The video begins with an aerial shot of Kobane and spooky white noise. You then hear the gunfire, see the black Islamic flag fluttering in the corner and listen as a message chirps on to the screen: “Drone of Islamic State Army.” Then appears a red light blinking like a beacon. Then the gunfire gets closer. Another flashing light. More gunfire. Then you see him: John Cantlie, a British hostage of the Islamic State, here to star in video both real and surreal.
The Washington Post’s video team suspects the beginning of video, which was released on Monday and shows Cantlie speaking from Kobane, is doctored in some way. The suspicions are well-founded. The video, like many of the Islamic State’s clips and magazines, looks like a scene from “Call of Duty.”
It highlights what analysts say has become one of the more salient characteristics of Islamic State media — “gamification,” as the Intercept put it— apparent both in the fighters’ language as well as in their videos. They show balls of flame, fancy graphics and masked fighters who look like they should be on the cover of an X-Box game. One British fighter named Abu Sumayyah al-Britani even told American Journalist Jonathan Khron his life in Syria is more satisfying than in the United Kingdom because now it “is better than that game ‘Call of Duty'” as he can shoot guns without concern.
“If current trends persist, al-Qaeda will become known as ‘your father’s terrorist group,’ an organization that has gone out of style,” stated an article in the Clarion Project, a nonprofit anti-extremist organization. ” … The new generation of jihadists has a different style than one the West is used to seeing. It’s hard to envision Osama bin Laden in a rap video, telling an off-color joke or openly indulging in American entertainment.”
And that, experts say, is part of the appeal — and why the terrorist organization, which is battling for Kobane and threatening Baghdad, will continue releasing videos like Monday’s starring John Cantlie. If a video can be the “real-life evocation” of a video-game fantasy, it may draw more recruits than scripture or religious fanaticism.
“For many young people, it’s probably not too difficult to relate,” wrote the New Yorker’s Jay Caspian King. ” … It’s worth wondering how much further their reach can extend. How many frustrated kids whose only outlets for aggression are Call of Duty, sports, or hip-hop will take a disastrous step into illogic and see [the Islamic State] as the real-life evocation of those fantasies?”
This theme was perhaps most noticeable with the recent release of what appears to be a “Grand Theft Auto”-esque video game by a group allegedly linked to the Islamic State lionizing the exploits of a militant. In it, the Islamic State “player” runs around, lifts cars, gets into a lot of gunfights — all of it to the lilting sound of a jihadist song. “The Islamic State was already well known for its sophisticated film making, and many of the scenes depicted in the video appear to be a ‘gamification’ of previous Islamic State propaganda footage,” according to the Intercept. ” … It appears that the [Islamic State] media war is continuing to evolve in new and weird directions.”
Other fighters have picked up the motif by tweeting, “This is our Call of Duty and we Respawn in Jannah,” using the gamer word “respawn” to signify rebirth.
— الله أكبر (@Ghuraba18) January 23, 2014
Political analyst Abdullah Hamidaddin said such imagery refutes the notion that the Islamic State’s recruitment tactics have anything to do with religion. It instead pitches youths in the same way video games do, by whetting the appetite for adventure. “The videos [are] clearly not a call to jihad,” Hamidaddin wrote in Al Arabiya News. “This is a call to adventure and adventure in the minds of many youths is in risk and destruction.”
But the success of the strategy is less in the idea’s conception than its execution, John Horgan, a terrorist expert at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, told New York Magazine. He said much of the imagery does rival “Call of Duty.” “They are carefully composed, well-edited videos that capture both the nobility and urgency of joining the fight, juxtaposed with pulse-pounding images and slo-mo videos of adventure in battle,” he said.