The video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley is gruesome in the extreme.
But for whom is it intended?
Writing for BBC News, former Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley argues
the video's primary target is actually the Muslim world, those who already explicitly or tacitly support the Islamic State or those, particularly westerners, who may be attracted to join the twin conflicts. The narrator (who has a British accent) says their group has been accepted by a larger number of Muslims worldwide.
Taking a page from its previous experience in Iraq, Islamic State wants Muslims worldwide to view the American military campaign as a renewed war against Islam.
The Islamic State is unlikely to sway all that many minds through this video. Notwithstanding its stunning successes in recent months, there is little indication Muslims around the world or even in Iraq want to live in such a repressive society.
But it does reinforce the primary concern that governments have about the hundreds and perhaps thousands of young men from the United States and Europe who are now thought to have joined this "army".
The experience they gain in Iraq and Syria, and what they think and what they do once they go home, represents a potential long-term security threat.
Crowley, who served in the Obama administration until let go for making comments critical of the government's handling of Bradley Manning, says that the president has consistently tried to narrow the focus of the war ont terror since taking office in 2009. He continues:
[Obama] has tried to disaggregate the threat into discrete tactical campaigns—reluctantly forced into overt military action in Iraq while keeping Syria at arm's length, a broad international and regional approach to Nigeria's Boko Haram, and nominally covert campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen.
While I find Crowley convincing that the main audience for the murder video is the Islamic world, I'm less convinced of his depiction of Obama trying to narrow U.S. focus in any consistent or coherent fashion when it comes to combating terrorism.
Obama's actions in Libya and his attempt to start bombing Syria without congressional authorization don't seem in line with that. Specifically, his statement regarding Iraq that the U.S. goal is to make sure ISIS "is not engaging in actions that could cripple a country" sounds like an open-ended commitment. Those actions and statements may mean something very different in the Middle East or the broader Muslim world, but here they sound very much like a president who has little sense of what to do next.
Given the relatively small numbers of true murderous extremists, it seems certain that the most effective actions will be very much on the granular level, of hunting down and killing specific individuals and groups with a minimum of fanfare. As Crowley notes, there is no mass constituency for violent, repressive rulers and taking out such monsters on a case-by-case basis is going to do far more to win over local populations than broad-based military actions are likely to do.
For more about Foley, go here.