Rafiq Abu-Moussab, media officer of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), rose suddenly when he heard a question about his private life and family. He removed his Ray-Ban shades and replied with a stern stare: “I do not do entertainment at all; I do not go out at all. Family, pardon the expression, is the least concern, as there are more important issues; if we spent time with the family, no one would defend the honor of Muslims.”
On a similar question about the place of personal life in the day of an ISIS member, Abu-Moussab replied: “We do not like the happy life and picnics, because they distract us from God.”
These answers gave an insight into the way of life and the thinking of those armed men who have shocked the world, and continue to do so, by repeatedly airing videos of beheadings when their barbarism is let loose.
In an unprecedented documentary, ISIS leaders allowed a television crew from Vice News to enter the areas under their control in the Syrian province of Raqqa for two weeks to make a film of the killings they carried out. The film also showed how the group controlled the lives of residents with “hisbah” patrols, and ISIS even allowed the team to film the prisons the group ran.
This film, which has spread widely less than one week after it was broadcast, was carefully made. A film like this cannot be shot without the consent of the power in charge on the ground, which in this case was ISIS. Any attempts made to film outside the area permitted by the group would have meant a quick death.
The importance of this work lies in showing both the personalities and what life is like under murderers whose barbarism has shocked the world, and who have spread with a speed that is still not understood.
All those ISIS members who spoke on camera were not Syrians. Their dialects were mostly from the Gulf and the Maghreb, and some were members of the Arab diaspora in Europe.
A 50-year-old man appears in a scene showing an evening gathering in a Raqqa square, chanting with those around him: “The virgins in the heavens are calling, list me for martyrdom.” He addresses the camera, saying he had lived in Europe for 25 years yet had traveled to the new so-called Islamic Caliphate, leaving behind “a beautiful wife and children, [coming instead] to jihad and peace of mind.”
In fact, all those members of the group shown in the film are examples of the sick societies which produced them. Even those who lived in Europe did not escape the heavy legacies which they took with them from their countries and societies.
The people in the film repeated the same tired phrases that have been heard again and again over the last three decades, tired clichés about about infidels targeting Muslims, clichés repeated by angry, ruthless youths who have let their beards and hair grow, and show off their guns and swords, teaching their children hatred of others and training them to kill.
The issue is so complicated that it cannot be attributed just to violent religious discourse. If this discourse is the sole source the militants draw on, then what we see in the spread of the resulting death and destruction is but one of the signs of the deterioration of Arab societies. The foreigners in this film came out of our countries and were born out of their crises and conflicts.
The waves of Takfirists have been coming for three decades, to the extent that we are now facing what is the fourth generation. Wars on terrorism have been launched with varying degrees of success, but they have not eradicated its root causes.
It is time for a different approach. It is time we asked ourselves hard questions, because what was shown in this film, and the fact that this kind of murder and violence has become commonplace in some places, will not be destroyed by fighter jets.