Over the weekend, ISIS released another snuff film, but this one was a little different than their previous videos – it was more heavily produced and edited, and while it showed the gruesome beheadings of captive Syrian soldiers by knife-wielding jihadis, it didn’t actually show the murder ISIS wanted to take credit for: American hostage and former Army Ranger Peter Kassig. It also did not end with the introduction of the next designated murder victim, as the previous releases have, although the Washington Post ominously notes that ISIS has some female Western hostages – including at least one American woman – it could start abusing, to inject some fresh evil into the video series.
The video ends with the display of a severed head purported to be Kassig’s, parked between the booted feet of someone the authorities believe to be “Jihad John,” the English-speaking Western-educated masked terrorist who generally hosts these sinister productions. It’s possible the footage was shot before an allied air strike this weekend that is believed to have seriously injured Jihad John.
A few other ISIS operatives born or raised in the West appear in the latest video, and two of them appear to have been identified: French intelligence believes one of them is 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Hauchard, while another appears to be 20-year-old British student Nasser Muthana, who joined ISIS along with his 17-year-old brother. Muthana’s father, trying not to believe his son appeared in the video while conceding that it does appear to be him, said of the lad’s new caliphate chums, “What they are doing is inhuman. This is not the son I brought up. He has been got at – he has changed.”
Mr Kassig’s apparent murder is not shown. At the end of the video, which intersperses various executions with file footage of U.S. forces in Iraq and later clips of Islamic State battles, a bloodied, decapitated head is shown at the feet of a militant wearing khaki boots.
Above him stands a masked militant who may be Jihadi John, the man believed be from Britain who wielded the knife in four previous murders of Western hostages.
His voice sounds similar to the voice of the masked militant who has featured in previous videos. He has what sounds like a London accent despite his voice being distorted to make it more difficult to identify him.
A dateline on the video says it has been shot in Dabiq, which is the location where Islamic State militants believe a decisive final battle will be fought with Western forces.
He says: ‘This is Peter Edward Kassig, a U.S. citizen of your country. Peter, who fought against the Muslims in Iraq while serving as a soldier under the American army, doesn’t have much to say. His previous cell mates have already spoken on his behalf.
‘But we say to you Obama … you claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. We said to you then that you are liars, that you have not withdrawn and that if you had withdrawn that you would return, even if after some time.
‘You would return. Here you are. You have not withdrawn. Rather, you hid some of your forces behind your proxies and withdrawn the rest. Your forces will return, greater in number than they were before.
‘You will return and your proxies will not benefit you.
‘And we also remind you of the haunting words that our Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi told you. The spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah’s permission until it burns the crusader army in Dabiq.
‘And here we are, burying the first crusader in Dabiq. Eagerly awaiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.’
The video also shows Jihadi John leading the mass execution of Syrian military personnel by jihadis at a desert location. Unlike the apparent murders of Western hostages, in which the camera cuts away at the moment their throats are cut, these killings are shown in full.
That makes five Western hostages beheaded by ISIS over the past three months, including three Americans and two Britons. The L.A. Times profiles Kassig, who was just 26 years old:
Kassig served 15 months in the U.S. Army, including a deployment in Iraq from April to July 2007, before receiving a medical discharge as a private first class in September 2007, according to Pentagon records.
He traveled to Lebanon while on spring break from college in 2012 and began working with Palestinian refugees and victims of the Syrian war. He later founded an aid organization, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, largely funded with his savings and donations from relatives and others in the United States.
The group delivered medical supplies, food and other aid to rebel-held areas of Syria and also provided trauma training to medics treating victims of the Syrian conflict. Kassig, a trained emergency medical technician, was deeply devoted to the aid mission, friends and family said.
Before turning to humanitarian assistance, Kassig had spent much of his late teens and 20s ???searching for his place in the world,??? his family said in a statement last month. ???He felt called to be a peacemaker??? after his time in the military, his family said.
???The truth is sometimes I really think I would like to do something else, but at the end of the day, this work is really the only thing that I have found that gives my life both meaning and direction,??? Kassig told Time magazine in early 2013, before being taken prisoner.
According to colleagues, Kassig had made several trips into Syria on aid missions before he was detained on Oct. 1, 2013, near the eastern Syrian city of Dair Alzour, a militant stronghold. He was fully aware of the risks, friends said, but felt he had to travel to areas where need was greatest.
A news blackout surrounded Kassig???s detention for a year until a video surfaced last month showing a masked militant threatening a man identified as Kassig.
The Wall Street Journal published the full text of a letter Kassig wrote to his parents while in captivity An excerpt:
Mentally I am pretty sure this is the hardest thing a man can go through, the stress and fear are incredible but I am coping as best I can. I am not alone. I have friends, we laugh, we play chess, we play trivia to stay sharp, and we share stories and dreams of home and loved ones. I can be hard to deal with, you know me. My mind is quick and my patience thinner than most. But all in all I am holding my own. I cried a lot in the first few months but a little less now. I worry a lot about you and mom and my friends.
They tell us you have abandoned us and/or don???t care but of course we know you are doing everything you can and more. Don???t worry Dad, if I do go down, I won???t go thinking anything but what I know to be true. That you and mom love me more than the moon & the stars.
I am obviously pretty scared to die but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.
