First there were embraces and then the barbaric execution by stoning. Photographs of hugs that jihadists gave a condemned gay couple before killing them in north Syria have gone viral, prompting outrage in the West. For Islamic State sympathizers and members tweeting their responses, the hugs of death are meant as an expression of compassion, a gesture of forgiveness—before the gruesome reality of their murder.
The set of four still photographs shows two blindfolded men standing side-by-side in a desert clearing on the outskirts of an unnamed town while a group of Islamic State partisans and supporters, some leaning on motorbikes, gather to watch the killing. One victim with curly hair, a beard and wearing a gray leather jacket seems to accept his fate as a killer rests his hand on his shoulder.
A second photograph in the sequence shows the executioners hugging the men. In the last image tweeted by known Islamic State supporters, the battered, prostrate bodies of the victims are seen being showered with rocks thrown by four killers.
The photographs are the latest propaganda images purportedly showing gay men being murdered by the jihadists, who have also stoned women for adultery, beheaded suspected dissenters and filmed on two occasions young boys shooting men the Islamic State has claimed were spies.
In recent weeks the jihadists have posted videos of suspected gay men being hurled to their deaths from rooftops in the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the Syrian city of Raqqa. Others have been publicly beheaded.
These images from the stoning in what is said to be the northern Syrian province of Homs are the first showing an embrace being offered to the victims. Their calm demeanor before their medieval-style deaths is most likely due to the cocktail of drugs that is believed to be given by the jihadists to those earmarked for death.
Public executions in ISIS-controlled territory—and the posting of the atrocities on the Web—serve to terrorize locals into strict obedience with the group’s atavistic interpretation of sharia law and to frighten rivals. It also boosts the group’s notoriety, in a bizarre fashion helping it to recruit people attracted to its carefully cultivated aura of righteous power—hence the social media strategy to present the killings to the World.
In the Arab world— as in the West—a hug is meant to be a friendly, affectionate gesture. Anthropologists have argued that aside from showing love and friendship and offering consolation within families and clan groups, hugging on the battlefield and between warriors may have first started to demonstrate a lack of evil intent during a meeting. The hands would be carrying no visible weapon.
Abu Mohammed Hussam, an activist with the Syrian opposition group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, argues that the hugging and embracing is meant to show that by murdering them, the jihadists are helping the victims to expiate guilt for their supposed crimes. “They hug the men to show the people who are watching that ISIS is not at fault.”
Homosexuality is anathema to the group and in recent weeks the jihadists have been seeking to entrap gays in sting operations. Undercover jihadists have posed as gays themselves to catch homosexuals. Some gays have been ransomed.
The staging and the method of execution are carefully choreographed by the Islamic State—crafted to send particular gruesome messages. But they are dictated also by the jihadists’ interpretation of religious rulings by favored scholars. Recently, a social media row erupted between followers of ISIS and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra when the latter group shot a woman accused of adultery. Islamic State followers accused Jabhat al Nusra of cruelty, or at least of doctrinal error, arguing that stoning was the appropriate punishment for the alleged crime.
Pictures of the murder of the gay couple in Homs aren’t the only images of brutality recently released by the terror group or their supporters. Photographs were posted today of a media activist being forced to his knees and then shot in rural Aleppo. The photographs were released by the group’s Halab Media Centre.
The images show the activist, whose arms are tied behind his back with plastic handcuffs, being dragged to a public square. He is wearing an orange jumpsuit.
His execution appears to have occurred earlier this week.
Moments before his killing, he is seen being surrounded by masked men wielding automatic weapons—although it is not clear if they are the ones who shot him, as his moment of death is not recorded.
Media and political activists are high on the ISIS list of opponents to be hunted down and killed. At least two Syrian citizen journalists are currently being held in Raqqa.
But it should be noted, not least as macabre irony, that the pictures of barbaric slaughter aren’t the only images publicized by ISIS today. The jihadists also posted photographs meant to show what a happy, bucolic place the self-styled caliphate has become with images of smiling farmers near Aleppo harvesting cabbages.