6 January 2016
This article was originally published on Newsweek, authored by Haras Rafiq.
Since the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was pushed out of Ramadi at the end of last month, the self-proclaimed caliphate has been trying to divert attention from this major military setback. In the past week ISIS has stepped up suicide attacks and executions, but its most effective counter-offensive was the release of its latest video featuring a masked executioner who was quickly dubbed the new “Jihadi John.” This video, which features the death of five men the extremist group claimed were British spies, has propelled ISIS back into the media spotlight.
ISIS might not be winning the military battle in Iraq and Syria, but it is dominating the propaganda battle. Speculation about the identity of the new “Jihadi John” has been rife on social media and has made newspaper headlines around the world. The massive media attention dedicated to this video’s content has translated ISIS’s recorded atrocities into effective propaganda, making the group seem more powerful than they really are.
The film was created to incite fear and reinforce the message that ISIS is still a force to be reckoned with. But, their stylistic devices are not very innovative: masked executioners, children and beheadings have all been used in the past to boost the viral potential of their videos. Over the past year, ISIS has increasingly used children as propaganda weapons. Last July, an ISIS video featured child soldiers speaking directly into the camera and in December a video showed children executing six prisoners in a ruined castle in eastern Syria.
Despite their repetitive nature, ISIS videos continue to have colossal exposure. The hidden face of the executioner who threatens Prime Minister David Cameron in a British accent, the orange jumpsuits that the five hostages are wearing and the young child that stands for a multi-generational war are all obvious symbols deployed to widen the film’s impact. But, ISIS’s control ends with the release of the video; it is the audience’s reaction that determines how far they penetrate our collective psyche.
Endless debates about whose face lies behind the executioner’s mask are futile in terms of helping the west in the fight against ISIS. Yet, investigations into the personal life of the primary suspect, Siddhartha Dhar (Abu Rumaysah) have been omnipresent in European, and especially British, media since the video first appeared on Sunday.
The questions that should be being asked are how we can challenge the message the group wants to spread? By focusing on its more shocking elements, we are inadvertently doing ISIS’s propaganda team a favour—broadcasting their bloody work for all to see. Although TV news networks have not shown the video in its entirety, most mainstream channels have broadcasted and commented on extracts of it.
Instead of merely spreading ISIS’s marketing videos, we should actively challenge their messages and promote alternative narratives that undermine the different aspects of the group’s philosophy. Effective counter-propaganda needs to challenge Salafi-jihadi ideologies that provide the theological justification for Islamist recruitment. In particular, we should empower and encourage moderate Muslims voices that advocate non-extremist interpretations of Islam and endorse a reconciliation of democracy and Islam.
We also need to address issues related to identity crises and common grievances of ethnic minorities and Muslim-majority communities in the United Kingdom. This can be achieved by offering alternative narratives that have the potential to foster a sense of belonging in young people who are searching for an identity.
While information provided to the public should not be subject to censorship, it is important that the global media handles violent and manipulative content responsibly. This was not always the case when ISIS first started releasing their videos but is getting better. It requires a sensibility towards debates, which might increase the feelings of fear or hatred that the propaganda aims to provoke. For example, the use of cartoon villain terms such as “Jihadi John” could be counter-productive, bestowing notoriety and attention upon these jihadist figures.
It also means that TV channels, newspapers and social media platforms should do more than just report on the content of ISIS videos. They should provide thorough background analysis on what the extremist group is trying to achieve with its propaganda.
What interests us is not what lies behind the mask of the new “Jihadi John,” but what lies behind the mask of these Islamist extremist ideologies. Understanding how best to respond to those spreading toxic narratives will help us render the propaganda videos of this death cult ineffective and ultimately useless.
To read this article as originally published on Newsweek, please click here.