The Social Media Strategy Behind The Brutal Beheading Of An American Journalist

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne, File

Slain U.S. photojournalist James Foley, in a picture from 2011.

In a video released on Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) beheaded a man they claimed was missing American journalist James Foley, threatening to do the same to another captured reporter should the United States not halt its airstrike campaign in Iraq.

James Wright Foley went missing in Syria in November 2012 while working as a freelance journalist with online news site GlobalPost. As of last year, the commonly held assumption was that the Syrian government were the ones detaining Foley, and it was there the focus of efforts to free him were placed. But on Tuesday, a much thinner man appeared alongside a masked militant who spoke British-accented English in a video titled “A Message to America” before being beheaded. (This article does not link to the video itself or graphic images from it.)

But the question remains: why release this video now? ISIS’ acts of cruelty have become iconic — such as their crucifying opponents in Syria — but in the release of the video, ISIS may have been less than forthcoming about their reasoning. The video opens with a clip of President Obama speaking about his decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq. “Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq, your strikes have caused casualties among Muslims,” Foley’s executioner says in the video, according to a transcript, “You’re no longer fighting an insurgency, we are an Islamic army … so any attempt by you Obama to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”

The video then shows another captive, who a caption on the screen identified as Steven Joel Sotloff. Sotloff, whose disappearance has not been as widely reported as Foley or freelance journalist Austin Tice, went missing just over a year ago. “The life of this American Citizen Obama, depends on your next decision,” the ISIS member says as the video closes.

That would make it seem as though ISIS is warning the United States to leave Iraq. But according to J.M. Berger, a researcher who studies how extremist groups organize online, there’s a clear desire for more available U.S. targets among ISIS. “Everything about IS strategy over the last two months, particularly its media strategy, points to its desire to draw the U.S. into a military confrontation on the ground,” Berger wrote in an email. But there may be an ulterior motive, Berger continued as, as they “may also hope to win support and loyalty from others in the global jihadist community, where they appear to be underperforming until now.”

Mokhtar Awad, a researcher at the Center for American Progress, isn’t quite sure that may be the case. “Considering that the victim was held captive for two or so years with no known attempts to get ransom for him means they held him for this long to deliver something like this,” Awad wrote in an email. “But this doesn’t mean there is a strategy behind this and is more likely a weak attempt at a response to increased U.S. airstrikes rather than some sort of master plan wherein they believe something like this will trigger U.S. ground troop presence. They seem to think that if they can’t make our engagement costly (due to the lack of U.S. military targets) then the next best thing is to simply attempt to shock and scare us away.”

Where both analysts agree is that the video is intended to show the lengths that the group is willing to go to. “IS has also made it plain that fear and brutality are a crucial part of its strategy to win on the ground, by amplifying fear and demoralizing those who might stand up to it,” Berger continued, but this strategy actually may not be winning them the friends they’d hoped. “The recent tribal massacre in Deir Ezzor was perhaps the starkest example of this approach. While I have no doubt this does have an impact on its ground war, that particular massacre has sparked a massive surge of hostility from the global jihadist community and jihadists with a stake in the Syrian conflict.” The Foley video, it could then be argued, was an attempt to come back into the fold.

ISIS’s social media strategy is two-fold, explained Will McCants, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. First, to “show maximum violence against their religious or political enemies to deter them and electrify their base” and second, to “show instances of good governance toward Sunnis in area’s the group controls.” That includes, McCants said, showing flowing electricity compared to other wartorn areas of Iraq and Syria and trash actually being collected. “The beheading is in category 1, of course,” he added.

As for why groups like ISIS use these videos as propaganda in general, Awad explained that public decapitations for shock value are a specialty of the ISIS brand as pioneered by Abu Masen al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’ precursor Al Qaeda in Iraq. “A part of it stems from their belief that this is the permissible under Islam, and it was indeed a common tactic referenced in numerous hadiths,” Awad wrote. “This makes it another one of the ways they claim to emulate the earliest Muslims. Al-Zarqawi and his disciples are influenced by the writings of an Egyptian jihadist called Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir who wrote a famous book on the jurisprudence of jihad. In it a chapter is dedicated to justifying beheadings.”

“But even in there it is specifically noted that it applies only to combatants,” he added. “The idea is that in war you should strike fear in the heart of your enemies and show your commitment to fight to the death. Which is why ISIS and its precursors ignored advice by al-Qaeda and others to stop public beheadings.”

No matter what their goal was, it is going to become increasingly difficult for those who haven’t pledged to boycott ISIS’ media to actually watch the video. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo announced on Wednesday, via Twitter naturally, that the company was actively suspending user accounts that sent out links to the video or pictures captured from it. The site had also been suspending a number of ISIS accounts over the past week even before the video dropped, Berger told ThinkProgress. YouTube, the ubiquitous video hosting site, took down the first version of the video less than an hour after it was posted, but new accounts keep uploading new copies.

“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. The Associated Press likewise indicated that the U.S. is working to verify the video, with two anonymous officials confirming that it was James Foley seen in the footage.

In the meantime, Foley’s parents are certain that it’s their son in the video that continues to circulate. In a statement posted on Facebook, Diane Foley said that his family has “never been prouder” of him. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” the statement continues. “We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages. Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world.”