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How the Islamic State Turned Horrifying Beheadings into Effective Propaganda

The jihadist group's notorious executions not only horrify the West but excite wannabes worldwide who can't wait to get involved.
October 7, 2014, 8:00pm
IS fighters. Still from the VICE News documentary The Islamic State.

The beheading of Western civilians is the cocaine of global jihadist warfare. The executions don't just inflict death and terror on its victims-they radiate a potency that excites and galvanizes not only the fanatics who engage in it but also the "wannabes" outside their ranks who are awed by the spectacle of jihadist bloodletting.

On July 9, 2005, Ayman al Zawahiri-then al Qaeda's second in command-purportedly wrote to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in order to caution him to tone down the violence and reconsider the wisdom of staged beheadings. The previous year, Zarqawi's network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, had publicly released more than ten beheading videos, including the video believed to show Zarqawi himself beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg.


In recent weeks, Zawahiri's letter has recaptured the headlines, partly to contextualize the Islamic State's strategy of showing the world gruesome beheadings, but also to amplify-if any amplification was needed-the group's brutality. To quote the title of an excellent op-ed article by Mia Bloom in the Washington Post, "Even al Qaeda denounced beheading videos."

Of course, Zawahiri's letter had nothing to do with al Qaeda's moral scruples. It was exclusively about strategy. The beheading videos, warned Zawahiri, were bad PR and would serve only to alienate Muslims from the jihadist cause.

"We are in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma," Zawahiri cautioned, advising that "the common folk" among Muslims "will never find palatable" Zarqawi's brand of gruesome cutthroat jihad, especially "the scenes of slaughtering the hostages."

It now looks as though Zawahiri wasn't completely right in his assumptions. For some, staged beheadings aren't a turn-off; they're a turn-on. And far from losing the "media battle" for "hearts and minds," IS is making significant gains on this front, reportedly attracting 5,000 Western teenagers to its ranks. To paraphrase journalist Charles Krauthammer, IS's "best recruiting tool" has been its own savagery.

IS fully understands this, which is why its extraordinarily effective and indefatigable media arm, Al Hayat, has made beheading videos its signature production.


"We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone," declares the killer in the video in which American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff is decapitated. This is the proclaimed rationale behind the recorded executions of James Foley, Sotloff, David Haines, and, most recently, Alan Henning.

Only it isn't credible. IS is staging beheadings not because it wants America and its allies to "back off," but because it wants them to step up and take the fight to IS. As David Carr recently remarked in the New York Times, "It is a memo from a foe that has everything to gain by goading America into a fight in a faraway land where its enemies are legion." And thus far, it has worked-the West has reacted. IS's videos are everywhere. They have even made it to primetime television, albeit with careful redaction, thus taking jihadist gonzo porn out from its "virtual" subterranean gutter and into the mainstream.

They have rattled Scotland Yard, which initially reacted by warning the public that viewing, downloading, or disseminating the Foley video within the UK might constitute a criminal offence under terrorism legislation. And more important, the US has now gone from having "no strategy" when it comes to IS to launching military strikes against it in its Syrian stronghold. This has all been to IS's immense benefit, catapulting it into the big time and to the forefront of the global jihadist movement-a status which, as IS well knows, only the "far enemy," the US, can bestow.


But this is not their only purpose. IS's beheading videos are also targeted at the entirety of the global jihadist movement, as well as the unknown number of wannabes who have yet to join it. They are a display of raw power and fanaticism. We are the real deal. Don't fuck with us. We will show no mercy. And God is on our side. This is the obvious "narrative" in the videos.

Clearly, it is no accident that the masked executioner in all four videos released so far is British-or is uncannily good at doing a South London accent. This is intended to disseminate dread and unease among the denizens of the West, evoking the unnerving theme of the traitorous "enemy within." If the 24-year-old British man Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, whom intelligence officials suspect may be the killer in the videos, can be persuaded to join IS, then why not others from Britain? But it is also intended to send a no less powerful message to the rank and file of IS and its jihadist competitors: We are now so unstoppable that even the citizens of infidel countries are desperate to leave their comfortable lives to join us. It is a message of vindication designed to further rouse IS's troops and persuade wavering jihadist competitors to defect to it.

