ISIS has switched propaganda tactics, swapping snuff films for sermons
The orange jumpsuit is the same, but now there is no masked executioner, no knife, no barren desert backdrop. The new video series produced by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) features one of the militant group’s captives, British journalist John Cantlie, giving disquisitions from behind a desk.
As the United States begins a bombing campaign against targets in Syria, ISIS has switched propaganda tactics, swapping snuff films for sermons. In the first two installments of the ISIS lecture series, released on Twitter in recent days by the group’s Al-Furqan media center, Cantlie warns the West against the march to war.
“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?” Cantlie says in the first video. “I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivations of [ISIS].”
But for ISIS, the motivation behind the video is probably fear, says Rita Katz, the director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks Islamist extremism online. The murder of U.S. and British citizens failed to forestall the airstrikes, so the group is using the videos to argue the folly of foreign intervention against the self-declared Islamic caliphate.
To make the case, ISIS uses a familiar jihadist tactic: quoting Westerners critical of the West’s actions. In Cantlie’s second forced lecture, an almost six-minute clip released Tuesday, the British journalist, reading from a prepared script, quotes the former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, whom he praises for “considerable” knowledge of the Muslim world.
“Let’s get straight to the point with a quote from former-C.I.A.-chief-turned-vigorous anti-intervention-campaigner Michael Scheuer: ‘President Obama does not have the slightest intention of defeating the Islamic State,'” Cantlie says, quoting Scheuer to argue that a military strategy that relies on bombing but foreswears ground troops is a half-measure. Later in the video, Cantlie quotes a second U.S. official, former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean, saying the U.S. “failed to anticipate” the emergence of ISIS.
This is a shopworn rhetorical device for jihadi propagandists. In video lectures to the faithful, Islamist leaders regularly mix in reproachful quotes from top Western officials to buttress criticism of the U.S. and its allies. “There’s nothing better,” Katz says, “than using our own words against us.”
Scheuer—a veteran of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden task force turned staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy—is something of a favored source for jihadists. His quotes have been invoked in propaganda videos and literature at least 16 times since 2007, according to a database compiled by SITE. He’s been referenced by figures ranging from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to al-Qaeda’s American-born spokesman, Adam Gadahn, to a high-ranking official with the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab.
But the old CIA hand is hardly the only U.S. insider whose insights are deployed by jihadists. Both Bin Laden and Zawahiri have quoted journalist Bob Woodward’s reporting from within the inner circles of the presidency. Gadahn has twice invoked the writing of American author John Perkins, whose books purport to reveal the economic incentives of U.S. military adventures abroad. A native Californian with a finger on the pulse of his former country, Gadahn name-checked Bernie Madoff in a 2009 speech assailing the avarice of the U.S. financial system.
The words of Presidents and senior administration officials are regularly repurposed in Islamist propaganda for one cause or another. So are the columns of well-known pundits. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been invoked at least three times by Zawahiri, while Bin Laden liked to borrow criticism from the political commentator Noam Chomsky to argue America’s depravity in one form or another.
The new ISIS video filches a term from Obama himself. “The president once called George Bush’s conflict ‘a dumb war,'” Cantlie notes, suggesting Bush’s successor was slipping into one of his own. As long as the terrorist lecture series continues, so too will the pattern of using the enemy’s words against them.