The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is, among other things, a social media powerhouse. The group skillfully exploits platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, among others, to promulgate many gut-churning images and videos of its war against Shiites and the Iraqi government broadly. These include one where the group claimed to have executed some 1,700 captured soldiers. Another video shows ISIS fighters beheading a police chief, then merrily tweeting: “This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup.”
As appalling as these examples are, ISIS 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 learned:
They’ll exploit whatever tactic gains the most media attention. Osama bin Laden’s then-deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, famously told al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005 that “we are in a battle, and that 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 recruits, advance its message and terrify its enemies.
The problem is that even outrageous maneuvers 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 anymore, and the group stopped producing them as often as it had done in previous years.
Of course, other insurgent groups also shot hundreds of propaganda videos — many of which are still floating around the Internet. For instance, the jihadist group Ansar al-Sunnah videotaped its operation on Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul in 2004, which killed 22 American soldiers and contractors. A kind of genre grew up around IED attacks on U.S. and coalition military vehicles. These groups loved to give speeches and 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 of these gory videos, 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 commonplace 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 recording it and seamlessly 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 ISIS staged a large breakout from Abu Ghraib prison in 2013, some 500 individuals at all levels of the terrorist organization found themselves back on the streets.
ISIS’s delight in its gruesome exploits indicates the way its leaders would run their self-declared “caliphate” across a broad swath of Iraq and Syria. But their bloodthirstiness may prove to be the group’s downfall; after all, no other Iraqi insurgent organization or Sunni tribe subscribes to its fanatical agenda. It’s 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 ISIS, as they have done in the past. But when that occurs, expect even more bloodletting — and more gruesome videos.