The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has released a new propaganda video. It's got pretty flashy production values, a kind of insane message, and a dig at Obama and American troops. As ridiculous as all that sound, it's a part of ISIS' fairly sophisticated social media strategy.
The video is titled "The End of Sykes-Picot," a reference to the 1916 French-British colonial agreement that led to, among other things, the modern borders of Syria and Iraq. The ISIS video's major theme is that borders are irrelevant to the group: that these arbitrary lines in the sand wrongly divides Arab Muslims, who ought to live under a Middle East-spanning caliphate.
To make their message come alive, ISIS filmed its enthusiastic English-language spokesman, captured Iraqi army materials, terrified prisoners, and a big explosion. Between the detonation, the swelling score, and the earnestly militaristic message, it's like watching a commercial for terrorism directed by Michael Bay:
The narrator, allegedly from Chile, outlines the film's main themes. "We are not here to fight for earth, or dirt, or the imaginary borders of Sykes-Picot," he says. "Our jihad is loftier and higher."
He talks at length about all of the Western-made equipment ISIS has captured during its various routs of the Iraqi army. "Look how much money America spends on fighting Islam, and it ends up going to us," he crows. "Message to the people of the West: just keep giving and we will keep taking."
There are repeated references to America's weakness — and Obama's. "They lost in Iraq, they lost in Afghanistan, they're going to lose in Syria, inshallah, when they come," the spokesman says. "A question for Obama: after he sent troops to Baghdad: did he prepare enough diapers for your soldiers?"
Why is is ISIS releasing a video like this, filmed mostly in English? One of the most plausible explanations is that this video is aimed less at Iraqis and more at one of ISIS' other enemies: al-Qaeda.
ISIS, which was ejected from al-Qaeda, is "in the midst of a struggle to claim the mantle of the global jihadist movement, J.M. Berger, an expert on the use of social media by terrorist groups, told me previously. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader."
One way to impress other Islamic radicals and potential recruits is to show off your victories over the Iraqi government. Tying their enemy to the United States, and taunting the American President, makes this message even more resonant.