ISIS’s latest snuff video was shot with characteristically high production value and edited to more resemble a Michael Bay summer blockbuster than terrorist agitprop.
Three men in orange jumpsuits are marched into a sedan by two ISIS jihadists dressed in desert digital camouflage. The camera then shoots over the shoulder of another jihadist, this one in a balaclava, as he aims his rocket launcher at the sedan. The RPG tears clean through the steel frame of the car—captured from three different angles—setting the vehicle and its occupants on fire. The screams of the men inside are heard as the car burns.
It’s one of a series of intricately-choreographed mass murders, designed to shock the viewer to attention—and distract from the terror army’s monstrous rule over its self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Five men in orange jumpsuits are marched into a steel cage, which a masked and camo-clad jihadist seals with a padlock. The cage is dangled above a pool and then slowly lowered into the water. Once it and the captives inside are fully submerged, waterproof cameras affixed to the bars of the cage capture their asphyxiation by drowning. The cage is raised, with all five men dead or dying.
Seven men in orange jumpsuits are marched into a field and sat in a row. A masked jihadist slowly strings a long blue cable around each of their necks, creating a human chain. A clicking beep is then heard before the wire detonates, taking some of the captives’ heads clean off. This event is replayed from all angles—once even in reverse, showing the heads “returning” to the men’s shoulders before the tape is played forward again, for effect.
As with the immolation of Muath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian airman the jihadists burnt alive in a cage several months ago, the latest victims are presented not as innocents but as condemned men. They are traitors to Islam who have “collaborated” with an apostate regime backed by the United States—in this case, the Iraqi government and its security services.
Each Grand Guignol-style execution is purposefully more horrifying than the last, because ISIS means to elicit an emotional response, and also control it. In the West, it aims to be the subeditors of an international news cycle, which obliges ISIS by covering every atrocity with pornographic fascination as if no other organization or state in the Middle East burnt people alive or murdered them in sadistically imaginative ways. It wants CNN and the BBC to exhibit even blurred or blacked-out portions of this video; it wants journalists and laymen to tweet and Facebook the sheer awfulness of ISIS, which has pitched itself against a global conspiracy and therefore needs global conspirators to anathematize it. It also wants those not horrified by these videos to be galvanized by them and to see in them a brutal form of justice: Enemies of Islam should be shot with rockets, drowned in cages like animals, and have their heads removed with explosives. They deserve it.
ISIS’s primary audience with this latest exhibition isn’t Wolf Blitzer or Lester Holt, it’s Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq. This is its core constituency and the only demographic force that can ultimately unhorse it on the battlefield. Without this group, ISIS’s self-portrait as the true custodians and defenders of the Sunnis in the mosques and souks and cafes—from Raqqa City to Fallujah—falls to dust.
Sunnis are indeed being given a stark choice: Either you accept the caliphate, renounce the international coalition and its proxies, or you will meet with ignoble death, of which even your own families won’t want to speak. You will not be martyred; you will be tried and found guilty, branded a turncoat to your faith, abominated as a murderer of your fellow Sunnis, and destroyed as something less than a human being. This video is designed to forestall sahwa, or another “Awakening” tantamount to the one that was successfully mounted in al-Anbar province in mid-2000s. It was the original sahwa that helped the U.S. military drive ISIS’s earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, out.
But now the U.S. military is gone. And ISIS has learned from its mistakes in the intervening decade. It hasn’t been able to conquer a third of Iraq in a year’s time merely through the application of military and paramilitary force. It has done so through totalitarian social engineering, of which its much-scrutinized propaganda is its sharpest instrument. And here it bears to remember that ISIS is largely run by former Soviet-trained Saddamists who have swapped the substance but not the style of their totalitarianism.
An earlier video, “The Clanging of the Swords,” demonstrated ISIS’s broken-windows approach to policing sahwats. Its militants chase down Sunni security officers or policemen in Mosul like stray dogs, perforating their vehicles with machine gun bullets. In what seems a lunatic parody of the series Cops, ISIS agents travel around Iraq in the uniforms of Iraqi Security Force personnel, the easier to enter the homes of Sunni tribesmen who joined with the Awakening Councils. In one raid, a tribesman is taken into his own bedroom and made to exhibit his own police uniform hanging in the closet before being beheaded where he stands. In another, an Awakening Council member and his sons are made to dig a big grave, confessing, in between shovelfuls of dirt, to the sins of collaboration. Then they fill the grave with their own corpses.
These images are then counterposed with mass “repentance” rallies—ISIS’s answer to the Moonies—held in mosques in Fallujah and Mosul. Here, Awakening Council members came to hand in their weapons, tear up their government IDs, and pledge allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The message was as simple as a no-questions-asked gun buyback program: If you beg forgiveness, you’ll be forgiven. But you’d better come to us before we get to you.
Part of the video includes a personal message for Lieutenant Bassem Mohammed, a member of the Iraqi police force in Nineveh Province who has been looking to recruit fighters against ISIS. Mohammed told The New York Times that he knew about half the people killed in this latest snuff film.
The execution video was released on the same day as a new communiqué by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. He explicitly addresses Sunnis in Iraq and says that they’re now living the reality, in Diyala, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Anbar, of what ISIS had long warned against—kidnapping, murder, and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed Shia militias. Sunnis cannot show their religion or enter Baghdad, Adnani says—or to even call their sons Omar, Othman, or Muawiya—giveaway Sunni names—for fear of being attacked or persecuted. This applies to “even their servants, sahwat, their stooges, who were in their service for years, even though they are more safavid [Shia Iranians] than safavids.” “This is not a prediction but a reality today.”
Human rights abuses against Sunnis in Iraq are acknowledged by international NGOs and the United Nations. Adnani knows it but hardly needs to add for his audience that the U.S.-led coalition is aligned with the perpetrators of those abuses. Washington’s anti-ISIS strategy is Adnani’s great rhetorical asset.
But he, too, offers repentance. “We now give a last chance to Sahwat and murtadin [apostates] after we heard that many of them want to leave Shia areas and abandon them but they are afraid of us,” Adnani says.
He offers the carrot: “We give them this last chance, not from a point of weakness but a point of strength. This time we won’t exempt anyone from the clemency, including the Jaghayfa tribe in Haditha who have repeatedly betrayed us and fought us. But if we do overrun Haditha before they repent, we won’t spare anyone until it is said that there used to be Jaghayfa here and homes for Jaghayfa.” After the fall of Ramadi to ISIS, the Jaghayfa remain one of the few Sunni holdouts against ISIS hegemony. Their submission would all but cancel even the remote possibility of another sahwa.
The prerequisite for the Jaghayfa to be pardoned by ISIS is for them to surrender their weapons. Translation: Don’t even think about letting the Americans train you for service with the ISF or Shia militias against us.
Then comes the stick: “Whoever refuses to announce his repentance, then let him blame no one but himself. And you soldiers of the [State], show no mercy or leniency to them.”