ISIL’s propaganda and the road to war

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

The horrific murder (and let’s call it murder rather than execution with its connotations of justice) just over a week ago of British aid worker David Haines by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)  is the latest instalment in what threatens to become a regular and dreadful occurrence.

By now we may be familiar with the narrative of the video released by ISIL. Titled ‘A message to the allies of America’, Haines is pictured kneeling in the sand. Like James Foley and Steven Sotloff before him, he is wearing an orange jump suit in what is probably a reference to the clothing worn by those detained in Guantanamo Bay. Standing to Haines’ left and against the background of a cloudless blue sky is his murderer. Dubbed ‘Jihadi John’ by the press, he is dressed entirely in black, his face hidden by a balaclava. He is armed both with a gun and a combat knife. First, Haines speaks to the camera and, in obviously scripted terms, denounces Prime Minister Cameron and the government as responsible for his fate.

His captor then says “This British man has to pay the price for your promise, Cameron….. playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only draw you and your people into another bloody and un-winnable war.”

It is after this, reportedly, that the beheading begins, but the camera cuts away before any blood is spilled. What it does show is the lifeless body of Haines with his severed head on his back.

The end of the video shows ‘Jihadi John’ placing his hand on the next intended victim who is named  as British citizen Alan Henning. He states ‘If you, [David] Cameron, persist in fighting the Islamic State, then you, like your master Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands.’

This film, and its predecessors involving Foley and Sotloff,  have  been widely viewed online and the still images have become a feature of the front pages of the world’s newspapers. I’ve written elsewhere about the dilemmas faced by editors (broadcast and print) over whether or not to publish such material but there is no denying that there is public appetite for images of violent extremism. As Dean Burnett of Cardiff University has argued, there are many reasons why this might be the case – but the desire to derive excitement from vicarious situations is a powerful magnet and there are, he writes, ‘few things as bad as another human meeting their untimely end in deeply unpleasant ways.’

In this sense it is undeniable that ISIL propaganda has been extremely effective – mainly in drawing attention to its existence and causes. It has also been successful in reinforcing, for audiences in the west, the traditional binary oppositions of civilisation versus savagery. We can say that on one level the propaganda has been sophisticated. It has understood the power of social media to disseminate it potency – the way it communicates that power, though, is of course visceral and lacking in any nuance or sophistication.

But it can be argued that the extremity of the propaganda has played into the hands of Obama and Cameron. Generally speaking, western military intervention in the Middle East has occurred after governments have sought to :

  1. Demonise the enemy
  2. Communicate the moral obligation to act
  3. Highlight the widespread atrocities committed by the enemy
  4. Emphasise that intervention is for the benefit of the people of the region
  5. Emphasise the threat to national security.

In the run up to the gulf wars of 1990 and 2003, the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and the debates around intervention in Syria in 2013 the focus was trying to convince the public that military action was predicated on the above reasons. The brutal actions of ISIL, though, speak for themselves and, clearly, there is increasing public support on both sides of the Atlantic for military action. On September 10th the Wall Street Journal published a poll which suggested that almost two thirds of its respondents believed it ‘was in the nation’s interest to confront IS. Only 13% said action was not in the national interest.  In the UK a survey by Opinium Research yielded similar results – it found that 60% of people were in favour of taking action to deal ISIL and that the measures that people were prepared to support ranged from a hostage rescue mission by the SAS, to deploying soldiers on the ground inside both Iraq and Syria. Only 20 per cent would not support military action of any kind.

Without wishing to credit ISIL with the complexity of propaganda it may not possess, maybe the point is to draw the US into a ground conflict. At the time of writing, US air attacks (supported by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the UAE) have begun in Syria against ISIL. It is the beginning, according to the Pentagon, ‘of a credible and credible and sustainable, persistent campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL with Britain ready to join the alliance after the Government hinted it would seek parliamentary approval for air strikes in the region by September 26th. Tellingly, there is consensus of opinion that air strikes alone will not be enough to gain overall victory. As Paul Rodgers  has written, ‘the blunt truth is that ‘boots on the ground’ is already the order of the day and that the mission is accelerating rather than creeping. We are now at the start of another war – and one that will be most likely be measured not in days or months but in years,’.

As we read about the wife of Alan Henning who has reportedly received an audio file from her husband pleading for his life, we think once more of ISIL’s barbaric and inhumane killings. Whatever the arguments about what leads individuals and groups to behave in such a way it occurs to me that it is the simplicity of the murders that is startling. The modern signifiers of warfare are absent from these films and the act of killing is stripped bare.  The starkness of the imagery is matched by the starkness and rigidity of the rhetoric. If its primary purpose is to instil fear, revulsion and then retaliation, then that objective has been achieved.