ISIS's Shifting Social-Media Game
The group's newest propaganda videos seem aimed directly at Western media.
The latest round of propaganda videos released by the Islamic State suggest the terrorist group is altering its media approach to directly counter what the mainstream Western media is saying about it.
The two most recently released videos both feature British hostage John Cantlie, a captive journalist who has been used by ISIS as a spokesperson of sorts during the last month of his captivity. The first was the latest release of a propaganda video series called "Lend Me Your Ears."
In the most recent installment of this series, Cantlie reads a script that directly addresses a number of details reported by The New York Times in its Sunday cover story, "The Horror Before the Beheadings," as well as older news stories.
Award-winning reporter Rukmini Callimachi researched the piece for several months, interviewing former ISIS hostages and their families to paint a picture of what life is like for those who have been captured and released or killed by the group. It revealed many new details about the captivity and deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker Alan Henning, who were all beheading victims of ISIS.
Callimachi reported that Foley, the first of the hostages to be publicly beheaded, was treated extremely harshly: He suffered waterboarding, beating, starvation, interrogation, and unspeakable torture, primarily due to his connection to the American military through relatives, as well as his work as a journalist.
In the video, ISIS admits to torture, but blames the hostages and their governments for the abuse. "Now, unless we tried something stupid like escaping or doing something we shouldn't, we were treated well by the Islamic State," says Cantlie in the ISIS directed video. "Some of us who tried to escape were waterboarded by our captors, as Muslim prisoners are waterboarded by their American captors."
Cantlie also comments on the very few comforts the captives had, as reported by the Times, such as playing chess using pieces drawn on scrap paper and reenacting movies. "Our strange little community of prisoners had its share of problems, but apart from the odd fight, we lived together in relative harmony through uncertain times. We read books, played recreational games, and gave lectures on our specialist subjects. It wasn't a bad life." The fights, lectures, and games were all explicitly mentioned in the Times article as methods the prisoners developed to cope with their long captivity.
Callimachi connected her interviews and various other media reports to determine that, at this time, ISIS has only three hostages remaining: two Americans, Peter Kassig, and an unidentified woman, as well as John Cantlie.
The video also address another major news report, dating back to early September. In an interview with ABC News, the Foley family said they felt threatened by members of the United States government to not cooperate with any of the ISIS demands, particularly the ransom payment. In Cantlie's message, he reads from two particular email exchanges, both from relatives of the American hostages. (It is unspecified if they are from the Sotloff or Foley family, who were both in contact with the group.) The messages, which have not been independently confirmed, were as follows:
17th of July 2014:
Our government is not being helpful. We have begged them so many times already. Everyone has buried their heads in the sand. We feel we are caught in the middle between you and the U.S. government, and we are being punished. We have reached out to our government, but they have been non-responsive for some time now.
24th of July 2014:
We are contacting people everyday. You've given us a huge mountain to climb, and we feel like a pawn in this political battle that we've been forced into. I'm taking everything you have said seriously, and I'm working as fast as I can. I need more time.
Cantlie then confirms reports dating back to late August that ISIS had wanted to trade Foley for the release of Dr. Aafia Siddique, "Lady al-Qaeda," and that the United States government had rejected this request. Siddique was accused of plotting numerous attacks against the U.S. and conspiring with high-ranking al-Qaeda members. She is currently serving a 86-year sentence in a U.S. prison for attempting to kill a U.S. Army captain.
In a second video, released on Monday, Cantlie appears in the city of Kobani, wearing regular street clothes. In past videos, ISIS dressed their hostages in orange robes and plastic slippers (which The Times discovered are tragically shared by hostages, dead and alive). However, in this video, Cantlie is seen in street attire, with a manicured beard and hands unbound. In this propaganda video, he denies claims that ISIS is being pushed out of Kobani by Kurdish or American forces. (In reality, ISIS has been unsuccessful in attempts to take Kobani.)
This video also indicates another change for ISIS. It has been 24 days since Alan Henning's execution video became public, and Peter Kassig was threatened to be the next victim. However, these new videos give no information on Kassig's status. The other beheading videos were all released about two weeks apart. A number of calls have been made to spare Kassig's life—he is an aid worker and devout Muslim. Even Abu Omar Aqidi, a high ranking official in the al-Qaeda sect Jabhat al-Nusra, has called for his release. ISIS is known for its well-organized social media activity, yet it seems to be slowly changing patterns.