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Middle East

Brutal IS beheading video sparks social media pushback

© A photograph of US journalist James Foley taken on November 5, 2012, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. AFP PHOTO / NICOLE TUNG

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2014-08-21

The gruesome video of the beheading of a US journalist by an Islamic State (IS) militant marked a return to a grotesque, old-style jihadist propaganda as social media sites scrambled to block the clip.

The almost five-minute clip begins with a graphic in Arabic and English, proclaiming, “Obama authorizes military operations against the Islamic State, effectively placing America on a slippery slope towards a new war front against Muslims.”

The next shot, a video grab from the official White House website, features US President Barack Obama’s August 7 speech announcing his authorisation of airstrikes and a humanitarian mission in Iraq.

After a fade to black, the four-minute-45-second clip reveals an ominous shot of a white man in an orange overall, kneeling in a barren landscape next to a hooded militant dressed all in black. A graphic to the left of the screen reads, “James Wright Foley”.

That’s when the video starts to take a nauseating turn that is harrowingly familiar for reporters and anti-terror experts who monitored the cyber-jihadist world almost a decade ago.

Except this time, the high definition video quality, the messages in English, and the proliferation of the clip on the web despite attempts to block it betray jihadist propaganda gains too big and diffused to contain.

Looking into the camera, an obviously stressed but otherwise seemingly healthy Foley, declares, “I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the US government,” says Foley, as the militant dressed in all-black looks on impassively. “What will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”

Shortly after Foley completes his statement, the hooded militant delivers a lecture featuring the familiar twisted discourse of jihadists, implicating the US government in the unjustifiably grotesque killing that is certain to come in a matter of minutes.

“As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression against the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and have found reasons to interfere in our affairs,” says the unnamed militant in perfect English, occasionally jabbing the air with his knife for emphasis.

The next few minutes feature images the international community had hoped were a thing of a more brutal past, when Islamist militants in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan released videos of hostage beheadings following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent US military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

FRANCE 24 has made an editorial decision not to air or post the gruesome video by IS, formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria).

IS goes back full circle

The latest video marks the first time IS has beheaded a US citizen since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 as a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before it was hijacked by the hardline Islamist group and spread to neighbouring Iraq.

The title of the clip, “A Message to America”, also marked the first sign from IS that US airstrikes have seriously affected the group’s offensive across western and northern Iraq.

Jihadist beheading video releases were fairly common following the 9/11 attacks, when militants in Pakistan released a clip of the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The US journalist’s decapitation in Pakistan sparked a series of decapitation videos by AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) – which was then based in Saudi Arabia before the group moved its operations to neighbouring Yemen.

But it was the sheer brutality of IS's direct predecessors that helped turn the tide against such propaganda ploys.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant and leader of AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) released a series of decapitation videos of Western hostages such as Briton Ken Bigley and American Jack Hensley.

But the viciousness of Zarqawi’s attacks forced senior al Qaeda leaders Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden to warn that Muslim public opinion was turning against the group, according to several internal al Qaeda letters retrieved by US intelligence agents.

Pushback on Twitter and other social media sites

That hiatus was broken late Tuesday, when the video of Foley - later confirmed as genuine by the White House - circulated on the web.

But this time, the pushback was immediate, if not necessarily a resounding success.
Shortly after the video first appeared on YouTube accounts around 10pm Paris time, the video-sharing site removed the clip, which was produced by al-Furqan Media, the official imprint used by IS.

Twitter also attempted to scrub the video. Shortly after he noted that the video had gone online Tuesday night, Zaid Benjamin, the Washington correspondent of US Arabic-language Radio Sawa, had his Twitter account temporarily blocked.

By early Wednesday, Benjamin’s account was restored with a notice, “Your account was suspended because it was found to be violating the Twitter rules,” said the notice, which provided a link to Twitter’s rules. “We have unsuspended your account and removed the reported Tweet.”

Twitter officials did not immediate reply to reporters’ requests for a comment.
By Wednesday morning, a Twitter campaign #ISISmediaBlackOut, apparently started by a woman using the handle @LibyaLiberty, had gone viral.

A message posted on #ISISmediaBlackOut page declared, “When terrorists or war criminals deliberately advertise their crimes, don’t help them. When social media shares gruesome photos widely to report the events, journalists and observers are doing their PR for them, and this social media effect just encourages more of the same brutal behavior.”

Messages on the campaign included tweets such as, “Don't help terrorist propaganda. Delete your photos of decapitation. In honor of #JamesFoley ”

But by Wednesday afternoon, Benjamin tweeted, “ISIS supporters have formed "the Media Front to Support #ISIS" to face twitter suspension campaign against them.”

Meanwhile, discussions by journalists on #ISISmediaBlackOut featured questions on how reporters could circumvent granting the militant group publicity while reporting the story. Others wondered if it was a prudent strategy.

Months after IS tore through the Syria-Iraq border, seizing swathes of territory and catching the international community off-guard, the cyber war against the Islamist group is proving as hard to win as the one on the ground.


Date created : 2014-08-20

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