The savage ideology that cuts to the core of Isil's DNA
The group increases its level of savagery at critical moments, not at random
The burning to death in a locked cage of the captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh, filmed in a video released by Islamic State (Isil), was barbarous even by its brutal standards.
The group struggled to justify the live immolation of a Muslim prisoner with the ease it did in previous cases of heinous crimes. In a written fatwa about two weeks before the video, Isil-affiliated clerics cited differences of opinion over the issue among Sunni Islam's four schools of jurisprudence. In the end, the Isil clerics ruled that immolation is "forbidden in principle" but "permissible in cases of reciprocity".
In previous cases, Isil found little difficulty in citing evidence to back the religious legitimacy of its acts. Beheading, crucifixion and hand-lopping did not require much reasoning because these punishments are part of the penal code of countries such as Saudi Arabia. Also, Isil cites isolated incidents described in sacred texts that (contrary to most Muslim clerics) it believes should be followed as rules to justify obscure punishments - including throwing gay people from high buildings.
But with its latest action, many believe Isil has alienated previous supporters in the region. Even though some still criticised the pilot's participation in the US-led bombing campaign in Syria, anger and resentment against Isil defined public opinion in Jordan and beyond.
So in the Middle East, the savagery of the murder has raised the question: why is Isil so cruel? The question was first raised during the early weeks of Isil's takeover of swathes of Iraq and Syria in June, an event accompanied by mass slaughter and the enslavement and abuse of thousands of women. Since then, especially after the air strikes began in the two countries, the debate has largely petered out.
Savagery is part of Isil's ideological DNA. The danger of the group lies in its effort to transform the concept of jihad not through individual fatwas but through a fully fledged ideology. To do so, Isil uses stories from Islamic history and modern jihadi texts to change the paradigm of how to understand and conduct jihad.
One of the most prominent of those jihadi texts is a book called Idarat al-Tawahush, or The Management of Savagery, by an anonymous jihadi ideologue who calls himself Abu Bakr Naji. The book, translated by William McCants of the US Brookings Institution in 2006, has been widely distributed on jihadist online forums. But for the first time, Isil members have confirmed that the book is part of the organisation's curriculum.
As part of research for a book I co-wrote, one Isil-affiliated cleric said that Naji's book is widely read among provisional commanders and some rank-and-file fighters as a way to justify beheadings as not only religiously permissible but recommended by God and Mohammed.
The Management of Savagery's greatest contribution lies in its differentiation between the meaning of jihad and other religious tenets. The author argues that the way jihad is taught "on paper" makes it harder for young mujahideen and Muslims to grasp the true meaning of the concept.
"One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, [deterrence], and massacring," Naji writes, as translated by McCants. "I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him."
The concept Isil used to justify the massacre of hundreds of Shaitat tribesmen in Deir Ezzor, Syria, in August was tashreed, a word that can be translated as "deterrence", as mentioned in the quoted text. "That is the true jihad," said Abu Moussa, an Isil-affiliated religious cleric, echoing Naji's text. "The layman who learned some of his religion from [mainstream] clerics thinks of jihad as a fanciful act, conducted far away from him. In reality, jihad is a heavy responsibility and requires toughness."
Naji's book offers practical tips on how to fill the power vacuum left by what he calls the retreating armies of the west and its regional agent regimes, as a result of gradual violence applied by the mujahideen. He says that the defeat of the crusaders in the past was not a result of decisive battles between the Muslim and Christian armies, but was a process of exhaustion and depletion. He argues that the Muslim victory in the 12th-Century Battle of Hattin, when crusaders led by the king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, were defeated by the Muslim army, led by Saladin, was possible only because of previous small-scale skirmishes in a variety of locations.
Naji says that people think of Muslims at the time of the crusaders as one state, led by Saladin al-Ayubi and Nouradin Zinki, but "the fact is they were small families controlling citadels and fighting jihad against crusaders on a low level, in a hard hitting way. What Zinki and Ayubi did was to bring together those small blocs into one big organisation but the largest role was played by those small blocs."
According to Isil, violence has to be steady and escalatory to continue to shock and deter. Random acts of violence are not enough in this context. Brutality has to be ever more savage, creative and shocking. So if the immolation of the pilot is more savage than previous murders, Isil will undoubtedly be searching for an even more savage method to carry out its violent punishments. It is important to emphasise that Isil increases the level of its savagery at critical moments, rather than ad hoc.
The Jordanian capture provided a huge opportunity for it to humiliate the international coalition and send a strong message to Muslim countries participating in it. Isil recognised that the act would alienate some Muslims, but what Isil gains from violence, it calculates, trumps any losses in popularity.
This strategy was similar to the one followed by the group's founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian, when he set the precedent of filming the slaughtering of an American captive, Nick Berg, in 2004.
Savagery is at the core of Isil ideology. But brutal acts have to be fully justified through sharia texts. Islamic fundamentalism is Isil's ideology, so to speak, and every act has to be grounded in religious traditions. While Isil uses manuals such as Naji's book, it references religious texts and stories.
Isil uses these stories, combined with ideas and concepts accepted by the mainstream, as part of an ideology and a political project in the making.
What the group does is to match its practices with the "practical" history of Islam, even though many rightly view these practices as contradictory to Islamic teachings.
The genius of Isil is that it makes people compare between its acts and those of early Muslims, rather than between its practices and the jihad "on paper".