By Peter Hossli
The colors as well as the characters are plain and clear. The shimmering desert is an austere yellow. The kneeling prisoner wears bright orange. His eyes and his shaved head are facing the camera. The viewer is meant to know immediately that this is American journalist James Foley. Next to him – in black – stands his executioner. The man’s face is veiled, masking his identity. In his left hand he is holding a dagger.
Foley utters a few sentences. The masked figure has a British accent. What follows is obvious before it happens. The executioner – dubbed «Jihad John» – beheads James Foley (1971-2014)
Plain and clear: in times of war that is good propaganda. The propaganda of the terrorist organization «Islamic State» (IS) is frighteningly perfect.
The barren earth reveals what the IS is fighting for: land in the Middle East. The victim’s orange overall is a reminder of the Islamic prisoners at the US military base Guantanamo. The executioner’s black is the martial color of the marauding IS mob. By wearing a mask he is showing judges and prosecutors: «You’ll never prove who I really am in court.»
The five-minute video is perfectly staged, diligently edited; several cameras shot the images simultaneously. It spreads like wildfire through the Internet. Millions see it on their cellphones and tablet computers, and share it with a click, before the old media – TV, radio and print – even begin to cover it.
Admittedly, the video shows something horrifying. But subtle stylistic devices – like the ones employed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) – make it more bearable. The British film director used to suggest things without actually depicting them. The German news magazine Der Spiegel quoted American documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on the decapitation video: «It is an interesting aesthetic choice not to show the actual beheading. I can’t be sure, but they seemed to dial it back just enough so that it would get passed around. In a way, it makes it all the more chilling, that it was so carefully stage-managed and edited to achieve the maximum impact.»
A whole number of videos like this one are circulating; there may be more to come, considering that the IS is holding more people hostage. Brits and Americans in particular are at risk of dying for propaganda purposes. Their governments flatly refuse to pay any ransom.
Propaganda provokes counter-propaganda. There has been a loud outcry to ignore these barbaric videos. As soon as one of them is posted online, the news goes out under the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout. By no means should anyone do the terrorists the favor of watching these images.
The US State Department appeals to young Muslims not to join the IS, warning them via Twitter. Using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway they publish photographs of children suffering from the terror, and pictures of captured IS fighters.
Still, there is no way to stop the IS propaganda. The marauders have mastered pop culture. They are familiar with people’s passion for indulging in horror – they learned that from Hitchcock, too.
These beheadings help them recruit thousands of Islamist fighters, who are dazzled by a Muslim standing over an American kneeling submissively by his side. From their point of view this is a reversal of the global power dynamic. Suddenly, the allegedly weak person becomes powerful.
This is the message that IS henchmen employ to establish a caliphate, an Islamist state, which will originate in the borderland between Syria and Iraq and spread from there. Within its borders the Shariah would apply, the stone-age law of Islam. Terror would run riot. Women would have no rights. Whoever opposed the rulers would risk their skins.
The war for the caliphate can be followed almost in real-time. Marching towards Mosul, IS propagandists sent out 40,000 Tweets a day. Whenever Twitter closes down one of their accounts, they open a new one within minutes. They Tweet in Arabic, English, French and Spanish, so their messages do not just reach Aleppo or Baghdad, but Barcelona and Berlin, London and Lyon. IS wants to call Muslims from around the world to join their battle.
IS ideologists derive many of their ideas from the concepts of Joseph Goebbels (1887-1945), the head of Nazi propaganda. Like the Nazis, the IS believes in highly esthetic images, martial appearances, dark shirts, ranks and columns. Goebbels employed the state-of-the-art media of his time – first radio and the cinema, later television. Despite being anchored in the desert, IS is very with it. The terrorist group posts its videos wherever teenagers tune in, on news services like Kik and WhatsApp, on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Both the IS and the Nazis are totalitarian. Their propaganda is meant to unite their own people, to recruit utterly fearless warriors and to intimidate their enemies. Goebbels hired film esthete Leni Riefenstahl (1902 – 2003). She filmed the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS marching in unison. Displayed on the screen was a concentrated force, ready to conquer Europe and the rest of the world.
In the IS propaganda videos Muslims, clothed in black, are seen goose-stepping. They fire salvos from Kalashnikovs, they hoot from racing pick-up trucks. They seem united, like a concentrated force, ready to conquer the Islamic world.
The propaganda is working. So far, some three thousand people from Western countries have already joined the IS, among them over one hundred Americans. Thousands more from the Middle East are moving to Syria and Iraq to kill and to die.
On IS websites they learn what kind of shoes to wear, whether they will be able to buy toothbrushes, and how the new fighters can meet the old. Before anyone can join the «holy war» they receive the order to «Kik me»: They are supposed to contact the IS via Kik’s messenger service.
For a long time Saudi-Arabian terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) was considered the most effective Islamist propagandist. He orchestrated the attacks against the U.S.A. on September 11th, 2001. Billions watched live on TV when terrorists destroyed what was one of the most auspicious sights anywhere – the Manhattan skyline. It stands for freedom and plenty. There has hardly ever been an image that instilled more fear and terror in the world than that damaged cityscape.
As if that weren’t enough, Bin Laden announced more terror via video messages. However, they seem static and stale today, their circulation old-fashioned and slow. For years, Bin Laden sat in a cave somewhere in the Hindu Kush, squatting on the floor, looking into the camera, reading out monologs. Esthetics? He didn’t care. To him it was enough to have a gun in the picture. Most of the time he was wearing a brownish robe, sitting in front of a brownish background; at first his beard was brownish, too, then it turned grey.
Smugglers would carry the videos across the mountains to the TV stations, usually Al-Jazeera in Qatar. From there the videos went around the world.
That’s old hat now. The jihadists bank on the esthetics of Hollywood films and video games. Nobody smuggles video cassettes anymore. As soon as a piece is edited and the soundtrack is added, the IS propagandists post it on the Internet. Battle reports are published on sites like JustPaste, sound bites on SoundCloud. They use Instagram for photographs.
Bin Laden spurred Islamists on to commit attacks in the West. The IS does not. Appeals to destroy the Western world are almost entirely absent. Their propaganda is focusing on the «near enemy» (SIC!), says Fawaz E. Gerges of the London School of Economics, on Islamic leaders like Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, not on the «far enemy» like the USA.
In mid-November the IS spread a video showing the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig (1988 – 2014. This film was different, less esthetic, a rush job, shot by a single camera, sloppily edited. Experts maintain that the signs point to a weakening of the IS after months of attacks by the Americans. Even the best propaganda is no protection against bombs.