How one of Islamic State’s early atrocities became a myth

Women hold pictures of their family members following the massacre. EPA/Ahmed Jalil

As the world marks a year since Islamic State (IS) captured the Iraq’s second city, Mosul, one of the most devastating events from the group’s dramatic rise are still buried under myth and misinformation. Chief among them is the 2014 Camp Speicher massacre, in which hundreds of Iraqi cadets were killed – but which the world took months to first notice, and then understand.

On June 12 2014, three days after the fall of Mosul, IS began disseminating images via social media of a mass killing of Shia Muslim soldiers from the Iraqi army. The mass killing was carried outside the Iraqi base at Camp Speicher near the city of Tikrit, 130km north of Baghdad.

On the day of the massacre, IS circulated about 60 pictures with captions via its now-blocked Twitter account Wilayat Salah al-Din and on a Poland-based website called JustPaste. The pictures showed masked IS fighters loading the captured victims in civilian clothes onto trucks, then shooting them in a field near Saddam Hussein’s old palaces.

On the same day, two separate videos and voiceovers were uploaded to YouTube by an IS supporter called Omar al-Farouq, showing the victims on a forced march. Then, on June 14, IS disseminated a slideshow video of the images.

According to Iraqi officials and Human Rights Watch’s officers, the images could not be immediately verified as authentic; some officials in Baghdad denied the incident had happened at all. But at the end of July, IS uploaded another YouTube video confirming the execution and showing a new killing field on the Tigris River in addition to the previous site. By that time, stunned and shocked, the families of the victims were protesting in the streets of Baghdad and other cities in the south, demanding answers from Iraqi officials.

From scattered images to organised PR

Some claimed that IS had established a well-organised and co-ordinated media machine immediately following the capture of Mosul – but the Speicher episode offered a far different reality.

While baldly shocking and intimidating, the images and tweets presented a very loose narrative that was extremely open to interpretation. The images and captions were unmatched puzzle pieces; they offered elements of a story, but they did not amount to a coherent narrative.

The images labelled the victims as “Safavid” or “Persians”, denying they were Arabs and and linking them to Iran, while a religious element was there in the word “Rawafith” – a loaded term denigrating the hostages as non-Muslims. Equally, they were laden with messages of Sunni-Shia division, their captions asserting that only Shia soldiers were executed in revenge for the killing of an IS leader by Iraqi forces in early 2014. The July 2014 video went further, saying that all Shia deserved such a fate.

That particular message can be traced back to anti-government protests in Anbar Province in western Iraq from 2012, with IS opposing not only Shia and other ethnicities but also Sunnis who don’t support the group.

However, the militants did not follow up the images and video with a story of what actually happened at Speicher – and that left a gap for Western news agencies to fill.

Enter the media

Faced with an apparent atrocity that they could not poinpoint or fully account for, news agencies tried to use eyewitnesses to identify the location where the victims were captured. But even this caused problems: the misinterpretation spread that the base had actually fallen to the Islamic State – and in the absence of a clear narrative, extraneous information was sucked in to explain what happened.

Referring to Speicher as “a former US military base”, for example, the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph wedged the incident into a narrative taking in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and its aftermath – implicitly framing the events of 2014 as a continuation of the chaos of a decade earlier and thereby badly misrepresenting IS’s motives.

Meanwhile, linking IS’s captions of Shia-Sunni division to the civil war of 2006-07 in Iraq fed a narrative of sectarian tension and the predictions of worse to come, as in the Independent‘s emphasis of “revenge” on Shia. And by depicting the victims as soldiers who “fled” or “surrendered”, as the BBC and New York Times did, the blame for the deaths began to fall both on the “cowardice” of troops and the Iraqi political leadership.

Victims erased

In September 2014, the atrocity was at last lifted above the level of myth thanks to new first-hand accounts from survivors. And after Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitary units reclaimed Tikrit and its surrounding areas in early spring of 2015, mass graves were excavated and bodies exhumed.

A flag marks what is believed to be a mass grave. EPA/STR

But by then, the reality of the events at Speicher had been overrun by a myth created to fill an information vacuum. IS had established its surprisingly professional media operations to recruit fighters and spread footage of beheadings and destruction of artefacts; the Western media continued to amplify its message of brutality and extremism, while at the same time continuing to blame Iraq’s government and armed forces for failing to stop the violence rather than spending their time establishing the facts on the ground.

The upshot is that one year on from the terrible events at Speicher, the victims are still being forgotten. In the headline of the International Business Times, the mass killings become simply one of “Five US Mistakes Which Led to the Rise of Islamic State”.