“How to Slaughter the Disbelievers”: Insights into IS’ Instructional Video29 Nov 2016
As so-called Islamic State (IS) suffers devastating losses of land, personnel and resources across Iraq and Syria, it may seem that its end is near. ICCT Visiting Fellow Haroro Ingram argues to the contrary, explaining how IS’ recent video “You must fight them o muwahhid” offers yet another indicator that the group is again strategically transitioning.
The purpose of IS’ recent video titled “You must fight them o muwahhid” seems simple: provide Arabic, French and English speaking audiences with a step-by-step instructional video for “How to Slaughter the Disbelievers”. As a how-to guide, it is not particularly unique even within IS. After all, IS’ Rumiyah (Rome) magazine has a “Just Terror Tactics” section which offers its readers operational advice. Indeed, it would be misguided to focus disproportionately on the video’s instructional dimension alone. This is an error that was made by many when Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine Inspire offered readers operational advice in its “Open Source Jihad” section. So much so, in fact, that Inspire’s chief editor mocked that myopic focus declaring in issue 11: “The kuffar are so terrified by this section. In fact, they limit the weight of the magazine on this section alone, while they forget that all a Muslim needs to fight the kuffar is enough Iman [faith] and the simplest of tools. Thus, the magazines [sic] content complete each other”. In this video, IS propagandists are deploying a similar strategy by interweaving instructional material with strategic and justificatory narratives.
“Fight them as they fight us”
Produced by IS’ media unit in Ar-Raqqah (Syria) with translated subtitles provided by AlHayat Media Center, “You must fight them o muwahhid” is just over twenty-nine minutes in length. Its opening sequence uses slick imagery, accompanied by a French-language nasheed, to suggest that IS’ war is spreading from its heartlands in Syria and Iraq to frontlines in the West. The words “Explanation of how to Slaughter the Disbelievers” appear with gory insights of what is to come playing in the background.
The next scene is of the bombed remains of a building. An “instructor” appears, identified as Abu Sulayman al-Firansi. Speaking French he states: “You see today the result of the bombardment of the coalition, which is led by America, Britain, and France. These strikes kill women, men, children, the old and the sick without discrimination. They closed the door of hijrah [migration] on you, so open the door of jihad on them”. What follows is a tutorial on how to conduct a knife attack including a demonstration of the techniques using a captive who is shackled to the rubble. After a brief statement from an English-speaking militant imploring supporters in the West to “defend the Muslims”, the voiceover explains in Arabic how previous victories over the United States in Iraq were achieved mostly “through operations by individual mujahidin, with the simplest of tools…. and with the simplest of explosive devices”. An IS militant then demonstrates how to prepare acetone peroxide in a kitchen after which another captive is executed via explosives.
The Arabic voiceover returns and, with images of a young man apparently preparing for a terrorist attack, asserts: “O muwahhidin all over the world, support and defend your brothers while you are behind enemy lines. From their lands, the wars are funded and managed. So send upon them ruin and destruction”. The video ends with a cross-promotion to issue one and issue two of Rumiyah and its “Just Terror Tactics” section.
IS in transition
Three core elements characterise IS’ recent video. First, a justification narrative emphasises revenge, reciprocity and obligation, designed to play upon its audiences rational- and identity-choice decision-making processes. It is a powerful propaganda strategy explored in a recent analysis of militant Islamist propaganda. Second, a strategic narrative frames the audience as “behind enemy lines” and thus vital to stretching the enemy’s front and sowing fear. Far from a strategy of desperation from a group facing dire odds, Al-Firansi assures his viewers that, “Today, you are able to work because victory is near”. Third, the instructional provides a step-by-step guide to action, negating “excuses” some may have. The use of live captives to demonstrate the techniques is designed to both dehumanise targets and desensitise viewers to the realities of violence.
More broadly, this video reflects telling strategic transitions within IS and offers insights into its future direction. IS is in the midst of yet another “bust” period in the “boom-bust” dynamics that characterise its history. Pressures mounting in its heartlands have driven significant shifts in IS’ politico-military and propaganda strategies. IS has predictably sought to fuse action and propaganda to draw attention away from these losses, especially in Mosul.
IS’ actions are now dominated by guerrilla warfare and terrorist style attacks. As I witnessed during a recent trip to Iraq, internal security forces are being stretched across the country. Even in Sulaymaniyah, one of Iraq’s most stable cities, a planned Kirkuk-style attack by IS militants was recently thwarted. As IS weakens at the centre, the threat its peripheries pose is likely to increase as a consequence of dispersion (i.e. forces and resources relocating) but also strategy (e.g. diversion). Formal IS wilayats will become increasingly active (e.g. Afghanistan), as will aspirant networks as evidenced by attacks in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, IS will be desperate to inspire “lone wolves”, especially in the West. Of course, propaganda will retain its central strategic role in IS’ campaign strategy; it was crucial to its rise and just as (if not more) important during this transition.
“You must fight them o muwahhid” is yet another example of how IS propagandists leverage a potent mix of psychosocial and strategic factors in messaging which, on the surface, may seem crude and barbaric. IS will continue to use propaganda to not just incite supporters to act but bait enemies into making mistakes. The Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications (CTSC) Project’s recently released Policy Brief offers practitioners a framework to avoid such errors and proactively challenge IS propaganda. It is likely that instructional content will continue to feature in IS propaganda and counterstrategies will need to be far more nuanced to deal with those challenges.