On Sunday, ISIS released yet another horrifying video of hostages being executed. First, a masked figure claimed to have beheaded American aid worker Peter Kassig. That was followed by a terrible scene of a group of Syrian hostages being beheaded on camera.
It would be easy to assume that the hostage execution videos are simply the result of an evil organization's embrace of violence. But the truth is much more frightening: they are part of a broader strategy designed to increase ISIS's political power. ISIS has consistently documented its horrible atrocities and then distributed the videos and photographs to the world.
These videos are designed to accomplish two main goals: to intimidate civilians in the areas under ISIS's control, and to raise ISIS's profile among potential recruits and donors. "By publicizing its brutality," a recent UN report concluded, "the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology."
ISIS uses videos of its own atrocities to build its brand and increase its power
ISIS has produced a large catalogue of media documenting its own atrocities. Last June, for instance, ISIS released photographs of its fighters committing a massacre of captured Iraqi army troops. In the gruesome images, approximately 1700 Shia Iraqi soldiers are gunned down en masse by black-clad ISIS figures. According to a recent UN report, ISIS has released other videos of mass executions, including one showing the murder of a group of Syrian government soldiers, and one of fighting-age men from the al Sheitat tribe. The videos of the murders of five western hostages, including, most recently, Kassig, are part of that broader media strategy.
ISIS forces civilians, including children, to watch the videos. For instance, the UN report found that in Raqqah city, ISIS gathered children for screenings of mass execution videos. In Aleppo, ISIS forced a group of 153 kidnapped Kurdish teenagers to watch videos of beheadings and attacks over a five-month period. ISIS also forces civilians to attend public executions, and publicly displays the corpses of its victims. That strategy is designed to instill terror in the civilian population of the areas ISIS controls, in order to coerce them into cooperating with the group's demands.
ISIS's media presence is also a way for the organization to build its brand. ISIS is struggling to claim the mantle of the global jihadist movement, and it's in competition with groups like al Qaeda for that status. Publicizing its brutality is a way to demonstrate its power and ruthlessness. The executions of Western hostages heighten that effect, presenting ISIS as the main opponent of Western imperialism and elevating the group's status in comparison to other jihadi organizations. That matters because ISIS is competing against other groups to attract recruits and funding.
It is possible, though, that ISIS's public-atrocity strategy will provoke a backlash and end up hurting the group. There is precedent for that happening. In 2006, the brutality of ISIS's predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, provoked a rebellion that nearly destroyed the group.