Notes From the Margins…

ISIS: the Cinematic Caliphate

  • February 09, 2015
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Ever since its astonishing rampage through central Iraq last year, the organization known as ISIS/Daesh has demonstrated a propensity for extreme violence and cruelty that makes its jihadist predecessors look mild by comparison.    At times ISIS almost appears to engaged in some kind of competition to surpass each disgusting act of viciousness with something even more horrific.

Snuff movie video clips of beheadings and executions of prisoners who dig their own graves; the inquisition-style burning of a man in a cage – ISIS has set itself a high benchmark of attainment but the depressing certainty is that it will find some new way to beat it.    Such actions invariably evoke a familiar litany of condemnatory adjectives: sick, barbaric, evil, insane, savage, vile, and bankrupt, that tell us more about the feelings of those who use them than they do about their objects.

This condemnation may be well-deserved, but it’s unlikely to make any difference to a terrorist organization that is using sadism and cruelty as an instrument of politico-military strategy.   The essential components of this strategy can be found a book called Idarat al-Tawahush (The Management of Savagery), written by an obscure jihadist called Abu Bakr Naji, which has become a key jihadist text.

Translated in 2006 by a member of the Brookings Institution named Will McCants, the book has become part of the ISIS ‘curriculum’, with its distinction between ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ jihad:

One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, [deterrence] and massacring.   I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him.

On one level, “massacring the enemy and deterring him” has served the same purpose during ISIS’s military campaigns that Genghis Khan’s punitive massacres once served: to punish any enemies that resist it, while also terrorizing conquered populations into submission and passivity.    In killing the Iraqi soldiers it had captured and then filming the executions, Daesh achieved both these objectives.

At the same time ISIS uses cruelty as an instrument of ‘media warfare’ in order to attract recruits and manipulate its enemies.     ISIS is not the first jihadist organization to film murders and executions, but where Iraqi insurgents once posted grainy video clips of murdered hostages to sicken western public opinion, ISIS uses ‘cinematic’ execution/murder clips with high production values to devastating effect.     As Islam Sakka points out in a grim but essential piece in al-Akbar English, on the ‘cinematic caliphate, “the   Islamist group is leading the media war, and its responses are not limited to dull documentation of events as was the case in Iraq years ago.”

Today, we are witnessing a completely different era, marked by a jihadist movement far more advanced than anything we have seen before. They coincide with a far more sophisticated viewership, who have access to the source of information and can scrutinize any image. Today’s viewers, who live in an age of instability where conspiracy theories prevails, have come to question everything. There is a direct relation between the new public psychology and ISIS’s new style of audiovisual production.

According to Sakka, ISIS has established its own production company, al-Hayat Media Center (HMC), in order to develop “a media strategy organization whose task is to shape the group’s upcoming messages to the world, and to convey the message of the Mujahideen, who “with their blood are marking a new era of victory for the nation in history.”

This means that there will more massacres and executions transmitted to the wider world through the ‘cinematic caliphate’.    That is a pretty appalling prospect, but as vile as this strategy is I can’t help thinking that it will fail.   Because history demonstrates that cruelty and terror – whether strategic or not – is not enough to win permanent long-term political victories.

Both the Nazis and the Japanese used even greater levels of terror and violence in the territories they occupied – on a scale that ISIS can only dream of,   but they lost, and in the end I can’t help thinking that ISIS will lose too, and that they will end up on history’s garbage heap, where they most certainly belong.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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