Islamic State's Message to the World: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Takes No Prisoners

02/06/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

"The medium is the message."
--Marshall McLuhan

In declaring himself caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is following in the footsteps of an ancient role model, Abu al-Abbas, founder of the Abbasid Caliphate. Historians regard the Abbasid dynasty as the most successful Arab Caliphate. Under their rule, Arab-speaking Islamic civilization reached its zenith, and at its peak it exceeded European civilization in its economic and scientific advancement. Its founder, however, did not rise to power on a bed of roses by conforming to what present-day international law experts would label the "rules of war." Abu al-Abbas marched to the beat of a different drummer, whose echoes resonate with the present-day leader of the Islamic State.

Abu al-Abbas appointed himself caliph in a manner replicated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He initiated a civil war against the then-existing Omayyad Caliphate, raising the black flag that would be copied nearly thirteen centuries later by al-Baghdadi. The founder of the Abbasid dynasty had a very simple military strategy: Slaughter every supporter, servant and blood-related operatives of the Omayyad Caliphate, without mercy, and always justified on the basis of Islamic texts, suitably interpreted. Then, after the capture of Damascus by his forces in 750 A.D., the new caliph seemed to relent in his blood lust, inviting eighty surviving officials of the deposed Omayyad Caliphate to a reconciliation dinner. While the unsuspecting dinner guests were gorging on food and drink, they were suddenly attacked by soldiers of the caliph and hacked to pieces. As described in various Islamic histories, the caliph insisted that the dinner continue, including musical entertainment, without the corpses of the slaughtered victims being removed. Shortly afterwards, Abu al-Abbas delivered his first public address as caliph, in which he proudly referred to himself as "al Saffah," Arabic for "The Bloodshedder." That is how the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate has become known in history, and he is the role model for the man who appointed himself caliph of the nascent Islamic State.

The horrifically barbaric ritual murders being propagated via the Internet by the Islamic State would, in a different context, be classified as snuff pornography. However, in the second decade of the 21st century, they amount to weapons of war. The Islamic State may not have an air force to compete with American dominance in the skies over Syria and Iraq, but it does have equal access to the Internet, which in effect serves as the tactical air support for the Islamic State. In an era of asymmetrical warfare, it is the means utilized by al-Baghdadi to create what amounts to a level playing field, enabling him to confront the United States with some degree of success.

Cyberspace has evolved into the most effective operational realm for the Islamic State and is integrated into all of its activities: military, ideological and psychological. The caliph of the Islamic State has created an image akin to that of the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate, "the Bloodshedder." In one of the video execution spectacles released by the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi declared, "Know that we have armies in Iraq and an army in Sham [Syria] of hungry lions whose drink is blood and play is carnage."

With the Islamic State and its elaborate Internet propaganda arm, it is clear that the medium is indeed the message. It provides the war effort of the new caliphate with a pervasiveness that is truly global in its impact. It conveys the clear message that the armies of al-Baghdadi take no prisoners and display not the slightest compassion or mercy towards those it deems as the "unbelievers." It also sends another message to that special breed of men it seeks to recruit as fighters: a theologically sanctified, collective psychopathology that provides those on our planet with such inclinations an environment to practice barbaric cruelty on human beings without limits of conscience or the restraint of a Western-imposed Geneva Convention.

Standing in opposition to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is President Barack Obama, America's commander in chief and the leader of the free world, whose latest pronouncement on this conflict, made at the National Prayer Breakfast, was advice to Christians not to get on their "high horse" because of the violence being committed by the Islamic State. "People committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," proffered the president, in reference to the Crusades that occurred a millennium ago.

While Obama engages in an esoteric verbal exercise in deflecting any reference to radical Islamic extremism, his opponent, free of any intellectual ambiguity, ruthlessly but effectively pursues his war against those he deems the unbelievers. If anything, the most recent comments by the president display growing disarray and confusion within the Obama administration on how to wage war against the Islamic State.