The terrorist group ISIS, the proclaimed Islamic State, has done an overwhelming amount of work to inject images—and fears—into the minds of the West. Their professional use of modern language, entertainment industry tropes, and technology blends with medieval horrors to generate what could be considered the most successful PR campaign of the year. Its success reflects an age of instant shared information and the extremes of visual branding. That a reactionary organization with anti-modern ideologies can so effectively harness our attention—more so than other global villains—speaks a lot about ISIS, but it also says something about us.
The James Foley execution, the first viral beheading, is the news event that got the highest public attention in the US in the last five years, according to a poll by the Wall Street Journal/NBC. It constitutes a huge success for a terrorist group whose name was little known until only four months ago—and it shows how successful their digital media campaign has been. By using techniques from the West against the West—effectively enlisting the media in its dissemination—ISIS has set a new bar for terrorist threats against America. They proffer a mirror reflecting a distorted Hollywood, unbelievable—but more real than real.
Still from ISIS's Grand Theft Auto 5 recruitment video
Their videos resemble reality shows: each week someone is eliminated. The only difference is that the viewers aren't calling in their decisions. Western commentators have remarked that this is an attempt at building a routine, much like the advertising promos before “house eviction” on Big Brother. They’ve produced news and commentary too, with hostage (Briton John Cantlie) as anchor, and a blockbuster trailer featuring a parodied version of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and the White House going up in flames.
“They have fun in the Islamic State,” says Artur Beifuss, author of Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations, commenting on the high production value and calculation put into ISIS videos. “You can see they have been more successful in this part of their brand. For example they make movies, full of action and nicely cut. They film parades through towns and they are very arrogant, but it is more appealing for recruits to see that image of the group.”
Gaining prominence following the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIS have sought to swallow large swathes of Middle Eastern land—they have already amassed more territory than the UK—to have solid grounds for their Islamic State, the future worldwide Caliphate. In support of their Middle Eastern takeover, their international marketing campaign aims to scare the Western public, but more so, to lure more jihadists from around the world to their cause.
The main feature of this campaign was introduced this summer, when they started to post the high-end horror videos on YouTube every other week showing their captives surrender and be killed in the most harrowing way: slow and bloody beheadings that echo Saladin's infamous 12th century campaign against the Christian crusaders. This video campaign has had a tremendous effect; it, rather than any of the other horrors that have been documented in Syria (like the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime) has roused the US and its allies to deploy bombs and troops in the Middle East.
Terrorism, in essence, tries to flip the asymmetric battlefield in the underdog’s favor. In terms of recognition, ISIS confronted what every start up company, designer, or artist taking their first steps faces: How can you stand out when competing against stronger opponents? What makes you special? What advantages and disadvantages do you have? ISIS aren’t that big in numbers—current CIA estimates put the mark at around 30,000 men—nor are they particularly strong in the militaristic sense. ISIS lacks support from large organizations or nations. Virtually everybody is against them. What they do have is knowledge. With many militants recruited from western countries, ISIS knows us more than we know them. And so, with their knowledge of us, they have set themselves up to be a true mirror for today’s western society. And they know another thing, too: there’s nothing more frightening than a mirror.
During and following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, images and metrics of the violence both meted out and sustained by western forces were typically discarded by the media and repressed by the public, in a war that has taken the lives of more than 100,000 non-combatant Iraqis. On the Internet’s eternal primetime ISIS shows the grotesque violence usually seen only in video games and movies. They show us what we were deliberately trying to avoid, what we have become. And that’s what truly scares us.
We live in a world where, maybe at noon, today, during lunchtime, your phone will beep and the screen will tell you that another video of a beheading is out there waiting for you. Dare you watch? Crashing planes into towers is old, TV stuff. Top-notch productions of vile executions, fit tightly to your iPhone’s screen—these make all of today’s fears of technology and of being alone suddenly surface, right there during lunchtime. That’s the future. No more weird-looking grandpas with beards squatting in a cave somewhere. Instead, a fearless, giant man, exposed in the open desert breeze, a gun strapped to his belt and a small knife in his left hand—that’s all it takes. Allah is in the small details.
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