The Islamic State – the grouping formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) – is a social media powerhouse. It skilfully exploits platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to promulgate gut-churning images of its war against Shia and the Iraqi government.
These include one where the group claimed to have executed some 1 700 captured soldiers. Another video shows its fighters beheading a police chief, then merrily tweeting: “This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup.”
As appalling as these examples are, the Islamic State is merely following a decade-old playbook. I should know, since one of my responsibilities during the Iraq war was to track al-Qaeda in Iraq’s media output for the CIA.
Here’s what I learnt: They will exploit whatever tactic gains media attention.
Osama bin Laden’s then-deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, famously told the chief of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2005 that “we are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”.
But Zarqawi – whose group would eventually become Isis – already knew that because his brutal exploits had been earning free media for years, which the group used to gain new recruits, advance its message and terrify its enemies.
The problem is that even outrageous manoeuvres cease to be newsworthy when they become normal.
When Zarqawi’s group captured and beheaded Philadelphia native Nicholas Berg in 2004 then uploaded the video of his murder, it was front-page news for a week. But the subsequent videotaped murders of Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley, Kenneth Bigley and other foreigners did not have the same impact. Neither did any of the videotaped executions of the dozens of Iraqis who fell into AQI’s hands.
After a while, AQI surmised that these videos weren’t shocking any more, and the group stopped producing them as often.
Of course, other insurgent groups also shot hundreds of propaganda videos. For instance, the jihadist group Ansar al-Sunnah videotaped its operation on Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul in 2004, which killed 22 Americans.
A kind of genre grew up around home-made bomb attacks on US and coalition military vehicles. These groups loved to make statements online. There was even the video legend of “Juba the Sniper”, an insurgent who shot soldiers from afar with his Dragunov rifle. But AQI was by far the most influential, effective and violent purveyor of jihadist propaganda, because its media cadre followed the old newspaper adage: If it bleeds, it leads.
The videos became sophisticated – quickly. I’ve watched dozens and they used to be crude, amateurish efforts. But AQI’s media operatives were quick learners and soon upgraded their product to the slick, multimedia productions that are commonplace on the internet today.
For instance, Berg’s executioners didn’t even bother to put their camcorder on a tripod when they shot his video. The result, while horrific, was a shaky, blurry product. By the time AQI kidnapped four Russian diplomats in 2006 and then released their murder video, their end-products were far superior, complete with smooth edits, audio dubbing and computer graphics.
Another video from around the same period showed the execution of a dozen Iraqi police officers; AQI had at least three different cameras taping it and spliced all their terrible handiwork together in the post-production process. They clearly killed these people for the cameras.
Terrorists enjoy murdering people. Despite the justifications for killing that often accompanied these videos, the murderers seemed to really have a good time putting people to the knife. Watch enough of these productions and you’ll generally notice the terrorist participants – the executioners and the others in the shot – seem very much at ease with what they are about to do. They take to their jobs with gusto. Even the chants of “God is great” that accompany each murder are happy, full-throated ones. And they sometimes go well beyond execution and into mutilation.
To my knowledge, few of these killers expressed remorse for their actions when they were caught. Those true believers felt that what they were doing was completely acceptable – even essential – to advance their warped cause. And many are now free men again: after the Islamic State last year staged a large breakout from Abu Ghraib prison, about 500 individuals at all levels of the terrorist organisation found themselves back on the streets.
The group’s delight in its gruesome exploits indicates the way its leaders would run its self-declared “caliphate” across a broad swathe of Iraq and Syria. But their bloodthirstiness may prove to be the group’s downfall; after all, no other Iraqi insurgent organisation or Sunni tribe subscribes to its fanatical agenda.
It is hard to imagine that any permanent political settlement there could tolerate such stunts for very long. The Sunni tribes of Iraq will eventually turn on the Islamic State, as they have done in the past.
When that occurs, expect more bloodletting – and even more gruesome videos.