(CNN) — Igniting a live man in a cage; severing the heads of dozens; kidnapping, raping and selling women and children — ISIS’ shocking maltreatment of its captives has become regrettably predictable.
But that has made their latest decision on the fate of 19 Christian prisoners all the more surprising to some. On Sunday, ISIS released them.
Another 10 Assyrian Christians are expected to join them in freedom after a short time in captivity.
All but one of the Christians released were part of a group of 220 Assyrians captured last week during offensives on northern Syrian villages, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In the shadow of its sadistic mercilessness, the sudden reversal leaves many asking — why?
The group has not explained its decision. Here are some possible answers.
First of all, who at ISIS made the decision?
It was a self-proclaimed Sharia “court,” which operates on a strict interpretation of Islamic laws.
When the decision was announced that at least some of the hostages would be released, Graeme Wood, who writes for The Atlantic, said he was pleased to hear about it, but not entirely surprised.
“ISIS has claimed for a long time to follow rules, and it claims that these Sharia courts will impose limits,” he told CNN. “They can attempt to get credibility by showing that they follow rules and that they have some kind of transparent process that follows their particular implementation of Sharia law.”
Could it be a move to impress others?
It’s hard to say.
ISIS has taken heat even from other Islamists who accuse it of rogue justice, especially against Muslim civilians they’ve condemned as “infidels” out of hand.
It’s part of the reason al Qaeda has rejected the group, Wood wrote in a recent analysis in The Atlantic. That reduced some of ISIS possibilities for receiving international moral and financial support, leaving ISIS to make up the gap with other sources of funds.
And it has led to a violent split with another jihadi group in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, according to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But the issue drawing anger from other Islamist groups revolves around Muslim civilians, who are ISIS’ most common victims. And the released captives are Christians.
Aren’t ISIS’ victims principally non-Muslims?
It looks to be the other way around, Wood said.
ISIS has a very narrow definition of who is a real Muslim and who is an apostate.
The group is quick to practice “takfir,” which amounts to the excommunication of a Muslim, for things as seemingly petty as shaving off one’s beard or voting in an election. ISIS is quick to kill anyone they condemn, because they want to create a fanatically pure caliphate with only the strictest devotees, Wood wrote.
Could the decision to release the Christians simply be routine?
Yes. Even in the strictest interpretation of Islam, there is a provision for sparing Christians, Wood wrote.
Social media posts indicate that ISIS carries out mass killings regularly, but most of those killed are Muslims.
“Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government,” Wood wrote. They are required to pay a special tax and acknowledge the new ruling power.