Scott Atran in The Guardian:
In a speech on Wednesday, President Obama said: “Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by murdering innocents like Steven [Sotloff], they have already failed.”
Not so, says the evidence. Publicity, Islamic State (Isis) knows, is the oxygen of terrorism. And publicity it has received in spades with the beheadings of two American journalists. So an organisation that hardly anyone knew existed only a few months ago is now the world’s, and particularly the west’s, premier political and public concern, eclipsing Iran’s nuclear programme and Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The aim of Isis’s strikingly gruesome spectacle is to terrorise and fascinate public sentiment. Especially in the media-driven political theatre of western liberal democracies, public fury reliably leads to precipitate political reaction. Like the kind of heedless, scatter-gun approach pursued by America and Britain that transformed al-Qaida from a small band of fairly well-educated violent extremists into a youthful social movement that appeals to many thousands of disaffected Muslim immigrants in the western diaspora, and many more millions who are economically and politically frustrated back home.
Unlike al-Qaida, though, from which Isis was expelled earlier this year, Isis tolerates no compromise with other interpretations of Islam, much less with Islam’s duty to rule the world. In its view, America and Britain are too weak in the conviction of their ideas and ideals to ultimately matter. For the devoted actor, rightness of cause will always win against apparent material advantage as long as the cause has the minimal material means to endure.
Isis’s violence is far from being nihilistic – a charge usually levelled by those who are wishfully blind to the attraction of their foes. The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.