The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday.
Americans awoke Wednesday to a gruesome video, showing an Islamic State executioner beheading James Foley, an American. A grim President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation to condemn this act of savagery, aptly calling the Islamic State “a cancer” that must be eradicated.
Foley, 40, a journalist, disappeared in late 2012 while covering Syria’s civil war. He was killed for one reason: He was an American.
Foley was targeted by Islamic State terrorists seeking to carve a caliphate from Iraq and Syria. These terrorists have declared as enemies of their budding state not just Americans but all those of any religion or nationality who don’t toe the Islamic State’s nihilistic line. Except that, in truth, the Islamic State “speaks for no religion,” Obama said. “No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day. … They have murdered Muslims. … they target Christians.”
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Foley’s death was brutish but, sadly, not an exception. During their rampage of terror across Syria and now Iraq, Islamic State fighters have slaughtered thousands of innocent people. The militants have posted videos of crucifixions and public executions.
In Syria, Islamic State fighters impaled the severed heads of Syrian soldiers onto poles. Neither the Syrian government nor the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad focused on battling the Islamic State threat, which then spread to Iraq.
There, the militants executed hundreds of Yazidi religious sect men in Iraq and took their wives captive. The women confront a bleak choice: Convert to Islam and “marry” a jihadist … or face imprisonment, if not death. Iraq’s leaders, embroiled in political brinkmanship, were slow to comprehend the Islamic State’s rapid advance. The terrorists easily defeated Iraqi army units, commandeered their military hardware and seized troughs of cash.
All of that has allowed Islamic State fighters freedom to roam … and kill. This group isn’t a plot-and-patiently-wait-for-an-opening al-Qaida wannabe, shuffling furtively in the deserts, planning terrorist attacks against soft targets. This is a battle-ready army commanded by the little-known Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who seeks to create an Islamic throwback state based on terror and blood.
The shameful killing of Foley adds to the growing understanding of the Islamic State as a threat to the U.S. and other Western countries, but also to the West’s friends and foes in the Mideast … and beyond. The Islamic State enemies list includes the Turks, Kurds, Saudis and Iranians. The Islamic State threat also has helped propel Iraq’s famously feuding pols to bounce Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and tentatively unite behind Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi.
The U.S. has shown that Islamic State fighters are vulnerable. American airstrikes helped free thousands of besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. American air power spurred newly energized Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters to reclaim the strategic Mosul Dam from Islamic State fighters.
What’s next? There is plenty of additional military and political firepower in the region — from Arab states, Iran and Syria — to pummel the Islamic State.
But that hasn’t humbled the militants. In the Foley video, a black-clad, masked executioner also threatened to kill Steven Sotloff, another American journalist who disappeared while covering Syria’s civil war. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the executioner said with what sounded like a British accent.
Obama’s next decision ought to be obvious: more American airstrikes to demolish the Islamic State’s weaponry and its ability to fight. Send more and better weapons to the Kurds. Rely on them and Iraqi forces to get the job done on the ground.
We’ll soon see if momentum has shifted against the Islamic State temporarily or for good. We hope that the video of Foley’s coldblooded killing — and the world’s reaction to it — is a turning point, the beginning of the Islamic State’s end.