Krauthammer nailed it recently when he argued that "the Islamic State's principal fight is intramural" and that the beheading videos must be understood in this context. "It seeks to supersede and supplant its jihadist rivals-from al Qaeda in Pakistan, to Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, to the various franchises throughout North Africa-to emerge as champion of the one true jihad." Mia Bloom calls this "outbidding," a process whereby competing groups vie for supremacy by carrying out ever more spectacular attacks. IS, in recent months, has thoroughly eclipsed its local competitor in Syria, the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, showing a degree of ferocity and military strength that is unparalleled in the annals of global jihadism. The beheading videos are a graphic embodiment of this and proof that IS is the only serious jihadist game in town.


IS's beheading videos are rudimentary and certainly do not match the technical prowess of some of its other feature-length productions. But they are extraordinarily powerful, nonetheless, and they are a world away from the grainy and super-gory beheading videos pioneered by IS's now deceased forefather Zarqawi. They are in high definition, filmed against a piercing blue sky in the desert. The masked killer, dressed all in black, towers theatrically over his victim, who is wearing an orange jumpsuit in a conscious reference to the uniform of the Guantánamo Bay detainees. The killer is armed with a pistol and is brandishing a small blade. Like Zarqawi, he employs a sawing motion, but we are given only a glimpse of this and the picture fades to black soon after the killer sets to work.

More importantly, they are a world away from the latest video released by Zawahiri, who talks for nearly an hour about the creation of a new branch of al Qaeda in South Asia. Zawahiri, all too plainly, is a man sorely lacking in a plan, charisma, and appeal. This has always been the case. But the rise of IS now serves to make this even more luminously apparent. If, as Peter Bergen wrote a year after Bin Laden's death, al Qaeda "central"-the core of the organization in the tribal regions of Pakistan-is the "Blockbuster Video of global jihad," IS represents the Instagram of this violent subculture, a wildly successful startup that has built an audience of millions in no time at all.


One suspects that the killer in the recent beheading videos wouldn't be nearly as cocky if his victims were untied. But the contrast between this figure and the tired and aging Zawahiri is plain for everyone to see. Abdel Bary's voice, his street-tough jihadist idiom, his demeanor-every dash and comma in his body language-exudes power and supreme confidence, whereas the body language of Zawahiri exudes the opposite: impotence, decline, irrelevance.

IS fighters. Still from VICE News documentary The Islamic State

In his alleged letter to Zarqawi, Zawahiri advises that a captive can be killed as easily by a bullet as by a knife. No doubt IS commanders would agree with this-the group has already shot and killed hundreds of defenseless captives. But it also clearly believes that nothing quite matches the knife in depth of symbolic power and reach.

In Martin Amis's investigation into the dark and increasingly violent world of American pornography, John Stagliano, a former actor in the industry, tells Amis that "pussies are bullshit" and that anal sex is where the action is at. It is "more guttural, more animal," he said. In recent weeks, IS has proved Zawahiri wrong. Bullets, though not quite yet "bullshit," lack the dramatic propaganda impact of the knife. And it is the knife, with its raw and guttural symbolism, which has propelled IS to the next level.

Toward the end of David Fincher's 1995 movie Seven, a veteran detective played by Morgan Freeman receives delivery of a box in a vast and desolate area of arid land. Cautiously, he opens it and is aghast at what he finds inside-the severed head of his colleague's wife. We do not see the head, but we see the shock and repulsion italicized across Freeman's face. "John Doe has the upper hand," he says into his radio. Seven-which, spoiler alert, reaches its climax with an open-air execution of a man with a shaved head in an orange jumpsuit-is a movie about the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. IS's recent success has depended in large measure on the audacity with which it has sought to convert the worst of these sins-wrath-into a virtue and an asset.

Dr. Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University, UK. His book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam is out in November, published by Hurst & Co.