger moves in and dumps rubble on to the cage, crushing it, al-Kasabeh's blackened hand left visible through the debris.  This is what you've done to us; if we capture you, it's what you can expect in return.

Some on previous occasions claimed Islamic State's releases have been meant to distract from their problems on the ground, not always with much credibility.  This time, it's far more apposite.  To be crude, and not entirely accurate, the butch men of Islamic State have just had their arses handed to them by a militia led by a woman.  Yes, they were helped massively by the airstrikes and backed up by other Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds, but let's not ignore that symbolism.  Islamic State seemed at one point unstoppable, or overexcitable media gave that impression.  They are now being pushed back in both Syria and Iraq, and the battle to retake Mosul is being planned.

The ever more elaborate and gruesome Islamic State's base propaganda becomes, the more it becomes clear it's fighting a battle for survival in its current form.  Exactly what shouldn't happen now is for Jordan to engage in tat for tat executions, rather to rise above such instant acts of vengeance.  Justice will be achieved for al-Kasabeh in other ways, just as it will for the western and Japanese hostages murdered, and the ordinary citizens of Iraq and Syria currently under their vicious yoke.  The real challenge, though, will be in ensuring the same mistakes that led to the rise of IS aren't repeated once they have been defeated.

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