The use of social media by Islamist extremists is nothing new, but the organization known mainly as ISIS has now launched a major offensive against the western world via Youtube, Twitter and other websites. The approach appears to have changed, however; rather than forcing western hostages to recite bland, emotionless and, clearly, scripted propaganda, the terrorist group is attempting to use captives to convey more personal points of view.
ISIS, variously referred to as ISIL or, simply, the Islamic State, has access to considerable resources of both manpower and money. The terrorist army has quickly grown to overshadow all other Islamist groups, including al Qaeda. Anti-western and pro-Islamist propaganda is, of course, a significant part of their offensive against the west. This propaganda war has taken a slightly different direction in recent weeks, as ISIS attempts to push out more than simple threats. In captured British journalist John Cantlie, the group has found a new weapon.
Cantlie was captured in 2012, along with American journalist James Foley, who was recently murdered – beheaded on video – by a Jihadist with a British accent. The pair was yanked from a taxi in northern Iraq as they traveled towards the Turkish border. It is not clear whether ISIS fighters took them or if another group conducted the kidnapping and then handed them off – or sold them – to ISIS. Either way, the Islamic State has now begun to use the 43-year-old Cantlie, who is a friend of British Princes William and Harry, to provide what is, apparently, his own insight into the brutal extremist group. In a video posted to Youtube Thursday, Cantlie presents an argument against getting involved “in yet another un-winnable conflict.”
The short video is well produced and Cantlie delivers his message in the style of any professional news anchor; the only thing missing is the suite and tie. The Briton sits at a desk, wearing a bright orange teeshirt; his hands resting on the table, head shaven and a few days’ growth of facial hair. His demeanor is calm and reasoning as he looks into the camera and speaks, seemingly, from his own viewpoint. What becomes clear is that, with this presentation, ISIS intends more than simply throwing out an ad-hoc piece of terror propaganda, but has chosen to attempt a major offensive on the western world, using social networking to promote their message. This is how war in the age of technology looks; a terrifying duality of the most barbaric acts of slaughter on the physical battlefield being played out alongside a sophisticated attack upon the minds of western politicians and civilians alike. In his introduction, Cantlie states that “over the next few programs, I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivation of the Islamic State…”
In conjunction with the release of this video, the Islamic State is waging a campaign of promotion, through Twitter; using popular hashtags to get wide exposure for the “program.” In wrapping up his presentation, Cantlie sets up the next installment of his broadcast. “Join me for the next programs,” he asks, “and I think you may surprised at what you learn.”
The Islamic state recently released another video; this one, an hour-long “movie,” which appears to be more of a recruitment film. Entitled “Flames of War,” this feature shows the fighting in Iraq and Syria, promotes suicide attacks and also features alleged captive Syrian soldiers digging their own graves, whilst lamenting their abandonment by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like the Cantlie video, “Flames of War” is primarily aimed at conveying one message to the western media and civilans and also to the supporters of the Syrian government; Don’t fight us, because you cannot win.
From John Cantlie’s perspective, no doubt, the series of videos featuring him will serve to keep him alive – at least for the foreseeable future. How much he truly believes the message he is delivering is open to question; despite his calm, professional and sincere presentation, it should be remembered that he is an experienced, professional journalist, trained in such reporting. Whilst nobody should be in any doubt that the Islamic State remains a merciless and implacable foe and that their ultimate goal is the total destruction of the secular, democratic way of life – and all the personal freedoms that come with it – the Cantlie video truly represents a major – and remarkably refined – propaganda assault upon the western world, employing universally popular social media and networking tools to spread the message.
Opinion by Graham J Noble