In ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions, I remarked that it is important not to be captured by emotion. It is natural to be more affected when the victim is culturally one of our own. It is not necessary to offer the opinion that all lives are of equal value. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t; that is your private affair. But let us not be distracted from the game in which the opponent is ISIS. There is data to be extracted.
Some have suggested that, in the personal address of threat to President Obama, the perpetrators believe that this may deter a U.S. policy of confrontation with ISIS. This is one possible interpretation. Another interpretation, exclusive of the first, is that the intended audience is internal, to spur other ISIS combatants to competitive acts of savagery. To an audience of sympathizers, it could be a recruitment pitch.
A third possibility is that the executions stem from nothing complicated; they are merely physical venting of extreme hostility, or taunts, as appear in the Scandinavian “blood sagas.”
Which is more correct? The inexperienced analyst may fall into the trap of projecting a made-up mental image, a kind of false empathy, into the problem. Perhaps, having just seen an emotionally charged movie, a complete work of fiction, you have had an animated discussion on the motives of a character. Whatever you think, it is a projection, because the character never existed, not even in the mind of the script writer, who, from personal experience, goes for overall-impression-and-damn-the-details.
There are perhaps four intelligence agencies with the depth of resources for an answer that is more than a guess. One test of relevance of a strategy to counter ISIS is that the answer matters.