social media_uprising

Islamist insurgents who caught Western military and media “experts” by surprise by seizing a vast swath of Iraq, have now released graphic images that purportedly depict the massacre of 1,700 Shiite members of Iraqi government security forces via Twitter and their website.

Adding to the shock value of ISIS’ videos and still photos are their slick production values and presentation. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has established 12th century Sharia law in the areas it controls, yet the group’s Internet persona couldn’t be more modern, down to 4Chan-style trolling.

From The New York Times: 

“The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” one read. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” read another, and, “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” referring to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Many of the captions mocked the victims. In one photograph, showing a group of young men walking toward an apparent execution site, where armed masked men awaited, the caption read, “Look at them walking to death on their own feet.”

From the New York Daily News: 

One caption makes fun of the captives for swapping their military uniforms for civilian garb such as soccer jerseys. Some captives in the terrorists’ snapshots are shown with military uniforms visible underneath civilian clothes, as if they had tried to disguise themselves in haste.“They were lions in uniform, and now they are just ostriches,” it reads. 

In a war for hearts and minds, why are ISIS propagandists showcasing their brutality via social media?

NBCNews.com tries, but fails, to answer that question:

On a basic level, ISIS uses social media in the same way extremist groups including Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab do — to control the narrative, boost morale, attract new supporters and demoralize their enemies.

But what sets ISIS apart is the volume of media they release on both private and public networks like Twitter and YouTube — and the relentlessly graphic nature of the images.

“ISIS is nearly unparalleled in their extreme measure on every level, from the violence itself to the broadcasting of that violence,” said Christopher Anzalone, a doctoral student at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies.

ISIS’ media approach is more brutal because it’s simply “more” of just about everything when compared to other militant groups, Anzalone said.

This corporate media take reads to me like the typical American impulse to underestimate the intellect of its enemies. ISIS’ leadership, which reportedly includes one of Saddam Hussein’s most talented generals, presides over a group with a lot of money, and that has traveled from the obscure morass of the Syrian civil conflict to posing such an existential threat to the U.S.-backed Maliki regime in Baghdad that Obama had to backtrack on his pledge not to send American ground troops back in.

These are not stupid people.

With about 10,000 fighters, ISIS is no match for central government forces in a fair fight. To neutralize their enemy, therefore, the group has cultivated its reputation as the Middle East’s biggest badasses, turning what initially looked like a setback — getting kicked out of Al Qaeda for being too violent — into its biggest strength. The horrifying pictures and mocking captions are rational tactics in this ISIS “don’t fuck with us” strategy.

The message to government troops is clear: surrender and we will let you live. Resistance is futile. Capitulating Iraqi soldiers turn over their uniforms, IDs and weapons. They are given civilian clothes and sent home.

ISIS’ strategy comes straight out of the playbook of Asian conquerors like Attila, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane.

Like ISIS, the Mongols repeatedly faced states that were richer, more populous and better armed than they were. So they set out to establish a “surrender or die” reputation that prompted future adversaries to capitulate. As David Nicole wrote in The Mongol Warlords: “terror and mass extermination of anyone opposing them was a well-tested Mongol tactic.” In 1221, after similarly annihilating Bukhara and Samarkand in current-day Uzbekistan, Genghis’ army destroyed the city of Merv in what is now Turkmenistan; between 700,000 and 1 million inhabitants were executed; 400 artisans were spared and enslaved.

Word spread. Fear of the Mongols became so pervasive that the Khans were able to rule their vast empire from token forces stationed in small garrisons.

A contemporary example of the “surrender or die” approach was dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s decision to give up Libya’s nuclear weapons program rather than confront the United States months after the Bush Administration invaded Iraq.

ISIS is well aware of the efficacy of extreme violence coupled with propaganda. In 1258, Genghis’ grandson Hulagu Khan laid waste to Bahgdad, killing between 200,000 and 1 million citizens.

“Iraq in 1258 was very different from present day Iraq,” Steven Dutch wrote in The Mongols.” “Its agriculture was supported by canal networks thousands of years old. Baghdad was one of the most brilliant intellectual centers in the world. The Mongol destruction of Baghdad was a psychological blow from which Islam never recovered. With the sack of Baghdad, the intellectual flowering of Islam was snuffed out.”

[illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]