Middle East

Why IS militants destroy ancient sites

Satellite image of Palmyra showing destruction of the Temple of Bel
Image caption Satellite image of Palmyra showing destruction of the Temple of Bel in August 2015

The destruction of the grandest, most important temple in the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra has flung so-called Islamic State's (IS) barbarous actions back into international consciousness.

Many will wonder why anyone would so actively seek to raze historical and cultural marvels that have lasted millennia.

But for the IS bulldozers, the rationale is straightforward and fulfils several readily identifiable goals.

Media captionJeremy Bowen speaks to two men who risked their lives to save Palmyra relics from IS militants

As IS notes in the eighth issue of its own publication, the glossy Dabiq magazine, they see ancient cultural heritage as a challenge for the loyalties and legitimacy of Iraqi or Syrian people to IS itself.

Destroying such heritage is thus a part of their duty, as they see it, to reject such a "nationalist agenda" that the statues, temples, and indeed, cities represent.

In a wider sense, the IS brand of intolerant Islam motivates it to attack polytheism wherever it is found and to reject the worship, as they would put it, of idols that they see these sites as representing.

Elsewhere, it is also no surprise to see IS destroying Shia and Sufi sites, and even Sunni shrines.

If anything, IS ideology despises other variants of Islam even more than Christianity or Judaism. Liberally sprinkle such intolerance with a self-serving, simplistic, context-free reading of a few scriptures and a "religiously" justified policy - or commandment even - is put forth.

Shock value

But there are more political, expedient motives afoot not noted in Dabiq.

Chipping off parts of statues and otherwise selling stolen antiquities in markets around the world is a good way to earn hard cash. The UN believes that this is being done on an industrial scale, adding tens of millions of dollars to IS' wider war economy.

Image caption IS regards statues as idolatrous

Launching and especially prolonging a bloodthirsty campaign of butchery, terrorism, mass murder, torture, enslavement and ethnic cleansing is hard work.

After the initial horror, the kuffar (infidel) media and their kuffar audience eventually become inured to the repetitiveness, the sheer numbers killed, and pressing news stories elsewhere relegate the focus on IS.

Capturing and retaining attention thus becomes more difficult. This is problematic when a group needs to encourage new recruits and new sources of income.

Equally, those already recruited who are bogged down in warfare, sporadically getting picked off by drones and jets, who are (to their surprise) losing territory, or who begin to miss the comforts of home need to be reassured that the group they joined is as influential, as proactive, and as in vogue as ever.

Provocative acts

Lastly, videos of iconoclastic destruction spark outrage, mark out IS as unique, and increase the drum beat for further intervention from Western (or other) states.

Thus the logic of former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden - his desire to entangle the US in a bloody, unwinnable land war "against Islam" - is once again employed.

Image caption Part of IS' strategy is to outrage world opinion

This is not to say that there should be no reaction, but any considerations need to be mindful that a part of the whole IS strategy is to elicit a reaction in the first place.

To some degree, describing such desecrations as a "war crime", as the UN has, nicely plays into IS' hands - as do articles on the subject.

But the internet cannot be un-invented, and unless we are to surrender some of our closest held beliefs on freedom of speech, we cannot stop dissemination of such depressing stories.

We must, therefore, respond however we can.

Calm reasoning exposing the hypocrisies, the practicalities, and the banalities of IS' policies is a step towards demystifying and debunking the likes of IS as just yet another political organisation.

Dr David Roberts is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King's College London. Follow him on Twitter @thegulfblog