In 2014 the Islamic State (IS) became a factory of propaganda videos, many of which depict executions. The first to attract significant media coverage in the West showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley. It also introduced a British-accented executioner dubbed “Jihadi John” in various media outlets. Jihadi John would subsequently appear as the executioner in a number of IS beheading videos.
Although the Foley video was swiftly taken down by YouTube, it had already been circulated widely in the short time it was available. The impact of the freeze-frame of Foley, moments before his death, was unquestionably brutal and shocking.
But bizarrely, the mainstream media quickly began to frame this and many future IS propaganda videos in terms of their supposedly Hollywood production values. According to these reports, IS’s use of aerial views from a drone, high-definition video and rapid editing gave its work an unmistakably slick Hollywood aesthetic.
Last week, IS released a new video showing mass executions in Kirkuk. The editing and motion graphics certainly show attention to detail and at least semi-professional prowess. But the location filming (and staging) cannot be regarded as professional or slick.
Why does this matter? We should not be surprised that the media has sensationalised this terrorist propaganda. But in doing so, it has given us the sense the footage is more sophisticated than it actually is, mythologising the perpetrators and their cause.
With my research colleague Justin Rashid, I have been examining both the aesthetics of these videos as well as the ways in which the media re-presented them to the public during the 2014-2015 period.
We found repeated fascination with the quality and style of the videos in the media during this period. For instance, the Daily Mail emphasised the “slick” production values and The Guardian commented on the “high definition video” used to record beheadings. In true hyperbole, The Daily Beast likened some of the execution videos to “a Michael Bay summer blockbuster.”
Soon, such comparisons became an almost meaningless shorthand of spin that the media applied to each new video. Consider, for instance, the Fox reporters who claimed that the IS characters in one video: “all appear to be over 7 feet tall. This means the video was most likely shot on a green-screen.” They provide no evidence or justification for such an absurd claim.
IS propaganda material does show a significant stylistic break with earlier Al-Qaeda videos in terms of pixel resolution, clarity, camera operation and post-production. Nonetheless, the content of the video depicting James Foley’s killing is unquestionably more significant than the type of camera used to record it.
Still, some academics and security experts have also participated in these mistaken claims that the videos bear some significant resemblance to Hollywood productions. For instance, a Quilliam Foundation security report suggests that the video Although the Disbelievers Dislike It (released in November 2014) indicates that:
IS has access to, and knowledge of, complicated post-production technology […] in particular [editing software called] Avid. This is not something that an amateur photographer can learn through trial and error.
These are strange conclusions. There is no reason the video could only have been edited using the Avid platform. And if so, this software is cheaply available and the company that makes it has published free tutorials for beginners. The digital visual effects and motion graphics on display in many IS videos can also be readily learned by a dedicated individual with access to YouTube tutorials.
It is tempting to view the IS through a simple binary: we’re civilised, and they’re barbarians. Donald Trump has stated this directly, and Barack Obama’s official response to the James Foley video also draws upon the same position:
they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.
Against this background, it is easy to understand the fascination with, for example, IS having access to drones for filming. Such stylistic and technical aspects offer a troubling challenge to the simple, comforting viewpoint of the IS as savage barbarians. This anxiety is alluded to by comedian Jon Stewart’s joke that: “I knew they had weapons but I didn’t know they had Final Cut Pro!”
Terrorism in transition
For many years, terrorists have created violent spectacles in order to use the media to distribute their message (and the media has used these spectacles to generate content and ratings). In that respect, there is clear continuity between earlier terrorist spectacles and the IS videos of the 2014-2015 period when Western victims were used to attract media attention.
However, these videos featuring Western victims and addressing Western audiences are no longer as prevalent as they were during the above period. While it is difficult to know exactly why this is the case, we can speculate some possible causes. For example, Western counterintelligence services are likely to have increased their ability to take down such videos as quickly as they are posted, before they can gain any traction in social or mainstream media.
At the same time, IS, as the result of large losses of territory, are likely focusing on internal apostates and local threats other than Western forces.
Typically, the execution videos from late 2015 until the present, show the killing of non-Western victims considered apostates by the group. For example, Iraqi soldiers are executed point-blank with shotguns; Syrian Arab Army members are stabbed; and Egyptian servicemen are executed with assault rifles.
These days, IS-related attacks in the West appear to adopt what we, in our ongoing research, describe as a crowd-sourced form of terrorist media production.
The acts may be carried out either by direct orders from IS or as inspired lone-wolf attacks, and the inevitable citizen-journalist capture of the material removes the need for IS to do any centrally administered production for the images to be distributed.
Arguably, these crowd-sourced propaganda recordings could have greater impact. As crisis management researcher Hayley Watson suggests:
Not only […] do citizen journalists increase publicity of an attack, but they do so in an extremely personal, intimate, and visually graphic manner.
There may or may not have been a direct order to stop the production and release of propaganda videos showing the execution of Western victims. However, there is effectively no need for IS to do so. Their message is easily spread thanks to the ubiquity of mobile capture devices and a clear desire for witnesses to upload cell phone videos of IS-inspired attacks that have been taking place in the West.
While the highly publicised videos of the 2014-2015 period cannot seriously be regarded as Hollywood-like, they certainly did possess a crafted and staged appearance. This visual polish may have served the needs of IS at the time to threaten and terrorise the West while promoting the Caliphate as an impressive place to attract foreign fighters.
The new mode of citizen-journalist videos offers a stark contrast in aesthetic and communicative capacity. Shaky, often unclear and grainy views snatched from behind the safety of a barricade; they are very different to the confident tripod placement of a camera being addressed directly by an executioner. Such videos, which may become the primary genre of terrorist propaganda, are purely the perspective of someone in fear.
Stuart Bender would like to acknowledge the contribution of Justin Rashid to this article.