In terms of my faith, I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.
That faith would be Islam, to which Kassig converted while in captivity, adopting the name “Abdul Rahman.” That is the name President Obama insisted on using when releasing a statement on Kassig’s murder:
Today we offer our prayers and condolences to the parents and family of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known to us as Peter. We cannot begin to imagine their anguish at this painful time.
Abdul-Rahman was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity. Like Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff before him, his life and deeds stand in stark contrast to everything that ISIL represents. While ISIL revels in the slaughter of innocents, including Muslims, and is bent only on sowing death and destruction, Abdul-Rahman was a humanitarian who worked to save the lives of Syrians injured and dispossessed by the Syrian conflict. While ISIL exploits the tragedy in Syria to advance their own selfish aims, Abdul-Rahman was so moved by the anguish and suffering of Syrian civilians that he traveled to Lebanon to work in a hospital treating refugees. Later, he established an aid group, SERA, to provide assistance to Syrian refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon and Syria. These were the selfless acts of an individual who cared deeply about the plight of the Syrian people.
ISIL’s actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own. Today we grieve together, yet we also recall that the indomitable spirit of goodness and perseverance that burned so brightly in Abdul-Rahman Kassig, and which binds humanity together, ultimately is the light that will prevail over the darkness of ISIL.
While we observe the latest iteration of the “Islamic State is not Muslim” talking point, can I ask an impolite question? Has there been a single terrorist convert to Islam who was officially referred to by his Muslim name? Presumably that’s part of the ongoing campaign to de-Islamicize terrorism: good guys who convert are officially known by their Muslim handles, while the new names of bad guys are barely even mentioned in passing, deep within media reports.
CNN published a bizarre analysis of the video by Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who claims it’s a sign of “desperation” from an Islamic State “on the run” because it’s such a clear violation of “Islamic values”:
Moderate and radical Islamic clerics alike had called for ISIS to spare the life of Kassig — also known as Abdul-Rahman — a former U.S. Army Ranger who toured Iraq in 2007 and converted to Islam during his year in captivity.
Killing a convert to Islam is an extremely serious violation of the well-established consensus in the Islamic community on the sacredness of life for converts to the religion.
Abu Muhammed al-Maqdsi, a mentor to many al Qaeda leaders, had called for mercy — not only because Kassig was a convert to Islam, but because he had given up so much to move to Syria and help victims of the war. Militant Islamists in the country also went public with a request for mercy. They said Kassig, a trained medic, had treated them when they were injured in battles against Syrian government forces.
That sounds great on paper, but you’ll have to forget the long history of Muslims killing other Muslims to believe it – a history that by no means began with ISIS, and probably will not end with their destruction. It would be highly desirable for the Muslim world to expel ISIS – and Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and all the other terrorist crews – from their midst, but whitewashing the history of Islam-on-Islam violence isn’t going to produce the kind of sturdy global reform movement that is needed. How about some fiery denunciation of the Muslim terrorists who get Muslim civilians killed by using them as human shields for their rocket launchers? Or is that still considered acceptable because the rockets in question are aimed at Jews?
Also, it would be nice if the rejection of brutality and illegitimate warfare was a bit broader and deeper than just, “Don’t kill this one individual because he converted to Islam.” When the “sacredness of life” extends far beyond “converts to the religion,” we’ll be making some real progress.
We keep hearing vague assurances that the advance of the Islamic State has been “blunted,” “halted,” or even “reversed,” but everything the Administration actually does telegraphs frustration with a war effort that is falling short of its goals… so short that the status quo cannot be spun as “progress” even to willing American media. Fox News reports that on the same day Kassig’s death was confirmed, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a speed-up in the training program for Iraqi forces:
The Pentagon chief spoke to reporters after observing Army training in California’s Mojave Desert on Sunday. He said U.S. special operations troops in Iraq’s western Anbar province are getting an early start on the train-and-advise effort.
Hagel said the effort began a few days ago but did not provide any other details.
According to plans laid out last week, the U.S. expects to train nine Iraqi security forces brigades and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades. Hagel said the speed-up was recommended by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
Hagel’s spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said later that Austin believes getting an early start on training Iraqi forces in Anbar may prompt other countries with a stake in the fight against Islamic State to commit trainers to Iraq.
Approaching the problem of ill-trained and poorly motivated Iraqi soldiers as a coalition rather than as a unilateral U.S. undertaking is a key pillar of U.S. strategy. Partnership is seen as a way of undermining the ideological appeal of Islamic State.
Kirby said a number of countries have made verbal commitments to provide trainers, but he said he could not identify them because they have yet to publicly announce their intended contributions.
What are those bashful coalition partners waiting for? And is it really such a great idea to have different teams from significantly different military forces training the Iraqis? I have to imagine the doctrine provided by, say, Saudi officers would not be the same as what Iraqi recruits would get from American trainers. And with the ongoing collapse of the Syrian front in Obama’s “arm the moderates” strategy to choke ISIS out, swift deployment of highly effective Iraqi forces is crucial. The subtext of the latest Islamic State video, delivered by having people like Frenchman Hauchard and Briton Muthana appear without masks, is that its recruiting efforts are still going quite well. A serious battlefield reversal on the ground, soon, is needed to disrupt that recruiting narrative.