Outside the Frame

Did Abdul-Rahman Kassig deny ISIS the ending it wanted?

Colleagues of U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig.
Colleagues of U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig carry signs during a news conference calling for his release on Nov. 8, 2014.

Photo by Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

Ever since ISIS started uploading decapitation videos, people have been talking about the horrifying images. Some of us wanted to see them; others didn’t. What we all agreed on was the subject of interest: What’s on the screen.

The latest video, released Sunday, is different. This time, the story isn’t what the video shows. It’s what the video doesn’t show. The victim doesn’t kneel in compliance or deliver a canned speech, as his predecessors have. He simply appears as a corpse.

Why? We don’t yet know. But this is what an ISIS video would look like if the victim refused to play along. ISIS may be losing its psychological grip not just on the region, but on its hostages.

In every previous ISIS video, the victim has knelt before the camera as instructed. He has delivered a humiliating speech, apparently written by his captors, in which he accepts his death and often blames his country. The purpose of these staged performances isn’t simply to show you the murder. The purpose is to demoralize you. ISIS is the master. ISIS decides life and death. Its captives do as they’re told. Death comes at the end, but the theme that suffuses each video is subjugation.

The new video, posted by the SITE Intelligence Group, tries to extend this theme. It’s longer than the others, about 15 minutes, and most of it is an autobiography of the terrorist group. Halfway through, the narration pauses for a massacre.

The men to be sacrificed are Syrian soldiers. Two things about the sequence stand out. First, it takes a long time. The men are marched to their deaths in stages, and each segment of the journey is shown in slow motion. Second, there’s a cinematic emphasis on the victims, their acquiescence, and their sense of doom.

Each soldier walks in a stoop, bowed low beside his ISIS master, who strides proudly upright. The subservient posture, grotesquely consistent from captive to captive, makes clear that the scene was choreographed and probably rehearsed. As each predator and his prey pass a wooden box, the ISIS man lifts out a knife. The sound of metal sliding against metal is amplified, as though in a slasher movie.

The soldiers kneel and stay there obediently as the executioner, in his familiar British accent, pronounces their impending slaughter. For 35 seconds that feel like an eternity, the camera moves from face to face among the condemned men, showing each one’s bitter anticipation of death. In SITE’s version of the video, the murder is blacked out. What lingers afterward is the care and effort that were invested in the buildup scenes. What the ISIS videographers want you to see and remember isn’t just the killing. It’s the suspense, the domination, the feeling of futility.

After the Syrians die, three more minutes of historical narration follow. Then comes the final scene with the prized victim, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter Kassig. Based on previous ISIS videos, you’re expecting Kassig, an American aid worker, to deliver a parting speech damning President Obama and the United States. Instead, all you get is Kassig’s corpse, mercifully edited out of the picture by SITE. The executioner, unable to extract any scripted words from Kassig, delivers the closing lecture himself.  Kassig “doesn’t have much to say,” says the executioner, trying to pass off this disappointment as a triumph. “His previous cellmates have already spoken on his behalf.”

Why the botched ending? One theory is that ISIS was afraid to stage a long production out in the open, where U.S. drones or aircraft might see it. But if that had been ISIS’s concern, the execution could easily have been moved indoors. It’s also possible that Kassig died in custody before he could be decapitated, though in that case, it might be suicide. My bet is that Kassig, unlike the others, didn’t go quietly to his death. He wasn’t a journalist. He was an Army Ranger who had served in Iraq.

We may never know what happened. ISIS shows us only what it wants to show. If something happened that didn’t fit the script—if the victim refused to be a victim—that scene would be edited out. We’d see only the result of the fight or the suicide: Kassig’s dead body, and a terrorist stand-in improvising the final speech. Our job as viewers is to recognize what’s missing and appreciate what Kassig did. This video didn’t end the way ISIS thought it would. Neither will the war.