ANALYSIS

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Foley was a 'martyr for freedom'

The family of American journalist James Foley who was beheaded by Islamic militants says they are haunted by his manner of death.

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The purpose of the horrific video of the beheading of US photojournalist James Foley seems straightforward – to terrify the US into halting its aerial bombardment of the militant group.

But what appears to be a barbaric and blood-soaked ransom note to force a US withdrawal has an entirely different objective, say former national security operatives and terrorism experts.

That is, to generate enough public outrage so the US and its allies expand their military campaign in Iraq and Syria to include ground forces.

James Foley: his brutal murder serves as a barbaric and blood-soaked ransom note.

James Foley: His brutal murder serves as a barbaric and blood-soaked ransom note. Photo: AP

Released by terrorist group Islamic State on Wednesday, it begins with footage of US President Barack Obama announcing air strikes on Iraq before Foley, on his knees in the desert and reciting scripted remarks, blames the US government for his impending death.

A hooded man with a British accent castigates Obama and the Muslim deaths wrought by the air strikes then murders Foley.

The video ends with another US journalist, Steven Sotloff, hauled before the camera with the final words – "the life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision".

"What's happening is they are trying to get Western intervention in Iraq and Syria," says Clarke Jones, a former national security operative specialising in counterterrorism now with the Australian National University.

"That would enable them to develop a new and powerful narrative of Western oppression of Muslims that would help them attract a new wave of recruits."

Renowned Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer agrees, questioning whether the attack on the Yazidis, raids into Kurdistan and the beheading of Foley could all be a "deliberate provocation strategy".

"ISIS seems to be doing everything it can (short of attacks on the West) to draw the US into conflict," he tweeted.

An angry West suits Islamic State, says Monash University terrorism expert Greg Barton. Hostility to Muslims feeds into their narrative of belittled Muslims persecuted by non-believers. It helps recruiting among their target audience and, at the same time, puts pressure on Western governments to act.

"One of the calculations they have to make is whether the public in the West is ready to back [a bigger military operation in Iraq and Syria]," he said. "An angry public is more likely to call upon their governments to do something drastic."

The dramatic last moments when the beheading of Sotloff is threatened are chilling considering some 20 journalists have – like Foley and Sotloff – been kidnapped in Syria, many by Islamic State.

A procession of videoed executions could put immense pressure on the West to act with a larger military campaign.

Islamic State are skilled propagandists and a social media powerhouse, using the medium to distribute its message widely and cheaply, while bringing a new dimension to jihad – the intimate experiences and the personalities of the fighters on the ground.

The video is a multi-camera, high-definition production that employs careful editing and scripting.

For more than a decade, grisly videos has been steadily released by militants. They became so ubiquitous that most media ignored them.

But Islamic State and its cadres have taken the genre to a new level of horror.

The images of the children of Australian Khaled Sharrouf holding decapitated heads and the video of an Iraqi police chief being beheaded – which was tweeted during the World Cup with the comment "This is our ball ... it is made of skin" – are just two macabre examples among many.

Whether Islamic State's strategy is a smart is highly debatable. The brutality of its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq led to communities and tribal leaders that had previously supported the terrorist organisation siding with the US and Iraqi government.

Given the core Islamic State fighters are foreigners, many of them behaving abominably, it is hard to see how the militants – for all their recent military successes – can sustain support among the people they have subjugated.