The ISIS video of James Foley’s beheading is shocking in its cruelty and brutality. For those who did watch it, the propaganda clip may have been surprising in another way: It’s obvious that great care went into its production. The video, which has been taken off YouTube, opens with President Obama announcing new airstrikes in Iraq, a clip that has clearly been edited to give it the feeling of grainy found footage security video. One of my Slate colleagues quite aptly described this effect as reminiscent of the opening credits of Homeland. The footage of Foley and his executioner in front of a deserted landscape just before the killing, by contrast, is shot in crystal-clear high definition.
(The Foley video has been removed from YouTube, but isn’t all that difficult to find online. Though I watched it as part of my reporting for this post, I won’t be linking to it here and don’t encourage anyone to seek it out. All of the links in this story are to news stories about these propaganda videos; though some of those stories do have embedded videos, none of the links in this piece will open a video directly.)
It may seem ghoulish to discuss this video in terms of aesthetics, but the rise of ISIS, also known as Islamic State or IS, has been distinguished by its messaging and technical savvy as well as its viciousness. “IS is very good at this,” J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst and author who runs the site IntelWire, told me, explaining that its videos have high production values and “a strong sense of narrative.”
Sometimes these videos highlight the group’s provision of social services to residents of the areas it has captured. Others are direct recruitment efforts, such as the video released earlier this summer showing British fighters in Syria urging Westerners to leave their “fat jobs” and join the jihad. (The man who beheaded Foley also appears to have been British.)
Others have darker content. Days before it launched its offensive in northern Iraq in June, ISIS released a video called “The Clanging of the Swords IV,” a slickly produced and brutally violent compendium of propaganda and battle footage. That short film, which focused mostly on ISIS’ operations in Syria, was likely aimed at demoralizing its Iraqi opponents. The Foley video may have been designed to send a similar message to the U.S. public: that American citizens aren’t immune from retaliation for American military actions.
The availability of laptops, editing software, and HD cameras has made it much easier to produce sophisticated-looking videos. The Internet has also made it simple for terror groups to promote them. But as Berger notes, these propaganda videos aren’t new. Rather, they’re part of a tradition of jihadi filmmaking dating back at least to Afghanistan in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s. “Typically productions that jihadi organizations would put out would be, if not quite cutting-edge, pretty close to the standards of the day, with professional cameras and professional editing. Jihadi media has progressed at the same speed as the rest of the media,” he says. (This has been true of their print efforts as well.)
Al-Qaida in particular was quick to exploit the power of video through its media production wing As-Sahab. The hourlong propaganda documentary State of the Ummah, released shortly before 9/11 and featuring training footage from al-Qaida camps and statements from leaders including Osama Bin Laden, is something of a classic in the genre, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is rumored to have been involved in its production.
Recent videos reflect an increased awareness of global pop culture. A recently released training video from the Ansar Battalion, an Islamist rebel group in Syria, features action-movie-style cuts between slow and fast motion, as well as CGI that mimics the “bullet time” effects made famous in The Matrix. Nasheeds, the sung religious verses that often serve as the soundtrack to these videos, are now often auto-tuned, a high-tech compromise for a religious ideology that frowns on instrumental music. Somalia’s al-Shabab, whose videos are often directly aimed at recruiting Americans, has dabbled in hip-hop and nasheeds sung in English. Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, tells me that videos often seemed designed to mimic video games.
But Jarret Brachman, who consults on international terrorism for the U.S. government and is author of the book Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, says the content of ISIS’s videos is less important than its ability to promote them.
“What I think really matters is the informal use of social media—Instagram, Twitter, and Ask.fm being chief among them—not only by IS’ formal media outlets but by this global following of informal advocates, surrogates, and cheerleaders,” he told me via email. “IS fighters have created fascinating direct lines of communication from the battlefield with fans around the world using these channels.” This savvy was reflected during the World Cup in June, when ISIS supporters hijacked soccer-related hashtags to spread news of their victories in Iraq.
Pantucci notes that videos of beheadings date back at least to the 1990s, when Chechen militant groups released clips showing the beheading of Russian soldiers. The continued influence of these videos is demonstrated by the fact that one particularly well-known European ISIS fighter uses the nom-de-web “Chechclear,” a reference to the title of an infamous and particularly grisly beheading video from the Chechnya war that still makes the rounds in darker corners of the Internet today.
Pantucci also points out that the Foley video is reminiscent—down to the orange jumpsuit worn by the victim and the final display of the severed head—to the 2004 video showing the beheading of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg by al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS’ predecessor. (The act in that case was reportedly performed by AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself.)
In today’s videos, the style may be slicker, the production values higher, and the means of distribution vastly more effective. But the end goal—to inspire supporters and terrify opponents—hasn’t changed at all.