The Islamic State has released a video of it beheading 21 kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. The film is the most prophecy-centric one yet and comes one day after a suspected Islamic State supporter killed two people in a terrorist attack in Denmark.
Justifying the Execution of Christians
The video is titled “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” These Christians were working in Libya. They committed no crime. They are not known to have personally done anything against any Islamists. They were punished for, as the Islamic State put it, being “followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
The Islamic State seems to be referring to the Coptic Christians’ support for the Egyptian government led by President El-Sisi that is fighting an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt also banned the Muslim Brotherhood and repeatedly emphasizes that the Islamic State and the Brotherhood are different manifestations of the same Islamist enemy.
The video states that the beheadings are retaliation for the Coptic Church’s treatment of Camellia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who disappeared in 2010. She was rumored to have converted to Islam and afterwards to have been kidnapped by the Church. Deadly sectarian clashes followed.
She later resurfaced and appeared on video stating that she did not convert and remains a Christian. She denied that her statement came under pressure or torture by the church. The Copts say she briefly disappeared because she left her husband.
The objective of the Islamic State is to justify murdering Copts by claiming that the church is waging a war on Muslims, making this atrocity a defensive action. The Islamic State may also be trying to undermine international support for Egyptian Copts by drawing a moral equivalence between the church’s treatment of those who leave the faith and Islamic (sharia) law’s own death penalty for apostates.
The captives were guilty of no crime themselves. Take a look at the terminology of the “nation of the cross.” Islamists like the Islamic State view all Muslims as part of a single nation called the ummah. The Islamic State likewise views Christians as part of a single nation, the “nation of the cross.” To be at war with any Christian is to be at war with all Christians.
Dawah and the End Times
As the Islamic State beheads the Christians, text appears in English saying that they “die upon their paganism.” This sentence has two purposes: to justify killing Christians under sharia law and to criticize Christianity as being polytheistic by believing in the Trinity.
A centerpiece of the video is to position the Islamic State as pro-Jesus even as it kills Christians. The Islamic State says it is fulfilling prophecies to trigger the “second coming” of Jesus, a prophetic event commonly held in both Christianity and Islam, though with widely varying interpretations.
“Jesus, peace be upon him, will descend, breaking the cross, killing the swine and abolishing the jizya [tax on non-Muslims],” the English-speaking Islamic State member says to the camera.
Here, the Islamic State is citing an apocalyptic Islamic prophecy about Jesus appearing with the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, to vanquish Islam’s enemies. According to this prophecy, Jesus will authenticate the validity of Islam and disprove Christianity by destroying a cross. Sometime after he reappears, the entire world will become Muslim, and so the jizya tax on non-Muslims will no longer be needed.
The Islamic State narrator’s statement about the group taking over Dabiq in Syria is another way of saying the group is fulfilling prophecy. There is an Islamic prophecy about a final apocalyptic war that says that the “Romans”—which Islamists say are the Americans and Europeans of today—will land in Dabiq to avenge the capturing of Romans. That is why the Islamic State beheaded Peter Kassig there.
The prophecy says a ferocious battle will begin at Dabiq and, after heavy casualties, Muslims will come together behind the jihadists at Dabiq and defeat the “Romans.” Turkey is then conquered by these Islamic forces. Shortly thereafter, the Mahdi and Jesus will arrive on the scene.
Conquering the West and Appealing to Al-Qaeda Supporters
The Islamic State video argues that the Islamic State is the true successor to Osama Bin Laden – not Ayman al-Zawahiri, the official head of Al-Qaeda. The two terrorist groups are in a fierce competition, even promoting rival caliphates.
The English narrator mentions the sea where Osama Bin Laden’s body was buried and pledges to “mix it with your blood.” The film ends with blood-filled waves crashing on the beach. This is not just a threat to the U.S. It’s a sales pitch to Al-Qaeda’s supporters: We are the ones avenging Osama, not al-Zawahiri.
The film ends with the English-speaking terrorist pledging to conquer Rome, thrusting his blade into the sky. Earlier in the film, he boasts that “today we are south of Rome.” This is a critical point to understanding the Islamist ideology as a whole.
Islamists believe they are entitled to any land that has ever been ruled by sharia, including non-Muslim parts of Europe. Any war (i.e., jihad) to recapture this land is inherently defensive; a much different interpretation of “defensive” that of the West. A tweet below by an Islamic State supporter illustrates this:
This is important in order to understand why Islamists frequently mention the Crusades. Westerners usually interpret this grievance to see today’s jihads as basically a long-delayed response to Christianity’s own holy wars and atrocities. The truth is more complicated.
For the Islamic State and similar Islamists, equating the U.S. and Europe with the Crusaders from hundreds of years ago is meant to inspire jihadists. It reminds them of how they previously conquered large parts of Europe. A secondary effect is that it encourages Muslim audiences to view everything the West does part of an enduring war on Islam.
Egyptian President El-Sisi promised to “avenge” the deaths of the Egyptian Christians and later it was reported that the Egyptian air force bombed Islamic State targets in Libya. Egypt has done this previously with the United Arab Emirates in a very low-key way. He will also likely increase aid to the secular Libyan forces led by General Haftar that are battling those militias.
The U.S. and its allies should also respond to these attacks in Denmark and Libya with careful, pointed messaging. We can confront the notion that “attacking critics of Islam is an act of deep faith” by stating that it’s a demonstration of a lack of faith.
Former President Bill Clinton made this point in a little-noticed comment in 2012 when he said:
“You cannot live in a shame-based world… You gotta be able to say, if you believe in Islam, that, 'I believe in a god and a prophet strong enough to withstand the criticisms of petty, narrow-minded, mean-spirited people. I believe that the cultural crassness I abhor will, in the end, fall before the values that I exalt.’”
The U.S. and Muslim partners should make the argument that the targeting of Islam’s detractors makes the faith look invalid. Far from proving religious conviction, it proves that jihadists fear that scrutiny will debunk their beliefs.
At the same time, we must avoid messages that substantiate Islamic State propaganda and vindicate their methods and ideology.
Social media accounts of Islamic State supporters and jihadist sympathizers as a whole are enthusiastically posting every report they can find of poor treatment of Muslims in the West in response to the attacks. It’s very apparent that Islamists sees anti-Muslim sentiment as an asset for their cause.
From a strategic standpoint, the U.S. needs to fix its Libya policy. The U.S. helped overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and then walked away. A predictable civil war followed between Islamist and more secular forces. When Egypt and the UAE carried out airstrikes against the Islamist militias, the U.S. and Europe condemned them and opposed “outside interference.”
An anti-Islamist alliance already exists in Libya between the popularly supported, internationally recognized Libyan government and the governments of Egypt and the UAE. It’s time for the U.S. to support this alliance instead of undermining it.
Warning: Extremely graphic content
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.