08/22/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

The Foley Murder: Reading Between the Lines

For all intents and purposes, James Foley was a hard-working freelance journalist doing solid reporting in the middle of a dangerous conflict zone. Colleagues, friends, and family alike all loved him, respected his willingness to put himself in harms way to follow a story, and his ability to exhibit a calm demeanor even when placed in the middle of tough circumstances. In a blog post six months after Foley was captured by an armed group in northwestern Syria, friend and fellow journalist Clare Morgana Gillis described him this way:

Men like him for his good humor and tendency to address everyone as 'bro' or 'homie' or 'dude' after the first handshake. Women like him for his broad smile, broad shoulders, and because, well, women just like him.

His disappearance has since turned into something far more sinister: his filmed execution. One cannot imagine the horror of Foley's family, friends, and associates when, on August 19, 2014, major international media outlets broadcasted still pictures of Foley's gruesome murder at the hands of an ISIL militant. Forced to face the camera on his knees, wearing an orange jumpsuit in the middle of a desert, James Foley was brutally beheaded by an ISIL terrorist wearing black from head to toe. The video, too graphic to watch, was removed by YouTube, but one doesn't need to watch the video to grasp the barbaric way in which his life was taken.

If the slaughter of over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, 700 Syrian tribesmen, and the potential massacre of tens of thousands of Yazidis did not awake Americans the world over to the threat that the Islamic State poses to their way of life, then perhaps James Foley's death will serve that purpose. Beheadings, of course, are not new in the Islamist jihadist lexicon: one only needs to go back to 2002 when another American journalist, Daniel Pearl, was killed in Pakistan by 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In 2004, American businessman Nicholas Berg was captured by ISIL's predecessor group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and executed by former AQI chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi while the camera was rolling. American contractors working with the U.S. military during the Iraq war succumbed to a similar fate. The tactic, in other words, has been used by the likes of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State before, and it's used for a reason: not only to instill fear, but to send a message to the United States and its allies that each of them are the target of their wrath.

In virtually every one of these cases, the jihadists doing the beheading justified their behavior as retaliation for U.S. military action on Muslim soil (the fact that they have killed tens of thousands of Muslim men, women, and children themselves is conveniently ignored). Per usual, the ISIL executioner in the Foley video rationalizes his inhumanity in the same exact way.

This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and have gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq, your strikes have caused casualties among Muslims.

Nothing unusual here. In fact, it's the same idiotic rhetoric that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have used for years. It's a way to demonstrate to the United States and its allies that they are ultimately responsible for the deaths of their citizens. 'If it weren't for your military action in Iraq,' the thinking goes, 'people like Nicholas Berg, Daniel Pearl, and James Foley would still be alive today.'

Foley's case, however, is somewhat different from the others. The Islamic State took Foley's life not only because the dogma that fuels them is completely warped and nihilistic, but also because the organization wants the U.S. to stop conducting airstrikes on its bases in Iraq. Or, to put it another way, the Islamic State is tired of being taken out by the most capable and technologically superior military in the world. The United States is indeed doing significant damage to its military capabilities in northern Iraq, and Washington's limited intervention is ruining its dream of spreading the caliphate north to Irbil. Were it not for President Barack Obama's decision to use American airpower to defend the Kurds and hold the line in the north, the Islamic State would still be conquering territory as we speak.

This is not lost on those who make up the Islamic State group. They understand that the organization is taking a beating from U.S. bombers, fighters, and unmanned aircraft, and there is nothing that the jihadists can do to prevent U.S. planes from striking more of their positions (as of August 19, the U.S. Air Force has conducted 68 airstrikes over the past 11 days, with 90 ISIL targets destroyed over a short 72-hour time span).

The leverage that the Islamic State has over the U.S. at this point in the conflict are the few Americans under their captivity. Why else would the same jihadist who took Foley's life threaten to kill another American, Steven Joel Sotloff, if the bombing doesn't stop?

"The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision." the terrorist says as the camera pans to Sotloff's face. But buried deep underneath a dire warning to the U.S. president are feelings that ISIL would much rather hide from the public eye: fear and concern. Fear that the territorial advances that ISIL has made will be dealt a huge blow over the next several weeks, and concern that the Islamic caliphate that the group has attempted to build will be a short-term project.