The Islamic State, the radical Islamist group that now controls large swaths of eastern Syria and northern and central Iraq, posted another slickly produced video online this week that warns its religious and political rivals that they face brutal torture and execution if captured.
But the 36-minute film, On the Path of the Prophets, does much more than that, analysts said. It shows that the Islamic State has a remarkably sophisticated understanding of messaging that makes it clear that the group is probably the most tactically and strategically adept terrorist organization the world has ever seen.
The overall impression analysts draw from the film is that far from being just a group of psychotic killers, the Islamic State’s leaders have thought out carefully how to harness the group’s brutality to spread its influence. The group’s targets aren’t valuable just militarily but also on a number of other levels that underscore the Islamic State’s communications goals.
“Executing several hundred men is one thing,” said Charles Lister, an expert on jihadi groups at the Brooking Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, referring to one of the scenes that unfold in the video. “But to purposely film it in high quality and release it precisely at the end [of the holy month of Ramadan] … is a very purposeful message.”
“Not only is such a message directed toward its direct enemies — the Shiite, Alawite, and Syrian and Iraqi armies — but it also intimidates competitors and rivals towards submission and pledging of loyalty,” he said.
Such pragmatism in selecting targets — combining the practical with the spectacular — adds to the group’s reputation for ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike. The videos also help recruit adherents, despite the brutal nature of what they depict.
“While such horrific brutality is abhorrent for the vast majority of people, the IS is also aware that it does in fact help recruit, too — one need only scan over social media … to see the enthusiastic responses such violence receives among its supporters,” Lister said.
Aymenn al Tamimi, who studies jihadi groups for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research organization, agreed.
“Around the world, recruiting is something they have in mind,” Tamimi said. “IS fan boys in particular go wild with all those killings of Rafidites,” he said, using a derogatory term for Shiite Muslims derived from the Arabic word for “rejectionists.” Radical Sunni Muslims accuse Shiites of being heretics for rejecting the Sunni view of who the rightful heir is to the Prophet Muhammad.
But Tamimi said the murder of perceived apostate prisoners was part of an even more cynical plan, an attempt to draw an equally brutal response from regime-aligned forces and militias directed at the alienated Sunni population that has for the most part embraced the Islamic State, at least so far.
“They are hoping [enraged] Shiite militias will rear their heads and engage in ethnic cleansing, which they can then advertise to Sunnis to say, ‘You’re being threatened by the Rafidites. We will protect you,’ ” he said.
And that, according to Lister, plays on a major psychological element that’s been mostly overlooked in the success of the Islamic State’s seizure of much of Iraq: Sunni tribal pride, which suffered for years at the hands of the Shiite-led government that was installed in Baghdad during the American-led occupation.
“In the immediate term, I do think there has been some recognition among Sunni civilians in Mosul, for example, that the IS has brought stability and honor back to the community,” Lister said. Opposition to the Islamic State may grow over time, Lister said, especially as public punishment for violating the group’s harsh rules increases. “But for now,” he added, “I think many people are simply ‘going with the winner’ and ensuring their own security.”
The Islamic State has long shown itself adept at communications in the modern Internet age. It doesn’t operate its own Twitter account, Facebook page or website — all of which Internet providers can take down or block. But it does rely on a cadre of trusted supporters to circulate its videos and pronouncements.
Those pronouncements are often produced in several languages — the Ramadan message of its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was distributed in languages that included English, German and Albanian — and the translations appear to have been done professionally, perhaps by native speakers. The first public appearance of Baghdadi, preaching at a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, was recorded in high definition, and the video, professionally edited with cutaways of the praying crowd, was made public within 24 hours.
Some videos have been pointedly directed at supporters in the West, indicating that the group well understands that it has both external and internal audiences.
On the Path of the Prophets has been removed by most online hosting services because of its graphic depiction of what appears to be hundreds of gruesome executions. But it remains widely circulated on forums frequented by jihadis.
Opening with a military parade of Islamic State fighters as they swept through Mosul and much of central Iraq in mid-June, it shows dozens of fighters riding on armored vehicles, tanks, four-wheel-drive vehicles and, in one case, a horse — a triumphalist set of images that quickly communicates that the Islamic State has been victorious.
Then it turns into a message to those who would oppose the so-called caliphate.
One sequence films Iraqi soldiers in guard towers before militant snipers shoot each one, followed by a lightning-fast assault typical of the group. Suicide bombers initiate the attack, then fighters in fast-moving vehicles surround and quickly overwhelm Iraqi government positions.
Then it moves into what happens to the captured “Rafidites,” the Shiites who dominate the Iraqi security forces and the Alawites who dominate the Syrian one.
One scene shows dozens, if not scores, of handcuffed men, several begging for their lives, being led off into the desert to be methodically executed with automatic weapons fire. One man is mocked for attempting to hide his Iraqi army uniform under civilian clothes before he’s killed with fire from an AK-47.
In another scene, captives are led one at a time to the bank of a river, probably the Tigris in central Iraq, although the group controls a stretch of the Euphrates River in western Iraq as well. Each man is made to kneel along the riverbank before masked gunmen, one of whom holds the black flag of the Islamic State. Then each is shot once in the head with a pistol and his body dumped into the river, which sweeps it away.
It’s powerful propaganda, and it no doubt terrifies any force that might face Islamic State fighters, said John Drake, an Iraq military analyst for the Britain-based security firm AKE Group. The use of such images — the Islamic State recently decorated an entire fence in the Syrian city of Raqqa with the heads of Syrian soldiers who had been executed after the fall of a major military base nearby — gives the Islamists “an immediate battlefield advantage,” he said.
One resident of Baiji, which has been mostly held by the group since June, underscored the success of the propaganda when he talked about the group, but only anonymously. “People are OK with them because they’re protecting us from the Iranians and government,” he said. “But nobody will consider saying a word in public against any of them. If you don’t like them … you’ve seen the videos.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.