WASHINGTON — The waves lap languidly against the coastline as flickering, spectral images crackle back and forth across the screen. A seemingly endless parade of black-clad assassins, each leading his own sacrificial victim, files across the beachfront in a skillful montage with multiple angles, overhead shots and MTV-style rapid editing.
The camera lingers on the terror on the victims’ faces as one of the killers, singled out by his camouflage outfit, issues dire threats in distinctly American English with a light Arabic accent. The victims are then pushed facedown onto the sand and gruesomely decapitated, each man’s severed head being placed on top of his torso. The sea is seen as running red with blood.
So goes the latest snuff video by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, apparently showing the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya. Yet again, the jihadist propaganda shocked friend and foe alike with its signature combination of high production values and stunning brutality.
This new video followed hard on the heels of another in February showing a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive. The agony of his immolation was ended only when a loader dumped concrete rubble on the site — a macabre dramatization of the jihadists’ claim of a moral equivalence between Jordan’s bombing raids against the Islamic State and their execution of a prisoner.
The Islamic State’s victims are typically made to wear orange jumpsuits, an obvious reference to detainees at the American military base in Guantánamo, Cuba. In the new video, the setting on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is explained by its proximity to Europe (the spokesman repeats the Islamic State’s ambition to “conquer Rome”) and because the United States had “hidden” the killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden beneath the waves (he was buried at sea).
This symbolism is deliberate and typical: Built into the group’s elaborate scenarios is a sophisticated communications strategy intended to convey multiple messages to several audiences.
Both videos prompted outrage throughout the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, with both countries launching bombing raids against Islamic State positions. The group appears unconcerned. A resolutely vanguardist organization, it seeks to violently impose a new reality on the populace, not to win the hearts and minds of a majority.
As for its adversaries, the Islamic State’s most obvious purpose is to sow fear. During its campaigns in Syria and Iraq, the group has demonstrated an alarming degree of success in terrorizing opponents. This imperative accounts for the videos’ escalating viciousness. Each new release must trump the last in spectacular sadism to keep potential enemies worrying about what unspeakable torments might be visited upon their tender flesh.
But the primary audience for Islamic State propaganda is not foreign governments. The group is recruiting Sunni tribesmen and foreign fighters faster than coalition airstrikes can deplete its forces. We are witnessing perhaps the greatest international volunteer force drive since the Spanish Civil War. And, as its new video demonstrates, the Islamic State, along with its slick propaganda, has now spread to Libya. Clearly, the jihadist message is getting through, but how?
The most obvious statement is strength and defiance: the empowerment that comes from the harshest possible retaliation against societies attacking the Islamic State. Hence the crude moral economy of reciprocity.
Millenarian buzzwords suffuse Islamic State rhetoric, which promises Muslim redemption from a history of humiliation. With soft focus, slow fades, color saturation, superimpositions and carefully layered soundtracks, the group’s most effective videos are haunting. Its fighters seem to hover, spectral and numinous, as if holy or angelic. They offer to transport the audience into an imaginary prophetic space in which “end times” approach: The return of the caliphate will burn “the crusader army in Dabiq” (a Syrian town which, in some traditions, is a Muslim equivalent of Armageddon).
The Islamic State’s messaging thus posits the group as a radical alternative to Western-inflected, modern global culture, as well as to the prevailing regional order in the Middle East. It mines the reservoir of collective Muslim cultural memory when it declares its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new caliph.
The Islamic State’s atavistic aesthetic draws on the widespread notion that the earliest generations of Muslims practiced the purest form of Islam because they were nearer the time of revelation. Closeness to them means proximity to the divine will.
The paradox is that despite these foundational claims, the Islamic State project is quintessentially a movement grounded in modernity, a regressive political reaction to 21st-century grievances. Most Muslims are appalled by the Islamic State’s savagery and spectacles of glorified sadism. But its conflation of millenarian yearning and contemporary grievance, of a mystical desire to redeem history with more profane appeals such as Yazidi sex slaves or child brides as young as 9, is proving potent with a disturbingly large constituency of angry, alienated young men. However appalling it may be, the Islamic State has a clear, simple and internally consistent narrative.
There are few, if any, counter-narratives or alternatives with which it has to compete among its target audience of young recruits. Now drawn in to military action against the Islamic State, the coalition has neglected the ideological power of its propaganda. The hosting this week of an international White House summit on countering violent extremism, and plans to beef up the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, are welcome but insufficient measures.
One cannot fight something with nothing. The administration is going to have to spend a great deal more time, effort and resources, and work closely with its regional allies, to develop a set of messages that can push back effectively against the prophetic, mystical appeal of the Islamic State’s theater of cruelty.