There seems to be no letup in the attempts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to shock the West through its notorious image and reputation; and in that department it has definitely succeeded. Indeed, the group seems to have an unbridled obsession with its own image and how people see it—especially in the West—expending a great deal of effort in order to “make a good impression.” The countless images and videos the group releases are thus all part of a highly conscious narrative it seeks to spread, one imbued with a sense of the “epic,” and which the group uses to market its virulent, toxic ideology.
In fact, this obsession, especially visible in the group’s use of the latest technological advances, may seem strangely at odds with its other prominent obsession: that of resurrecting the past—whether through regressing the areas under its control back to the dark ages via its laws and practices and methods of killing such as stoning and crucifixion, or through the appearance of its members; or, of course, its now infamous overarching aim of reestablishing the “caliphate.”
This narcissistic infatuation which ISIS has with its own image is most clearly evident in the videos which the group produces. The locations where these videos are shot sometimes seem akin to movie sets, and the footage itself like a movie, one where unfortunate actors are forever coerced to play the victim, and where, of course, they always die at the end. We watch these deaths—with all the accompanying fear and pain and horror this entails—at the hands of killers who do their deeds while looking straight into the camera for that inevitable close-up: yes, these killers slaughter and stone and crucify . . . all for the camera, and for nothing else.
Much has been written about what you may call ISIS’s “Hollywood” tactics, the meticulous care with which these videos are produced. But this should not be a surprise; these videos are an instrument of war, broadcast to scare and terrify opponents before the “real” battle commences. They have become so widespread and repeated that they have almost solidified into an independent genre of their own, with familiar tropes repeated again and again: the “extra,” always the hapless victim; the “hero,” the killer. And we even have recurring characters such as the infamous so-called “Jihadi John,” the British-born member of the group who allegedly appears, always masked, as the executioner in videos showing the killing of the group’s Western prisoners.
All this is clearly visible in the latest such ISIS production, which shows the killing of Peter Kassig and the mass execution of 16 members of the Syrian Air Force. No-one who is able to watch this barbaric footage will fail to notice the pristine quality of the image, the multiple cameras used, and the carefully chosen angles, as well as the slick editing. In this video ISIS ushered in a new era in its PR offensive and its self-obsession and vanity. You can clearly see how the act of killing is now playing second fiddle to the way that act is being presented. It is clear this isn’t some loose cannon in the group going off on a murderous rampage, who just happens to have been caught on camera by one of his fellow comrades. No, this film has a director “calling the shots,” and everything in the video—the location, the cut from one shot to the next, the “script,” the action, the slow camera zooms on the killers’ faces—has been meticulously planned beforehand in painstaking fashion, with attention paid to the minutest of details.
In what is rare in these films, we see in this latest production the faces of the killers, who stand behind their victims with their knives in hand. Only the man assumed to be Jihadi John remains invisible behind his black executioners’ hood. In this video, it is he who conducts this macabre scene of death, carried out in a prolonged and coordinated fashion, so we can see and hear everything in Technicolor and Dolby Surround sound.
Many have called for a boycott on broadcasting and sharing these films online, as a way to dampen the publicity which the group clearly seeks. But for us as media professionals it is, perhaps strangely, difficult not to be drawn to these films, before which we stand terrified—and in awe. But we should not despair, for these films and images will soon fall into the inevitable jaws of monotony and boredom. And it may well be that this descent has already begun.
When that happens, the images of death we see in these videos will have had their day in the sun, and for those who make them, their 15 minutes of fame will be well and truly up. In the end, ISIS will destroy itself through its own obsessions.