SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Of course, his family had to have hope – who in their terrible position could give up that faint speck of light? – but there was nothing that could have been done to save David Haines’s life.
The purpose of his British executioner’s threats 11 days ago was not to negotiate a way out, but to raise the melodrama with which the jihadists’ gruesome mission has surrounded itself.
The theatre, including the raising of suspense, is all-important. But there is no dramatic resolution other than the inevitable unfolding of the next act.
“Jihadi John”, or whoever this man so well-versed in the art of gangsta street performance might be, told America’s allies at the end of his video showing the death of Steven Sotloff that he wanted them to think again before joining America in its bombing campaign against Isil.
Britain has not done so nor said it will; so the pretext for the killing is that it sent arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga, forces fighting Isil in the north of Iraq. The Kurds were able to form their semi-autonomous state under British and American security arrangements after the first Gulf War in 1991. They are also protecting Christians and Yazidi refugees from Isil’s violent advances and mass killings, a matter of urgency expressed ever more strongly in Europe.
The British cannot renege on its implicit guarantee of Kurdish survival, and the killers of Steven Sotloff and now David Haines know that full well. Neither they nor anyone else would expect David Cameron to back off.
Nor would Isil necessarily want them to. In the end, it wants a Middle East or at least an expanded Caliphate free of the West – free of all but its own brand of Sunni Islam. But it knows it is not going to get that any time soon, so instead its aim at this stage is to draw America and Britain further in.
For Isil to have any emotional draw for the Sunni people it is calling to live under its banner, it must present them as victims of the outside world – of Shia heretics, oppressive Gulf potentates, and above all of the West. It knows that many Sunnis have lived quite happily alongside Shia neighbours in the past, so in order to conjure up the requisite fear and loathing, it has to encourage a dreadful response.
It has achieved this satisfactorily so far. Earlier this summer, it posted online pictures of the heads of captured Syrian officers stuck on spikes, and a string of videos showing Shia Iraqi soldiers being lined up and shot. And of course, there is always a Shia militia willing to rise to the bait, as one did by decapitating Sunni captives in the retaken town of Amerli this month, and another did by gunning down 70 worshippers at a Shia mosque near Baghdad.
Likewise, with the beheading of British and American captives. It knows that both President Obama and Mr Cameron have committed to “no boots on the ground”. The more savage the aerial response the better for Isil, since the experience in both Pakistan and Yemen has been that local populations are inevitably going to suffer civilian casualties at some point, thus providing a useful recruitment spur.
On Saturday night, Mr Cameron promised to “hunt down these murderers”, however long it takes.
That probably does not mean he will do anything he is not doing already. Western special forces are already in the region. One of their tasks will be to find out as much as it can about the hostages, the hostage-takers, and Isil’s leaders, so that “pinpoint” operations – rescue the former, seize or kill the latter – can be authorised if necessary.
But the one known operation so far failed when the jihadists moved their captives beforehand. It is hard to believe that, with the raised awareness of their situation and the previous “near miss”, Isil will leave them anywhere vulnerable now. There is a good chance that the captives have been split up already, no doubt adding to their sense of isolation and confusion.
Other than that, he will continue to weigh the advantages of joining in air raids. On the one hand, there would be little to lose, if British captives are going to be killed anyway. On the other, it would be no more than a symbolic gesture at this stage, with strikes intended to limit Isil’s military prowess rather than defeat it outright.
Instead, Mr Obama and Mr Cameron will have to continue to cajole Syria and Iraq’s neighbours to do more to help.
In that sense, the videos may even help: countries that were previously lukewarm about taking the fight to their co-religionists, seemingly quite popular in parts of the Gulf and even more “moderate” parts of the world, will be galvanised.
For Saudi Arabia, whose own use of beheading as a form of punishment continues apace, it is an existential crisis. Isil claims to follow a pure form of Islam nurtured in the land of the Two Holy Mosques, as well as to be about to liberate it from its west-loving ruling family.
It needs to remove this threat, both physical and reputational, as quickly as it can.
That should be so clear that one wonders if the killing, this time, might not be self-defeating: we in the West have already felt the horror, determined the response. Surely more deaths cannot serve a further purpose?
Earlier this year, a British jihadi on Twitter boasted he could not wait to repeat the feeling he got “when he killed someone”. There seems to be an element of that psychopathy now.
But whatever the mentality, the strategy has worked till now. Isil has its Caliphate. It has made clear what it will do to those who stand in its way.