ISIS Videos as the Psychologist Sees It

Curator's Note

Once the West started paying attention to the Islamic State, or ISIS, it quickly became clear who was in charge. ISIS would dominate the psychological battlefield, making 21st century ‘tricoteuses’ of us all through a series of gruesome videos equally notable for their sadistic stylizing throughout. Each video featured acts of unspeakable violence, and each subsequent release proudly exhibited creativity more malevolent than what went before. ISIS ensured we would never look away, and also that we would obsess over the most minute details of their output. The first prisoners to be murdered were beheaded. Another was burned to death. Subsequent spectacles saw a group of prisoners being drowned in submerged cages, while others still were filmed being blown to pieces via remote controlled bombs. Helplessly watching from the sidelines, and desperate to make sense of what they saw, many commentators derided these videos as little more than the preserved fantasies of psychopaths. Naturally, they were far more than that. Knowing that Western media couldn’t resist splashing hostage imagery all over its television and print outlets, these videos were a master stroke in the choreography of psychological warfare. They were a taunt, designed first to humiliate, and then to remind us – this is what we do, and this is what we will continue to do until you come and fight us. Part of the terrorism trap is a feature of violent extremism throughout history - the strategy of doing something terrible in order to provoke a reaction. If you are the target of terrorists, and you do nothing, you look helpless. Do something and you are bound to overreact, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the terrorist group. It is a no-win situation and its short-term design is virtually perfect. Terrorism is such an attractive strategy for groups like ISIS because of that effectiveness. Not responding reinforces our feeling of helplessness that fuels ISIS’ message to its own recruits. Reacting, on the other hand, runs the risk of giving them exactly what they want – a showdown, and one that is equally potent for recruiting young men and women into ISIS’ apocalyptic fantasy. There are no easy answers – we already know that – but ISIS propaganda is first and foremost a psychological battlefield, and it is one for which we currently do not appear to be equipped

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