The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made its global debut recently by releasing video footage of their cadres executing Iraqi soldiers in cold blood. Close examination of these videos show that young children were forced to watch the killings, carried out with gunshots to the head. These videos got ISIS more mindshare than thousands of press releases, manifestos or pamphlets could have achieved. Not only did ISIS become a household name overnight, but it also sent out an unmistakable message to its adversaries about the fate that awaits them.

Ostentatious display of cruelty is a strategic weapon of war and despite the abhorrence it evokes, unless its potential as a psychological weapon is understood, it will continue to take a toll far beyond the absolute numbers killed.

Psychological Operations, or ‘psyops’ as it’s known in the trade, are operations that break the enemy’s will and scpirit to fight. All soldiers (and increasingly civilians) know that death is a constant possibility in war zones. So the fear of death per se isn’t enough to terrorize the adversary. Instead it is the sheer horror of the manner of death that is leveraged by the act itself and its subsequent propaganda. None of this is new. Genghis Khan, Timurlane, Attila the Hun and countless conquerors have used cruel atrocities to subjugate their potential subjects. Dismemberment, mutilations, torture before being killed, murdering children in front of parents or vice versa were all part of the maltreatment meted out to anyone who dared oppose the invaders. Such terror tactics were so famously effective that Nadir Shah of Iran emulated this in all his conquests, including that of the Mughal empire in Delhi. Even after he easily crushed the Mughal army in Karnal and entered Delhi unopposed, Nadir Shah ordered a massacre and sacking of the city during which over 30,000 innocents were slaughtered. This act in Delhi, incidentally, is the origin of the negative connotation of the word ‘nadir’. But there is a cold strategic purpose behind such barbaric action.

Invading or emerging armies need to build their brand. And given their profession, this has to be a terror-inducing brand. That is why warriors in many cultures paint their faces grotesquely, or tribes foster traditions of head hunting and cannibalism. Each act of terror committed in their wake serves as psychological warfare on people yet to be subjugated. The sheer scale and horror of cruelty ensure that entire populations either flee or agree for peace on any terms. Cruelty is an instrument of terror and terror is the strategic weapon of rulers who reign by fear.

Hitler used to hang conspirators using piano wire so that they would die of excruciating pain, very slowly. One of Saddam Hussein’s methods of punishment was to tie the children of his suspects into a sack along with a wild cat which would maul and kill the terrified child while the parents were forced to watch. Idi Amin killed over 500,000 of his own citizens and reportedly ate several of them. Pol Pot and Stalin killed millions of their subjects by starvation, torture and executions. One of the popular methods of execution in the Pol Pot regime was to pull a plastic bag over the head of the victim, suffocating him slowly while others watched awaiting their turn. Adolf Eichmann designed assembly lines to kill six million Jews as other methods could not scale adequately.

Prince Vlad III of Romania was known by his nickname ‘Vlad the Impaler’ because he preferred impaling his victims on a stake driven through their rectum and left to die. And apparently it worked, because an invading Ottoman army fled in fear when they encountered on their way thousands of corpses impaled.

Notwithstanding the odd sadist who takes pleasure in others’ pain, inflicting such visual cruelty is a strategy used by commanders who want to evoke shock, awe, fear and disgust. So that the opposition is stunned by the extent of brutality and either flees or subjugates, rather than oppose. In the earlier days such commanders had to rely on word of mouth for their atrocities to be propagated. Now social media does it for them. This is exactly what ISIS is doing with its video and pictures campaign.

While any act of war is disgusting and deplorable, organisations whose core competence hinges on terror will try and exploit every opportunity to create a ‘brand’ that is larger than life in terms of mindshare. The horror of soldiers executed in cold blood is no more than the horror their families have to suffer. Women and children are always the most exploited victims of any war. Women, especially, are raped and killed not only for pleasure, or as punishment, but as a form of ‘ethnic genocide’.

In the Bosnian war, over 50,000 women were deliberately impregnated so that an entire generation of progeny would be hopelessly scarred. Children as young as nine are indoctrinated as soldiers and made to lose their lives and souls. Which is why such horrific instances must be recognized as what they really are: weapons of terror used as psychological warfare, whose efficacy unfortunately makes their proliferation inevitable.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the and author of Everyman’s War ( The views expressed are personal.