When it comes to Islamic terrorism intelligence agencies and journalists are rarely in agreement. But when it comes to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) both groups have found that they agree that this bunch of Islamic terrorists have created a pretty effective information blackout in areas they control. ISIL appears to have found that racing to bottom in the bad manners department can be a winning strategy in many ways. This includes not only shutting down access for foreign journalists, but also making it much more difficult for intel agencies to operate on the ground. ISIL reinforces this isolation by beheading captured Western journalists (and aid workers) and posting videos on the Internet. Even locals who travel in and out of ISIL territory on business are terrified to talk to journalists, or anyone who might be mistaken for an intelligence official (local or foreign). That’s because ISIL also executes anyone suspected of being an informant. Thus ISIL controlled areas are black holes when it comes to news and useful intelligence. ISIL further exploits all that by putting their own version of the news on the Internet, forcing that propaganda to get a lot more attention than if would if there were journalists in ISIL areas.
American intel analysts and Special Forces newly assigned to Iraq (many had been there before) also noted that ISIL deliberately adopted tactics meant to maximize the ability to terrify Arab civilians, soldiers and police. Thus the frequent, self-publicized massacres of adult male opponents, especially soldiers, police and tribal militia. When captured, sometimes with promises of mercy, these men are frequently quickly slaughtered. This is often done in gruesome ways like crucifixion or beheading. As with the mass shootings, these murders tend to be captured on video and most are uploaded to the Internet for all to see. Adding to this obvious willingness to kill ISIL also encourages a willingness to die. Thus ISIL attacks often feature lots of suicide bombers or gunmen sent into situations they are unlikely to survive. Against professional Western (or Arab) troops this sort of thing doesn’t terrorize as much as it makes it easier to kill the ISIL attackers. But since the main foe ISIL has been facing has been armed Arab amateurs (or poorly trained soldiers and police) this aggressive use of terror often works. Not just in individual battles but on a wider scale in which it encourages foes to run away even before ISIL actually attacks.
ISIL has found that these terror tactics are extremely effective against civilians as well as the local security forces. That’s how a relatively small number of ISIL warriors (about 10,000 they can depend on) are able to terrorize so many people in Iraq and Syria. A favorite ISIL tactic is to send a few vehicles containing 20-30 gunmen to an area they want to capture. Often that’s all it takes to get the locals, including local defense militia, soldiers and police, to run for it. If that doesn’t work, ISIL brings up more men as well as suicide bombers, captured artillery and armored vehicles and tries again. If that fails (and it occasionally does, as at Kobane in Syria), ISIL will eventually back off and attack somewhere else.
This type of terror is nothing new. It’s been used for thousands of years. One of the most notable local examples of this was the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258. As was the Mongol custom they would send a small force to a defended city and demand immediate surrender. If that did not happen the Mongols made it clear they would take the place no matter the cost and then burn it down and kill everyone (except for some with exceptional talents the Mongols needed) in the city. The Arab ruler of Baghdad refused to surrender. The Mongols brought up a large forces and took the place in two weeks. They then burned it down and killed the several hundred thousand people still there. It took Baghdad several centuries to completely rebuild and repopulate. The destruction of Baghdad reminded every ruler in the region what would happen if they did not promptly surrender. Fortunately the ruler of Egypt at that time had a good army and decent subordinate leaders and inflicted a rare battlefield defeat on the Mongols, who decided to go elsewhere.
Al Qaeda has always been about terror, but often on a smaller scale. Individuals who opposed them (clerics, competent police and army commanders or politicians) were assassinated in an often successful effort to reduce the effectiveness of their opposition. Mass killings were discouraged, especially bombings that killed lots of women and children. ISIL continues this policy but has increased the terror tactics to include other Islamic terrorist groups. Thus even competent army or police commanders find themselves with high desertion rates and subordinates who are rethinking their loyalties. Same thing with other Islamic terrorists who oppose ISIL.
The terror works both ways. The Americans found that you don't have to kill terrorist leaders to disable them. For example, when American troops drove al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan in late 2001, they captured large quantities of records dealing with al Qaeda administration. This was revealing. The al Qaeda leadership was constantly being criticized by subordinates for stupid mistakes, while the leaders were constantly monitoring their people for stealing and malingering. The U.S. made sure a lot of this dirty linen was leaked, and eventually the media in Moslem nations began reporting on it. This paid off when al Qaeda in Iraq, despite vigorous objections within the organization, increased the use of attacks that killed lots of civilians. This played a major role in al Qaeda going from an admired to a despised organization within the Islamic world. American intelligence leaked captured documents that made clear how uncaring the terrorist leaders were about these civilian deaths. Many ISIL leaders were present during this defeat and continue to go easy on the killing of women and children.
ISIL talks about the evils of corruption but given the prevalence of corruption everywhere in the Middle East, it is unlikely they have completely eliminated it from their ranks. This, and the fact that American smart bombs and missiles are now once more going after ISIL leaders and other key personnel, is giving ISIL something to be terrified about. Thus the ISIL execution (by beheading) of the few Americans they have captured in an effort to force the U.S. to halt the air attacks. The Mongols were also successful at destroying terrorists, usually by killing the populations that supplied recruits for these terror groups.