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Western discourse on the Syrian Civil War and terrorism were, until recently, mostly focussed on the respective atrocities committed by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and Al Qaeda. However, all this changed with Islamic State’s rise to what may be considered as Middle Eastern politics and the War on Terror’s new centre of gravity. Islamic State’s mere name has become synonymous with viciousness and violence in a way that few other terrorist groups have achieved. In no small part is this due to their extensive use of propaganda, especially videos. However, terrorists embracing video technology to propagate their messages and spread fear is not a new phenomenon.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it appears that the Mujahedeen made limited use of videos propaganda. Often, these videos were exported to the West as a showcase of the Afghan campaign against the USSR. Ed Girardet writes that news agencies supplied the Mujahedeen with video equipment and cameras in the hope of capturing dramatic battlefield footage (Girardet, 2012) and that Islamist political parties such as Jamaat e-Islami deployed “its own photographic and film team to accompany Mujahedeen on missions” (Girardet, 2012). However, it often “flew under the radar of Western media (Berger and Stern, 2015).
Later during various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, film was a key medium in propagating the war crimes and ethnic cleansing faced by local Muslims at the hands of their Serbian oppressors. In his biography, Maajid Nawaz recalls how such videos were key tools for radical Islamist groups in their search for new members, “For HT, those videos were undoubtedly a powerful recruiting weapon…Half [of the viewers] would want to join HT then and there” (Nawaz, 2012). Al Qaeda also utilised video propaganda prior to 9/11: their 2001 “State of the Ummah” set the group up as the solution to much of the Muslim world’s problems while giving off a summer-camp type appeal to potential recruits. A year earlier in 2000, Fahd al-Quso was tasked with filming the bombing of USS Cole but overslept on the day of the attack. Bin Laden also released a stream of videos initially denying, and then later taking responsibility for 9/11.
Most of these videos were not particularly accessible or easy to watch. This was not because of their shockingly graphic content, but rather because they were simply badly put together. While the most devoted may have enjoyed rambling religious sermons (often in Arabic) and low-quality, grainy combat footage; they were the minority. Jihadi propaganda was not for the people, or even the West. In their 2015 work on Islamic State, J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern highlighted storytelling as a key feature which was often absent in these works (Berger and Stern, 2015). Islamic State’s predecessor (then AQI) enacted dramatic changes to this, though. An early AQI video might feature low-quality footage of an attack accompanied by anasheed, but over the years the group’s propaganda efforts have become far more narrative and based around stories. Slowly the group’s videos became better, slicker and more watchable until they peaked in May 2014 with the Clashing of the Swords IV.
The Clashing of the Swords IV is one of the instalment in a series of Jihadi films produced by the jihadist group. Opening with footage shot from a drone, it somehow balances romanticist adventurism with shocking brutality. Scenes of Islamic State’s “Rafidah Hunters” gunning down what are purportedly Iraqi Shia soldiers driving to their military units, snipers toying with their targets (shooting them in the arm rather than head or chest) and roadside IEDs flipping armoured vehicles over like toys are interspersed with former Sahwa leaders renouncing their activities against the then AQI and foreign fighters throwing away their passports – in one case driving a knife through it – renouncing their previous nationalities. All that mattered now was the Islamic State. As Berger and Stern wrote, “while ISIS was unapologetically brutal, it had more to offer than just violence” (Berger and Stern, 2015).
However, the Clashing of the Swords IV may be argued as having had limited success and reach in the West beyond foreign policy specialists. Rather, it was Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi’s message to the people of America after which he beheaded James Foley that may be regarded as the greatest factor contributing to the West’s awareness of Islamic State. Although shocking in their brutality, Islamic State was still distant and more threatening to Iraq’s fragile government and the prospect of Syrian democracy than Britain or America. Once westerners began to be murdered in theatrical set-pieces reminiscent of the 300 franchise all that changed. Islamic State achieved the seemingly impossible: displacing Al Qaeda and its franchises as public enemy number one. The prospect of an Englishman having defected not only to the other side, but murdering his fellow-countrymen was a particularly horrifying one. More than any other image, Emwazi in his black clothing and ski mask has come to embody for many Islamic State in the UK.
To conclude, Islamic State may be regarded as having perfected the art of creating Jihadist propaganda videos, making them not only accessible to like-minded Islamists, but also spreading their message to the West. This has primarily been achieved through the utilisation of high-level film production skills and the incorporation of storylines into their videos. This is a sharp contrast with previous efforts which – for the most part – simply consisted of combat footage, gory executions of prisoners and Arabic sermons played to a background of anasheed (plural of nasheed, Islamic hymns). Also of significance is the manner in which Islamic State’s videos contributed to a growing awareness of the group in the West, particularly those featuring Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi.
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