Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Dramatising fear

Hani Mustafa analyses the video in which the so-called Islamic State confirmed executing 21 Egyptians on the coast of Libya

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Psychological warfare remains one important method by which states and organisations achieve their goals. Numerous books and historical episodes have shown how psychological warfare can effect a defeat or prepare people for it, and how it can confirm a victory. In the Middle Ages the Arab region lived in fear following the fall of Baghdad to Hulagu Khan, who killed the Abbasid caliph Al-Mustansir and razed the city. The Mongols at the time spread the news of the destruction of the Abbasid capital throughout the surrounding kingdoms and emirates with a view to reducing resistance in upcoming battles, something that arguably helped them to take Damascus, even though they were still eventually defeated by the Mamelukes at Ain Jalut on 3 September 1260. Another example of psychological warfare concerns extremist Jewish groups like the Haganah and Irgun perpetrating massacres in Palestinian villages during the 1948, which they used to spread terror with a view to implementing Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s “transfer” theory whereby Palestinians were expelled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

No doubt for a long time terrorist organisations have been fully aware of the power of modern propaganda methods in psychological warfare, yet the use of images and — especially — videos has added to the efficacy of such propaganda. It is enough to compare the use of such methods by IS and Al-Qaeda to realise just how far they have developed since the 1990s and 2000s. Each time Al-Jazeera (founded by Qatar in 1996) broadcast a message from Osama Bin Laden (and these were filmed with one camera only, showing Bin Laden in a camouflage jacket standing against a mountainous backdrop with an AK47 next to him), media as well as political analysts would try to read between the lines of Bin Laden’s words or work out, by studying the terrain, where he might be. Later Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri messages appeared with a cloth background, making it impossible to see where the video was being filmed.

The use of videos as they are now used by IS did not emerge until after 2005, following the launch of YouTube, allowing anyone to upload videos through an account (and making psychological warfare within the reach of terrorist organisations). Later terrorist organisations began to film their operations as well as delivering messages, showing killings or bombings whether against the American (or later the Iraqi) army in Iraq, and placing the videos on YouTube with their logos at the top of the screen. These videos tended to be bombings or killings by members of the organisation in question, using modest cameras and editing techniques with a religious song (without instrumental music, which is prohibited by Wahhabis and Salafis) chanted alongside the visuals as the only technical addition. In the last two years, however, Al-Qaeda affiliates including IS have instituted media organisations of their own including, for example, Al-Furqan. A qualitative leap occurred in the nature of the propaganda presented, not only showing operations in Syria and Iraq but also beheadings of hostages including the British David Hainse, the American Steven Sotloff or the Japanese Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

These killings were filmed with two cameras, one slightly oblique and the other frontal, with the video balancing both perspectives, until the beheading is complete followed by a fadeout, after which the head is placed on the body of the dead man. Significantly, all these videos were filmed in the desert, with the executioner wearing black and showing only his eyes and the executed wearing orange coveralls not unlike the uniform of Guantanamo inmates. The video of the burning alive of the Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz Al-Kasassbeh, on the other hand, was the first to be filmed using multiple cameras and sophisticated techniques, making use of strong direction with cutting and dramatisation: Al-Kasassbeh passes by a line of fighters wearing camouflage rather than black coveralls, with the camera cutting through fighter formations that give and artistic expression before cutting to Al-Kasassbeh in an iron cage before the entire procedure is recorded.

A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross is by far the most professional and the bloodiest video to date, however: the title appears on the screen from the opening with the word “blood” in red. Effective to a surprising degree, this is a sophisticated stab at psychological warfare intended not only to strike terror in the hearts of the viewers but also to spread far and fast as well as conveying the message of the terrorists. As in the Al-Kasassbeh video, it employs multiple cameras and even a winch crane, dramatising the event starting from the entry of the black-clad fighters, with each leading a victim in slow motion along the beach. The director makes a point of using extremely tall fighters, especially the first three in line, making the Egyptian victims wearing orange look like tiny creatures marching to their inevitable fate. The leader of the group, who delivers the message to “the Crusaders” across the sea in historical Rome, wears camouflage and stands in the middle. All takes place against the backdrop of the Mediterranean beach, since this is where the Christians can be pointed to and because the sea is where the corpse of Bin Laden ended up following his killing by American forces in 2011 (even though in reality Bin Laden was thrown into the Indian Ocean). The video ends with the waves of the sea looking red, presumably from the blood of the victims. The singing, however, is rather like religious chanting in terrorist propaganda from before.

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