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Back To Their Old Tricks

Sunni insurgents fighting under the umbrella of the Islamic State of Iraq have reverted back to the practice of posting execution videos. CNN reports that a video released by the Islamic State of Iraq “shows a group of Iraqi men blindfolded in a room. In the final 21 seconds, the video cuts to a scene showing the men lined up, kneeling in a field, before they are shot in the back of the head.”

The kidnapping and executions were conducted in response to the alleged rape of a Sunni woman who fingered Iraqi security officers as her aggressors. While the validity of this claim is still disputed, the larger issue is the posting of this video and its potential ramifications. This recent al-Qaeda in Iraq internet posting of an execution video may cost the 'Islamic State of Iraq.'

Execution videos were a trademark of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. His posts earned him the disdain of many tribes in Iraq, Sunni and Shia alike. They also earned him a verbal reprimand from the al-Qaeda leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to Zarqawi, dated July 9, 2005, urged the Jordanian to quell his posting of brutal executions. He states:

Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable - also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God… And we would spare the people from the effect of questions about the usefulness of our actions in the hearts and minds of the general opinion that is essentially sympathetic to us.

Zawahiri’s letter speaks to a concern that the al-Qaeda leadership has increasingly paid more attention to: international image. While insurgents generally get away with employing brutal tactics, the Islamic State of Iraq’s success is partly dependent on maintaining popular support. In order to gain this support, the Islamic State of Iraq must continue to make itself out to be the oppressed: it cannot afford to look like an oppressor.

In a sense, this recent execution video is curious. The Islamic State of Iraq was doing a better job of gaining support among the Iraqi tribes, especially in Anbar province. However, this video might anger some people in Iraq. It will be interesting to see if the al-Qaeda leadership speaks to this video. If this video is the start of a return to prior tactics, the Islamic State of Iraq may lose some of the support it previously enjoyed.