Middle East

Islamic State: What the Kassig murder video tells us

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A man fires a RPG in this still image taken from an undated recruitment video for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) shot at an unknown location and uploaded to a social media website on 19 June 2014. Image copyright Other

By now it is well known that Islamic State (IS) produces propaganda videos of exceptional quality. They are slick, smart and incredibly powerful. It is no exaggeration to say they are the best-produced videos to have ever emerged from the global jihad movement.

This is quite something, given that jihadist groups have always been at the forefront of harnessing new technology for their own ends.

Even with this in mind, the release of another IS video on Sunday was remarkable for a number of reasons. The group's nihilism and gross barbarism is packaged with the kind of artistic care that might be more expected in a Tarantino thriller.

'Breathtakingly callous'

After a long introduction outlining the IS version of history, the group is shown marching 20 men to their deaths.

Menacing sounds - the clanging of swords and the heavy, desperate breathing of men who know what comes next. Slow motion shots capture the stony fear etched on the victims' faces.

Halfway through the slaughter the ringleader - a British man dubbed "Jihadi John" - stops and looks directly into the camera. It is breathtakingly callous.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Unlike previous videos, the IS militants in the latest one revealed their faces
Image copyright Other
Image caption Except for the masked ringleader, second right, who has appeared in several IS videos

He is the only IS fighter to wear a mask during the ritualistic slaughter. The others around him show their faces, apparently representing every nation on Earth.

The intended audience for this bit of theatre is the Muslim world. IS wants to project an image of itself as a group which has done away with nationalism. The basis of true identity, they argue, comes from the fraternity of faith.

Thus, what exists in the self-styled Caliphate today is a sort-of "United Nations of Islam", a melting pot for all Muslims - provided, of course, they are Sunni Muslims who subscribe to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's rather narrow construction of the faith. All others are the wrong type of Muslim.

It is impossible to convey the horror and menace contained in this video. Even among the community of jihadi analysts who watch and analyse these recordings, the IS mix of bravado and brutality has provoked much debate.

Literal approach

There is a point to all this violence. It is not for its own sake. IS believes it is divinely commanded to adopt particularly draconian and savage tactics because there is a verse of the Koran which issues a command to "strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah".

Although its actual meaning is heavily disputed (even among other jihadists), the easy literalism of the IS approach to the Koran explains why the group films and disseminates grisly videos.

The aim is to build and maintain an asymmetric advantage over their enemies. They want us to be afraid - and we are.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption British press earlier quoted the father of UK national Nasser Muthana (centre) saying his son had appeared in the video, but he later denied this

Few charities now operate in Syria and even fewer journalists, many of them brave and experienced, are willing to make the journey into rebel-held Syria. The reason is obvious: no one wants to appear in the next IS video.

Despite some reports in the British press, the video itself does not contain any particularly unique or novel threats to the United Kingdom. There are a number of British fighters in IS and they have previously issued threats against our country, servicemen and the government.

Only a few weeks ago Omar Hussain, a British man from High Wycombe and a one-time security guard at a Morrisons supermarket, appeared in a video describing the Prime Minister, David Cameron, as a "despicable swine".

He derided the coalition air raids against IS and challenged Mr Cameron to put British boots on the ground. The corollary, of course, is that he and his comrades want to fight them in direct combat.

New location

Unlike previous videos which are believed to have been filmed in Raqqah, a Syrian city which serves as Islamic State's stronghold, this one is shot in Dabiq.

The city features in a recorded statement attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, known as hadith. The hadith are very important to Muslims and are regarded as providing another source of law alongside the Koran.

Dabiq features strongly in the eschatological aspects of normative Islamic belief.

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Image caption The 26-year-old was helping refugees in Syria when he was abducted

Based on Prophetic sayings, IS believes the town will take centre stage in a cosmic battle between East and West. The armies of Islam will triumph and the West will crumble.

IS will have chosen the town for their latest video quite deliberately as Western leaders are taunted to send ground troops. "We will break this last and final crusade," says "Jihadi John".

The video ends with the severed head of Abdul-Rahman Kassig (formerly Peter Kassig), a remarkable and selfless humanitarian worker who helped everyone in Syria regardless of their politics.

At one point this even led him to treat an injured member of the Nusra Front - the official representatives of al-Qaeda on the ground. The group later called for his release, but to no avail.

Unlike previous videos, IS did not end this one by parading another hostage as their next victim. It is pointless to speculate about why this might be so, but it is worth noting that IS sees itself as moving along the spectrum of history towards a final confrontation with the West.