Beyond the brutality: Looking deeper into the ISIS propaganda machine

Curator's Note

Please note that the video discussed here is extremely graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers. The video can be watched in its entirety HERE.

Much of the reporting and attention to the publications and videos released by the group commonly known as ISIS has focused almost exclusively on the sheer levels of brutality and violence that is portrayed in them. While the increasing level of production value and sophistication has been noted on many occasions, it is the spectacle of the nature and extent of the violence that is portrayed that really seems to generate the most coverage. However, to conclude that the media products of ISIS are exclusively focused on violence for its own sake would be a mistake. Indeed, the violence is often a climactic element across the productions – though there is often an accompanying narrative that situates particular forms of violence as justified on the basis of particular actions or events. For instance, in the now-infamous video in which captured Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was burned alive in a metal cage in early 2015 the video begins with a rather lengthy portrayal of victims of bombing campaigns, particularly emphasizing burn injuries, that are attributed to those fighting against ISIS. Thus, the particular form of violence employed in this video was positioned as both retributive and justified given a very specific set of violations that the video was purportedly responding to. But above and beyond this example, we see in the many pages of Dabiq magazine (one of which is pictured here as it cross-references other ISIS video productions) as well as other communications from ISIS, that there is a solid and growing emphasis on state-building. In these instances, images of service provision, medical care, and infrastructure building activities are often juxtaposed with the better-known backdrops of extreme violence. To miss this, and to focus solely on the ultra-violence of the ISIS media products, means that we are missing a critically important aspect of the overall message, and the appeal.

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