Islamic State’s execution videos are sly propaganda written in blood

Analysis: The made-for-media ritual murder of Steven Sotloff is designed to send a series of carefully crafted messages

The condemned man kneels in an orange jumpsuit, just like before. Behind him stands an executioner dressed all in black, a leather holster over one shoulder. The killer’s face is covered, and he holds a knife in his left hand, just like before.

The message is clear: This is a ritual. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again. And again.

The video released on Tuesday by the Islamic State depicting the murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff bears startling similarities to the one released two weeks earlier that captured the last moments of James Foley, down to the London accent of the murderer.

He goes out of his way to make it clear that although U.S. and British intelligence agencies are using sophisticated voice recognition technology to trace his identity, he has returned to wield the knife.

“I’m back, Obama,” he tells the camera. “I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence in continuing your bombings in Amerli, Samarra and Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. You, Obama, have yet again, through your actions, killed yet another American citizen.”

A slick production

There will be plenty for the intelligence analysts to piece together as they search for clues that could lead to the identities of the perpetrators or their location.

But the video — which runs to two minutes and 47 seconds — is also dripping in symbolism and imagery promoting its underlying message: Here is an organization willing to taunt the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military with a brazen act of symbolic violence designed to strike fear into their enemies and instill a sense of invincibility among followers and potential recruits.

It is a slickly produced affair, starting with a clip of President Barack Obama, then cutting to the stark desert location selected for the killing.

Despite the brutality of the act, this is not footage captured by a spectator on his wobbly cellphone; it’s the carefully constructed output of a professional propaganda unit.

Sotloff, like Foley before him, is shown wearing a clip-on microphone as he delivers the statement written for him by his captors condemning Obama’s foreign policy.

And the IS even uses some Hollywood techniques, cutting to a blank screen as the man with the knife sets to work.

‘Propaganda as deed’

The result, according to Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, is to turn a gruesome act into an invisible, implied horror, increasing its power as a tool of propaganda

“To see it clearly would make it almost unbelievable. It would numb us,” he said. “This way makes it an even more powerful form of propaganda as deed.”

The propaganda-of-the-deed concept has a long history in anarchist and revolutionary circles, using specific actions as exemplars for followers.

For the Islamic State, which has made beheading a staple of its authority, it also broadcasts a message to its enemies in Iraq and Syria. Who would want to go up against such a group, a group whose lust for bloodshed was too much even for Al-Qaeda’s leadership?

Focusing on the individual accentuates the impact, which spreads rapidly around the world on social media platforms — and when that individual is an American journalist, the gruesome act of propaganda inevitably crosses over from Twitter and Facebook onto mainstream TV news channels, exponentially multiplying the impact of the deed.

The message is clear: This is a ritual. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again. And again.

Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a consulting firm, said there was nothing new about such shock tactics.

“It is part of their theater, to take advantage of the news cycle, to show they are relevant,” he said.

In so doing, the Islamic State will fire up their supporters, bring in recruits and sow fear among their enemies, he added.

The IS also seeks to provoke more powerful enemies into rash actions as their publics demand that justice be done for a wanton act of violence against an innocent and that the perpetrators be prevented from repeating it. Thus the wave of pressure on Obama to come up with an Islamic State strategy on the fly, the complexities and challenges of combating the group in Syria and Iraq not withstanding. British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to cut short his summer vacation to address the issue.

There was a time when terrorist outrages were met with promises that life would go on and that target societies would not allow small bands of extremists to disrupt business as usual. But saturation multiplatform media coverage and the legacy of 9/11 diminish the political space for such an approach.

And the perpetrators are well aware of this change. In the case of Sotloff, the deed — or more particularly, the manner in which it was conducted — carried another message.

Both Sotloff’s and Foley’s beheadings were preceded by a statement from the prisoner and a statement from the executioner. The similar poses and clothing were no coincidence.

The director — and there surely is a director — is showing that this is a ritual, following a carefully scripted quasi-judicial process, the twisted jurisprudence of the Islamic State, yet at the same time implying that other captives can be spared the same fate if the demands of the IS are heeded.

After Sotloff’s severed head is shown placed atop his body, the video ends by showing a British captive. That image comes with a warning to U.S. allies from the man in black to “back off and leave our people alone.”

The propaganda intent

But is that what the IS really wants? Does it want the U.S. and its allies to back off, or is the group’s real goal to provoke sufficient outrage to provoke Western powers to launch another war in a Muslim land and help sustain its warped vision of jihad?

The Foley video certainly provoked a huge reaction, being widely shared on social media and dominating the headlines of much of America’s print and electronic media. Suddenly the IS morphed in the national conversation from being just a particularly nasty player in a distant conflict to being an imminent threat to the United States.

Mindful of the propaganda intent of such videos, Twitter has deactivated accounts that disseminated images of Foley’s murder — sparking a debate about Internet freedom— and journalists have discussed whether viewing and discussing the video inadvertently does the publicity work that its makers intended.

As a result, the video of Sotloff’s beheading has been much more difficult to find on the Internet than Foley’s.

Even then, its very existence once again put Western leaders on the back foot as another American family grieves — and a British family waits for news.

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