It’s a gut-wrenching experience to watch a man die, and quite another to know that his killers are happily and publicly doing it just to score propaganda points. But that is what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been doing by releasing a video this week showing the murder of American journalist James Foley.
As part of my job, I’ve watched just about all of these horrific videos slithering from the Iraqi cyber-cesspool over the years, and the bottom line is that ISIS (and its predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq) utilizes this tried-and-true method to slice through the media clatter, terrorize its adversaries and gain notoriety.
1. ISIS’ social media effort is incredibly successful.
The Foley story made the evening news programs and the front pages of major newspapers. As of Aug. 19 — the date of the video’s release — “James Foley” and “ISIS” were also trending on Twitter, competing with #Ferguson. The video was even uploaded to YouTube for a while until the company’s administrators took it down. Sadly, Foley was a prop to forward the group’s uncompromising worldview.
2. This slick, hi-resolution video was specifically tailored for a U.S. audience.
The video is entirely in English (with Arabic subtitles) and called “A Message to America.” Besides Foley, a knife-wielding, left-handed, British-accented man in black gave a short speech in English. He also threatened the captive Steven Joel Sotloff, saying his life depends on Obama’s “next decision.” Absent were many of the usual jihadist tropes found in these sorts of videos, like an a cappella audio track or the long religious justifications for their murderous behavior.
3. The terrorist instinct for showmanship has advanced quickly.
As I described here, al-Qaeda in Iraq quickly learned how to perfect their videos. Likewise, although I can’t be certain, ISIS may use editing and sleight-of-hand here. The murderer in black — who speaks fluent, British-accented English and projects real menace — may have murdered Foley but probably didn’t behead him right then and there, despite what the audience is led to believe. First, the video oddly fades to black before the really gruesome part begins, which seems strange since ISIS loves showing its handiwork up close. Based on similar execution videos, it’s also difficult to behead someone with just a little knife. Finally, his hands and clothes look strangely clean when he’s holding up Sotloff — as if he either shot this part prior to Foley’s footage — or he didn’t do the dirty work at all. The tough man might not be so tough after all.
4. When propaganda works, expect more of it.
Given the Western response to this gruesome effort, ISIS will want to feed this interest with more beheading videos. There are certainly many human targets in Syria and elsewhere — in the form of journalists, aid workers and the like. In any event, ISIS probably has an unknown number of hostages that the group could exploit in similar videos.
5. To ISIS, American lives are worth more than Syrian or Iraqi ones.
The propaganda value of killing just one American remains very potent. This week, ISIS alsoslaughtered some 700 Syrians — many of them civilians — and released a number of videos showing its work. As Al Jazeera noted, the footage “showed men laughing and mocking the victims by mimicking goats as they performed the executions.” But that mass murder didn’t get much, if any, Western press at all.
6. We have underestimated ISIS.
ISIS is the most execrable organization on the face of the Earth. Ambling a “middle road” against this group, as some have described the White House’s current strategy, will not fundamentally roll back this fanatical group. ISIS is growing in strength and numbers, and without America’s firm resolve to ruthlessly counter the group, it will continue to spread its black banners across the Middle East — and beyond.