WASHINGTON – War has come home yet again for the US from Iraq, with the graphic murder of one of its own – a journalist, James Foley, beheaded on camera carrying a warning.
The “Message to America” from Islamic State, delivered through the veteran reporter, was a stark lesson on the consequences of presidential action: Air strikes against the group in Iraq, ordered with reluctance by US President Barack Obama, led directly to this moment, where an innocent man has paid the price for decisions made by the president alone.
The video is haunting and heavily edited: Multiple camera angles capture a speech delivered by Foley, which is interrupted by sleek, yet noticeable, phase edits, suggesting it took him several tries to complete the monologue.
Leadership in the Obama administration, Foley said, “effectively hit the last nail in my coffin with their recent aerial campaign in Iraq.” Before the grizzly murder, Foley’s masked killer pointed his knife at the camera and identified the damned as a citizen of “your country,” speaking to Obama of the United States.
“You have plotted against us and have gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs,” the killer said.
And after the deed, on a hilltop in the desert somewhere in territories now occupied by Islamic State between Syria and Iraq, the man lifted the shirt collar of another American, warning that he was next should the air strikes continue.
“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the Islamist fighter said, speaking in English with a muzzled European accent.
Counterfactuals cannot be filmed: Islamic State seeks to convert or kill all non-Muslims, and thousands of American citizens, Kurds and true Muslims frightened of the movement have fled to Arbil, in Iraq’s north, where the terrorist militia was fast approaching just two weeks ago.
The president now faces the ultimate terrorist’s dilemma: Steven Sotloff, another American journalist, will likely die unless Obama directs the Pentagon to change its objectives.
The United States historically has refused to negotiate with terrorists in public, and the tactic Islamic State has chosen could not be more so: the video was posted on YouTube, promoted over social media as if it were a campaign ad.
Obama now weighs how to balance America’s value of each and every American life – or its weak stomach in war, against a genocidal enemy – against a larger mission of stemming the group’s progress.
The masked fundamentalist expressed agitation when describing the casualties inflicted by the Americans among his colleagues. Every day, US fighter jets, bombers and drones from Central Command have orchestrated precision strikes on the group, with near-perfect accuracy.
The US had “killed Muslims,” he said – Muslims who have, in great numbers, chosen to join together and declare themselves part of a caliphate.
Yet, just a day before the video was released, Obama told press that Islamic State represented no one – certainly, not the religion of Islam.
“They claim to represent Sunni grievances, but they slaughter Sunni men, women and children,” he said. “They claim to oppose foreign forces, but they actively recruit foreign fighters to advance their hateful ideology.”
Perhaps Islamic State has earned its successes by manipulating a great world religion.
Whether the group can now manipulate the White House is a new test for both.