The State Department says that Islamic State terrorists were not sending the United States a message when they beheaded American photojournalist James Foley.
Uh, yes, they were.
The critical talking point at the State Department’s press briefing last Thursday was that the Islamic State is not specifically targeting the United States. Moments after admitting that the U.S. is “engaged very heavily right now in fighting [the Islamic State],” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted that “this is not about [the Islamic State] versus the United States.” Rather, the terrorists are “killing anyone who gets in their way,” and James Foley just happened to be an American. “So this is not about what the United States is or isn’t doing,” she said.
It is true that the Islamic State is an ultraviolent extremist group with many enemies, even among other terrorists. And yes, they kill with abandon. But the Foley killing was a deliberate terrorist act directed at the United States, an explicit response to decisions made in the Oval Office. It was definitely about what the United States is doing.
Look at the facts. The title of the beheading video was “A Message to #America (from the #IslamicState),” and the Twitter message that brought it to the attention of the world was “We have a prisoner from USA #IS #IRAQ #US.”
The video opens with footage of President Obama talking about the Islamic State, and the executioner addresses Mr. Obama twice. There are no mentions of any other countries or world leaders. The captives shown in the video, James Foley, and the other kidnapped journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, are Americans. In Foley’s final message, presumably written by his captors, he calls on people to “rise up against my real killers, the U.S. government” and concludes, “I guess all in all I wish I wasn’t American.”
His executioner’s statement is addressed to the United States government, and Mr. Obama in particular. The terrorist explains that he was going to kill Foley as a reprisal for U.S. military action against the Islamic State, and says “any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.” He further threatened that Mr. Sotloff’s fate was contingent on future White House actions, saying that “the life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.” They have now started a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #StevensHeadInObamasHands.
If all that is not enough, there is also the email the Islamic State allegedly sent to Foley’s parents, in which they said he would “be executed as a direct result of your transgressions towards us!” It would be hard to read that any other way.
The Islamic State was undoubtedly sending the United States a message, despite Ms. Harf’s claims to the contrary. However, let’s assume for a moment that senior leaders in the State Department are not blind to the obvious. They apparently think it is better to de-emphasize “the United States versus the Islamic State” part of the conflict to keep the focus on the broader issue of Islamic State against the world.
This is a useful goal, but State cannot get there by stubbornly denying the facts. Dogmatically insisting that “this is not about what the United States is or isn’t doing” is simply wrong. The State Department cannot wish away reality; the United States and the Islamic State are at war. If nothing else, the fact that American forces are dropping bombs on Islamic State positions should serve as a clue. Maybe the Obama administration does not want to believe that limited airstrikes can generate unlimited hatred. What’s most troubling is the outside chance that the people who signed off on Ms. Harf’s talking points actually believe them.
The United States should not downplay or ignore what the extremists are telling us. When they say they hate us, they mean it. This was one of the failures of 1990s policies regarding al Qaeda. When Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, few outside the counterterrorism community paid notice. When he did it again in 1998, it made a slight blip. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, he got our full attention. The Foley killing was so brutal, so extreme, so disgusting, that it should have made the point. If the Islamic State believes the U.S. government is not getting the message, they will attempt to do something that will make it impossible to ignore.
The State Department should stop pretending that the Foley killing and the increasing number of explicitly anti-American threats from the Islamic State are not part of an ongoing, de facto military conflict. It would be much better to engage the press, the public, the international community, and even the Islamic State, in a mature discussion that acknowledges this reality. The war is on. The White House doesn’t want to portray our struggle with the Islamic State as a bilateral conflict, a case of “us versus them.” But when the world’s largest, most violent, most dangerous terrorist group says they are coming after us, we should take it seriously.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero” (Regnery, 2014).