Gangster theatre: the Islamic State execution videos

Islamic State’s blood-thirstiness has been much commented on, as has its use of modern technology. Posting videos of a man issuing threats before killing a hostage … this is the “new normal” for Islamic State comms, but somehow it’s exercised a strange power over many western commentators and politicians.

To be honest I’m not quite sure why. These are quite clearly nothing more than standard-issue bits of political gangsterism. “Look, we’ve got this man. Watch out, we’re going to kill him unless you do what we tell you to do.” It’s the bully-boy tactics of the playground relocated to international politics. It’s what Italy’s Cosa Nostra / ‘Ndrangheta / Camorra have done for decades, or the FARC-EP have made a politico-criminal speciality out of in Colombia.

Having read quite a lot of supposedly “informed” stuff from linguists and “risk management” types about the Islamic State videos, I’m not … overly impressed. Many of the claims about how experts are “close” to identifying “Jihadi John” based on his “distinctive” use of language seem to be hyped and semi-desperate. (By the way, for people of a certain age and musical bent - mine - Jihadi John has an unfortunate ring of “Jilted John” to it, the superb early alter ego of musical prankster Graham Fellows. As I say, unfortunate).

No, the rather obsessive would-be-analysis of these snuff videos is probably only playing into the hands of Islamic State. True, they’re superficially effective as macabre bits of Machiavellian theatre (the phrase “I’m back, Obama” in the Steven Sotloff video is surely borrowed from the vocabulary of franchised Hollywood horror films, and the “Lend me your ears” title of the David Cantlie video taps into Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar presumably because it’s thought rhetorically “impressive”), but they’re also pathetic, deeply squalid affairs that only expose Islamic State for what they are - a vengeful outfit of murderers and kidnappers.

And beheaders. This is the aspect the tabloids have focused on, the grisly pièce de theatre that guarantees Islamic State airtime and confirms them as “evil” in a sort of self-created modern demonology. What they’re doing clearly is disgusting, but the Islamic State video-makers’ approach is a sort of staged overkill: “Look at us. You say we’re bad, you say we’re an existential threat, well here you are then …”.

Behind the scenes of Islamic State’s YouTube horrorshow there are thousands of largely undocumented, un-filmed abductions and killings. What they’ve done to James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines (and threatened to do to Alan Henning, and implicitly to John Cantlie) is utterly appalling, but we musn’t forget that the vast majority of Islamic State’s victims are Iraqi Yazidis, Christians, Kurds and of course Iraqi Muslims, as well as countless Syrians of all ethnic and religious groups - none of these Western or “high-profile”.

There’s another grim irony to all this as well. While the creators of these staged killings - members of the so-called “Islamic State” - have burst onto the international stage with their gory little productions, a real-life state, an actual country - Saudi Arabia - has busily beheaded dozens of people after staging their own shoddily unfair trials. During 4-18 August (just ahead of the emergence of the James Foley video) the Saudi authorities beheaded at least 17 victims, and they’ve done this at least 59 times this year already, mostly in public squares. The wider Saudi public has been notified of these judicial decapitations by low-key official announcements and there’s been little international media interest. Given that Saudi Arabia has executed over 2,000 people in the last three decades, there’s a horrible predictability to this.

I’m not saying the government in Riyadh is the same as the band of heavily-armed killers roaming through northern Iraq and parts of Syria. But the two entities certainly share a predilection for grotesque executions. Shame on them both.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts