In ISIS’s ongoing war in Iraq and Syria, the group regularly publicizes its killing of civilians. And as part of its messaging campaign, its highly produced videos have been timed for deliberate effect: to deliver threats, sway public opinion, or attract new recruits.
Past high-profile ISIS videos have typically featured foreign hostages who are likely to attract more international attention for the group. In earlier media releases it beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot, Muadh al Kasasbeh, while threatening both Jordan and the United States for participating in an anti-ISIS military coalition.
The timing of ISIS’s latest video, which appears to show a child soldier executing an Arab Israeli man accused of being a spy, is “aimed at emphasizing the rigid security apparatus of the Islamic State against spying and potential dissent,” said ISIS analyst Aymenn al Tamimi.
If that is indeed the message ISIS is trying to deliver with the 13-minute clip released Tuesday, it is likely in response to signs of infighting that have reached the media. Last month, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer reported on fracturing within the group. This week The Washington Post’s Liz Sly had her own account of internal dissension among ISIS members.
At the same time, ISIS is facing a serious challenge to its territorial control. In Iraq the government has launched its largest military operation to date to retake cities that ISIS has held for months. It’s too early to say what the final outcome of that campaign will be, but by most accounts ISIS has already suffered significant setbacks.
Tuesday’s video shows a prisoner identified as Said Ismail Musallam, a 19-year-old Arab Israeli from East Jerusalem, confessing to spying for Israel before a child soldier shoots him at point-blank range.
The young boy who delivers the fatal shot and looks too young to shave is called one of the “cubs of the caliphate” by an older ISIS fighter who accompanies him on screen. The older man, a French speaker, delivers most of the video’s narration leading up to the execution.
The older man praises the recent terrorist attacks in France, saying, “Allah granted us the grace to murder Jews on their lands in France.”
The video ends by showing the names, faces, and home addresses of other alleged Israeli spies, and urging ISIS followers to attack them. “We are looking toward Jerusalem,” the video’s narrator says in French.
The victim, Musallam, appeared in the February issue of ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq. A purported interview in the magazine has him admitting to being a spy for Israel’s covert intelligence agency, the Mossad.
Musallam is made to repeat that claim for ISIS cameras before he is killed on video. He details his recruitment and activities on behalf of Israeli intelligence, including reporting on Palestinian members of the organization and the location of weapons caches in ISIS territory.
In his forced confession, Musallam blames his father and brother for drawing him into his work for Israel. “I tell my father and my son: Repent to God. I say to the spies who spy on Islamic State: You will not be successful, they will expose you,” Musallam says in Arabic.
After learning of his brother’s death Tuesday, Ahamd Musallam told the Israeli news site Ynet, “My brother was a little boy who did not care for religion or politics. [ISIS] used him and tricked him.”
Musallam’s father, Said, spoke with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last month after his son first appeared in Dabiq. The father denied that his son was a spy and maintained that he disappeared without warning and was only later discovered to be in Syria. Both Haaretz and Agence France-Presse have reported that family members said Musallam went to Syria to join ISIS.
After the video’s release Tuesday, Said Musallam told an Associated Press reporter that he received a phone call over a month ago alerting him that his son was being held in an ISIS jail.
“They did not want to let him leave because if he comes back, he might be caught by the Israelis and tell them what he had seen,” the father said. “So they wanted to get rid of him.”
“I know my son,” he said. “I raised him well. I am sure he’s not working for the Mossad.”
Ynet cites “an Israeli security official” saying that Musallam “went to Syria to fight for Islamic State in October last year.”
The Israeli Embassy did not respond to a request for comment on this story.