Iraqi Turkmen guard a checkpoint in the northern town of Taza Khormato. Photo: Getty
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Islamic State stands for the deaths of journalists and of free speech

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists.

“Western journalists are the front line of the war against Islam. You are responsible for the negative image of Moslems around the world so you must die.”

That, roughly, is what the American journalist James Foley and other prisoners of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) were told by their captors, according to Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was held for months alongside Foley before being freed earlier this year-- presumably in exchange for a large ransom payment.

The barbaric nature of James Foley’s killing, and his killers’ inhumanity in posting the video of his death on the internet, caused exactly the widespread revulsion and fear that they were intended to achieve.

Making a global spectacle of the murder of a western journalist carries a uniquely powerful propaganda message for the jihadists. A single horrific death made instant headlines around the world; and the “Keep Out” sign is now all too visible to other journalists and media.

The consequences could be dire: the ability of international media to report from such extreme hostile environments has shrunk. The age of access for us all as purveyors of foreign news may be coming to an end.

IS has spelled out the terms in which it seeks to frame a global clash of civilisations. At its core is a contest about freedom of speech and belief. By the nature of their work journalists are among those most exposed on the frontline of that struggle.

The general public is probably unaware that much of the globe, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, is already becoming a no go area for foreign independent journalists, as well as local ones, because of the heightened risks of abduction, violence or death.

Last year Isis (as Islamic State then called itself) began seizing westerners on sight, especially journalists. Its “business model” of kidnappings could involve months or years of silence during which the families might receive no information at all. The ordeal might or might not later lead to a ransom demand and negotiations – except for British and American captives, whose governments say they won’t negotiate with terrorists.

Only the most well-resourced media houses could mount the complex operation, involving specialist equipment, security teams and local guides, to send reporting teams into large parts of war-torn Syria. At least 66 journalists have been killed there since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The great majority were local journalists, and nearly half were freelancers, like Foley himself. Many are still missing. Islamic State now controls a large swathe of territory in Iraq too.

International reporting has in fact suffered a triple whammy. In many of today’s conflicts journalists no longer enjoy their time-honoured right of protection as neutrals. Instead they are increasingly targeted as enemies or for propaganda reasons.  And the frontlines of conflicts -- in Libya, Mali and Somalia as well as Syria and Iraq – are fluid and unclear. The only truly safe place is far away from the story.

Significantly, more than half of the journalists’ killings over the past decade have not taken place in recognised war zones at all, but in other lawless or unstable parts of the world, such as Mexico, Pakistan and Russia. CPJ reports that political groups including armed factions are thought to be behind 40 percent of all journalists’ murders worldwide. In nine cases out of ten the killers of journalists enjoy complete impunity. They are never caught.

Unlike the Fall of the Wall in Europe 25 years ago, which ushered in an age of openness for many formerly captive nations, the hopes kindled among millions in the Arab spring uprisings have been dashed. In Egypt, acclaimed TV correspondent Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues face years of imprisonment after a make-believe trial found them guilty of maliciously harming Egypt’s image abroad.

Islamic State must now be stopped through coherent work by governments and the international media to counter its message of violence and hate. It is critically important to bring the killers of James Foley to justice and to keep his flag of fearless and independent reporting alive.

William Horsley is international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), University of Sheffield

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at