The Islamic State has beheaded its captives and burned them alive. It’s used child soldiers to shoot people at point blank range and has slaughtered Christians en masse. It’s forced some prisoners to dig their own graves.
But after ten months of highly-choreographed killings, videos ISIS released this week indicate an even greater escalation. On Tuesday, the terror group released a video in which ISIS fighters in Iraq incinerate, drown and blow up their prisoners. On Thursday, the group released its latest video, showing for the first time young men who appeared to be teenagers participating in a mass beheading.
“This is sadism at a clinical level,” John Horgan, a psychologist and terrorism researcher at Georgia State University, tells Vocativ. “It’s material I would have previously ascribed to child pornographers or serial killers.”
In one scene of the video released on Tuesday, ISIS fighters force prisoners into a car, strapping their wrists to the handles inside, before it is hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. The captives can be heard screaming as the vehicle burns. Seven other men perish once explosives are placed around their necks and detonated. A final clip reveals five men locked in a black cage equipped with cameras that film them flailing and thrashing underwater before finally succumbing.
“It’s terrorist clickbait,” says Horgan. “And they know we’ll walk right into it, time and time again.”
But while ISIS releases these videos with a mind to please its many followers, their horror-film approach could backfire with anyone they’re hoping to recruit.
Arie Kruglanski, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, College, Park, noted that ISIS’ punitive videos put the group on ideologically shaky ground among some Islamic militants. In a recent research project, Kruglanski says he examined the perceptions militants held of ISIS, al-Qaeda and Jemmah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group. While al-Qaeda was viewed as adhering to Islamic doctrine, those studied perceived ISIS to be powerful and cruel, but less devout Muslims.
“The brutalities of ISIS could backfire and they could be perceived as espousing a flawed impure ideology that is contrary to the teachings of Islam,” Kruglanski tells Vocativ. “This is a potential weakness and should be used in counter-radicalization and in counter-messaging against them.”
The Islamic State has demonstrated its savvy with its followers during controversial moments already. When the group captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh late last year, it reached out on social media for ideas on how to kill him. After ISIS filmed him being burned alive inside a cage, the group circulated talking points justifying its method.
Since ISIS first released its video depicting the death of James Foley, an American journalist, last August, it has relied on increasingly gruesome forms of execution to provoke, instill fear and also appeal to possible new members. After beheading prisoners one or two at a time, the group released a video in November that showed them killing 16 Syrian soldiers at once. In January, a video depicted a little boy shooting a Russian soldier through the back of the head. Last month, the group forced one prisoner to dig his own grave before decapitating him.
The fear of irrelevance or viewer fatigue could also be factors behind ISIS’ sensational displays of violence, says Horgan. Yet the militant group could risk undermining its own propaganda, terrorism experts tell Vocativ.
“The conventional wisdom is that ISIS is almost unstoppable because it uses violence in such a brutal manner and because it’s been so effective in disseminating its propaganda,” says Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University. “But they also tend to be counterproductive across all sorts of dimensions.”
One example, says Abrahms, is the fact the Islamic State’s execution videos have galvanized military forces around the world to fight them. Foley’s execution spurred the United States into confronting the terror group. Similarly, Jordan had remained relatively lukewarm to the threat ISIS posed until the militants burned al-Kaseasbeh alive. Following the execution of 21 Coptic Christians later that month, Egypt’s president ordered air strikes on the Libyan town believed to be the scene of their murder, and called for Arab forces to join against the Islamic State.
“Every single country targeted by ISIS has been less politically compliant and more militarily mobilized,” Abrahms says, citing a recent figure that 10,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in Iraq and Syria by coalition forces.
At the same time, the Islamic State and its barbarity continues to attract new loyalists throughout North Africa and Asia. In just the last week, militants in Tunisia and the Caucuses joined the terror group’s spreading network. To keep attracting their ilk, it is inevitable that more violent execution videos will follow, says Horgan.
“They’ll be banking on the predictability of our behavior,” he said.
ISIS’ Increasingly Gruesome Executions: A Timeline
August 2014: Video shows ISIS militants beheading American journalist James Foley
November 2014: American Peter Kassig and 16 Syrian soldiers are beheaded
January 2015: ISIS films child soldier purportedly executing Russians
February 2015: ISIS releases video of Jordanian Muath al-Kaseasbeh burned alive
February 2015: ISIS executes 21 Coptic Christians in Libya
May 2015: Syrian prisoner forced to dig his own grave before being beheaded