Fighting ISIS: Four Takeaways After the Death of the Jordanian Pilot

Protesters hold up pictures of Jordan's King Abdullah and pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh
Protesters hold up pictures of Jordan's King Abdullah and pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Islamic State's savage burning of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh demonstrates the strengths and the weaknesses of an organization whose state-like structure makes its vulnerable yet resilient in a turbulent Middle East.

The main takeaway from this latest atrocity is that the fight against ISIS will be a long war, measured not in terms of "defeat" so much as trying to contain its expansion in the region.

Here are other issues pointed up by the latest horrors:

Savage global theater

In recent weeks, ISIS played Jordan, Japan, the media and other would-be mediators like a finely tuned violin. Jordanian military reports published Tuesday say that First Lt. Kasasbeh was killed January 3. This means that the past few weeks have been a carefully staged effort by ISIS to keep itself front and center—and to demonstrate that it will not allow its decision-making to be influenced by others.

Indeed, after news of the murder emerged, King Abdullah II's decision to return to Jordan following a meeting with President Barack Obama demonstrates that ISIS plays the role of puppeteer, forcing others to react and adjust to its agenda. What better way to manipulate Jordan than by releasing the video during the king's visit to the U.S.?

The sheer act of burning a man to death in a cage and the way it was orchestrated on the world stage suggest that Islamic State's objective is to terrorize—regardless of any fear or consequences of backlash. ISIS seeks to demoralize those forces arrayed against it, particularly in Syria and Iraq, by demonstrating what happens to those who oppose it.

The brutal video is designed to recruit sadistic and ideological potential followers who might be motivated by this kind of brutality. The coming weeks will show whether this savage theater bolsters Islamic State's numbers.

Hostages: a waning resource

Islamic State has succeeded at using hostages to fill its coffers and orchestrate its grisly propaganda. But reportedly only two remain: a British national and an unidentified Western female.

Meanwhile, the extremists' ground gains in Iraq have been—at least temporarily—checked by coalition military strikes, and the challenges of governance in Syria are mounting. All this means that ISIS needs to find other ways of maintaining its relevance and profile through violent action.

The group may strive to take new hostages or make a more concerted effort to inspire, direct or carry out attacks on Western targets.

Has ISIS miscalculated?

It's tempting to conclude that the brutality of Lt. Kasasbeh's murder represents a big miscalculation by ISIS and that the young Jordanian pilot's execution will mark a significant turn in the battle against the terrorist quasi-state.

Jordan's powerful reaction—including promises of earth-shattering retaliation—is in many respects more meaningful than similar threats from the West. ISIS is a regional problem. Regional ownership in the fight is critical to limiting its expansion. And this fight needs to be joined by Sunnis in an effort to delegitimize the extremists and expose the group for what it is: a corruption and perversion of Islam.

The key question now is what other Arab and Muslim states say and do—and whether Lt. Kasasbeh's murder inspires them into a more sustained effort in terms of military participation or through educational and political efforts against ISIS and radical Islam. It's fine for the White House to convene a summit on countering violence and extremism. But every Arab and Muslim country needs to do the same.

Can ISIS be defeated?

The track record of fundamentalists willing to employ terrorism and violence in pursuit of political power in the Middle East isn't all that good. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was crushed in Algeria; the Muslim Brotherhood were thrown out of power in Egypt; Hamas is confined largely to Gaza; Al-Qaeda's core has been dismantled and forced to go to ground.

But that was in the old Middle East—before nation states collapsed or were in the process of failing. It's understandable that President Obama talks about degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. But that probably isn't realistic, at least not for years. That's because Islamic State's rise is directly related to the collapse of key Arab states, Syria in particular.

Fundamental issues in the Middle East—including ungoverned spaces; areas with bad or no governance; and the quest for identity in a region where neither secular nationalism, mainstream Islam, nor Western ways have answered the call—will virtually guarantee ISIS's viability.

The extremists' own dysfunction in not being able to provide basic services will constrain ISIS somewhat, as will coalition military action. But unless those ungoverned spaces can be governed relatively well, there is little chance of this organization being eradicated.

The fact that groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, operating in Sinai, and others in Libya, have associated themselves with ISIS doesn't bode well for the future. ISIS's execution of Lt. Kasasbeh isn't likely to be the transformative event required to energize Arab and Muslim states into action.

So for now, however imperfect, containment, preemption and prevention will have to do.

Aaron David Miller is Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar, Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This article first appeared on the Wilson Center website.