Even though I haven’t written anything about the horrible video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading Nick Berg, I have been thinking about it, a lot. There just wasn’t much for me to say about the beheading (I confess that I have not watched the video). We already know that the Zarqawi group was willing to kill Iraqis with bombs, their willingness to brutally murder an American merely confirms their depravity. The questions that has really plagued me since the video was released has been, what was the purpose of releasing the video? None of the explanations that I’ve seen so far have really satisfied me.
The Bush administration line on it makes the least sense — given American reaction to previous terrorist attacks, the idea that it was intended to intimidate is us certainly incorrect. If anything, Americans have shown that we are generally angered by violence against us, not intimidated. I also don’t believe that the video was intended to provoke a disproportional response that would further divide Americans from Iraqis. I think that the key to answering the question of why the video was made is figuring out the intended audience for the video.
The video was originally released when someone posted it on a message board at alansar.biz (a site that’s now gone), where it would be seen by people who are interested in al-Qaeda web sites. It seems to me that the video was intended to be used as a recruiting tool for prospective terrorists — Zarqawi wants to reach out to people who feel humiliated by the fact that Americans are in Iraq (and are torturing Iraqis), and who feel powerless to do anything about it. The video is intended to demonstrate that he is willing to do something about it.
At a time when sentiment was running against America because the images of torture showed that we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, the Zarqawi video serves as a reminder to everyone in the world that while we are capable of making horrible mistakes, our ultimate enemy is implacable, barbaric, and ruthless. The only audience that Zarqawi could have been aiming at is one that appreciates and is attracted to barbarity and ruthlessness. As long as he can find a continuing supply of terrorists willing to die for the cause, the other public relations costs are irrelevant.