The American opinion on the situation in Middle East changed almost instantly after the organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS) released their execution video of James Foley. The graphic beheadings continued, with another American, Steven Sotloff, and Frenchmen Herve Gourdel, killed by the Algerian terrorist group Jund al-Khilafah. Then, only a few days ago, IS, formerly called ISIS, openly called for believers to attack Westerners. In the video circulated online, an ISIS spokesperson specifically encouraged “lone wolf” attacks and beheadings in the U.S., Europe (especially France and the U.K.), Australia and Canada. So when yesterday, a man beheaded his former co-worker in Oklahoma, it was impossible not to draw a few parallels.
The gruesome details of an American brutally beheading another would be shocking enough, but merely days after the video from ISIS, the event becomes chilling. Is this proof that that ISIS can attack Americans and become a threat at home, not just an invisible war abroad? Has the fear of radicalized Muslims in our own backyard become terrifyingly real?
I’d argue it is somewhat too early to draw specific conclusions on the state of mind of Alton Nolen, the alleged killer now in police custody. Though there is a lot of evidence piling up that Nolen, was indeed, radicalized by Muslim extremists. On the other hand, it is still completely possible that Nolen suffered from a psychological affliction that affected his judgment and drove him to murder. Either option would look good to IS. Who cares what the motive is if Americans are dying—especially in a way that draws more attention to them? It doesn’t matter if Nolen thinks he was carrying out a sacred duty, or not. That’s not the point. It could just as easily be a mentally unhinged person who saw a beheading online which finally tipped them over the edge into violence. The copycat effect, where someone mimics a crime that has been sensationalized by the media, is a very real and documented problem. The media coverage of beheadings will make them more appealing to a certain kind of criminal, which puts all of America at risk. The IS beheading might not have triggered the copycat effect in Nolen, but it might in someone else.
Islamic State can now take credit for fervent believers or general instability within our country. Again, the motive isn’t what matters, as long as they can count the deaths caused by their media campaign. IS has taken their beliefs to social media, in the most cohesive propaganda attempt the world has ever seen from a terrorist organization. Their message has two parts: one is aimed at recruitment, the other at instilling terror. Any beheading in America can now be claimed as fulfilling one or both of these goals.
There is even an added bonus for ISIS after the Oklahoma murder. Already, those with a bias against Muslims have begun their mantras about “the religion of peace” and profiling all Middle Easterners as terrorists. This mentality is exactly what the Islamic State wants. It creates a deep fear in some Americans and perpetuates a hateful stereotype. It also will make some young, vulnerable Muslim men feel marginalized and discriminated against; the same emotions that lead to radicalization. One beheading can counteract thousands of tweets from moderate Muslims (#NotInMyName), or rallies against ISIS in places like Oslo, London, Baghdad and Detroit, or even an open letter to IS from international Muslim scholars refuting their beliefs. The Islamic State knows this and will take advantage of the imbalanced response.
As the downward spiral of hate and mistrust continues, the leaders of Islamic State can sit back and congratulate themselves. They can take credit for death and terror without ever traveling to America. No matter how we look at it, the Oklahoma beheading is a victory for terrorists. If the previous actions weren’t enough, this even should erase any doubt from the collective American mind that the Islamic State is a threat which must be stopped.