George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Media advisory: Experts can discuss ISIS beheadings of American journalists

Wed, 09/03/2014

LAWRENCE — The U.S. government confirmed Wednesday morning the second beheading of an American journalist in two weeks in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

ISIS released a video Tuesday showing the killing of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, who was also an Israeli citizen, and ISIS leaders have said the killings are a result of recent American airstrikes in Iraq. Journalist James Foley was also executed in a similar ISIS video last month. University of Kansas faculty members are available to comment on the tactics of ISIS, the implications of a U.S. response and recent violence in the region.

Don Haider-Markel, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science, can speak about the Middle East political situation and the terrorism tactics of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida. Haider-Markel's research includes terrorism, public policy and American politics.  

He said recent U.S. air strikes in Iraq have slowed ISIS down but also served to tell other actors in the region that America is willing to get involved. Still, he said, ISIS is not a massive army with major bases or supply lines, so the effects of air strikes are limited unless they are coordinated with on-the-ground intelligence and engagement by ground forces.

"All terrorism is theater, and the beheadings of two American journalists are a very ugly example of this dictum. The acts are gruesome but simple, and with inexpensive modern technology the act can be captured and widely displayed. The news media enhance the reach by sharing the video, describing it and asking others to describe what they see," Haider-Markel said. "All of this brings attention to the group and their cause, which can help to recruit new members. With the attention of the news media, and thereby the public, government leaders are forced to respond in some fashion. The group may even be trying to invoke a visceral reaction that leads governments to overreact or react without a real plan."

Marie Grace Brown, assistant professor in the Department of History, is a cultural historian of the modern Middle East with a special interest in imperialism, nation-building, gender and identity formation. She is available to comment on the historical, systemic factors that contribute to the rise of religious extremism.

"The first priority of ISIS is to gain adherents to its so-called Islamic state. The tragic murders of American journalists are clear attempts to provoke an emotional reaction from the U.S. government," Brown said. "Such an ill-considered response may alienate us from potential allies in the region and will not address the long-term issues that prompt people to turn to religious extremism."

Nazli Avdan, assistant professor of political science, is available to speak about transnational terrorism, particularly how conflicts tied to terrorist groups can spill across state borders. Avdan's broad research interests include international relations, international migration and transnational terrorism.

"The somewhat counterintuitive consensus is that terrorism, through intimidation and the spread of fear, is actually not effective in obtaining long-term goals. The use of publicity, does, however, serve shorter-term goals. For ISIS, these are more concrete goals: Seeking ransom and obtaining publicity. The militant group exploits media to that end," Avdan said. "ISIS has also been successful in obtaining new recruits and in luring away militants from other groups — from al-Qaida affiliates for instance — in part due to its brazenness."

To arrange an interview with Haider-Markel, Brown or Avdan, contact George Diepenbrock at or 785-864-8853.

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