Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)
Author: Imogen Richards
In June 2014 the organisation known as ‘Islamic State’ (IS) announced the establishment of a 680km Syrian and Iraqi Caliphate. Since this time, it has exercised large scale massacres of Middle Eastern civilians, executed foreign prisoners, and forced dissenters into sexual and economic slavery (Lister, 2014: 17). To sustain its operational strength and acquisition of territory, the organisation replenishes its expendable armed forces by attracting foreign fighters using propaganda via online communications. Around 22,000 foreign fighters are currently estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS (Stern, 2015: 68), and this is number likely to increase in the immediate future. It is also increasingly noted that through online media, IS encourages returned foreign fighters and ‘homegrown’ sympathisers in countries outside of Iraq and Syria to execute attacks on civilian populations. The internationalisation of the threat posed by IS became starkly apparent in 2015 following IS-inspired and in some cases IS-directed attacks on countries including Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, France and Indonesia.
In response to this perceived threat, terrorism analysts have explored how the ‘spectacle’ of IS media resonates ideologically with international audiences. Some have explored how the organisation attracts recruits via familiar ‘3.0’ spectacles of Web-based technology (Gates and Prodder, 2015), whilst others have considered how mediatised spectacles of IS brutality produce a ‘shock and awe’ effect that appeals to susceptible individuals (Gerges, 2014: 339-43). A number of studies have also considered how the spectacle of IS media resembles and recalls representations of terrorist-related violence portrayed in anti-terrorist, international news media. These investigations primarily derive from historical debates on how politically violent organisations such as IS, rely on the ‘theatre’ of terrorism to provoke sympathetic and oppositional reactions (Jenkins, 1974; Schmid and De Graaf, 1982). They consider how terrorist and counterterrorist entities mutually disseminate propagandised information for the purpose of political persuasion. One prescient example includes Akil Awan’s assessment that ‘terrorism craves an audience and we are playing into the Islamic State’s hands by watching’ (Awan, 2014). Another is Henry Giroux’s exploration of how IS and counterterrorist entities reflexively mobilise the ‘visual theatre’ of terrorism to perpetuate fear, control and commoditisation (Giroux, 2014; Giroux and Evans, 2015).
This article similarly explores evidence of ideological reflexivity between IS spectacles and spectacles that have been associated with US counterterrorism. Rather than focusing on the ‘spectacle of brutality’ examined elsewhere (Richards, 2016, it conversely emphasises how the organisation uses non-violent spectacles to enhance its cultural resonance and perceived political legitimacy. It examines audio-visual characteristics of IS video and photographic media including music, editing and imagery. Evidence of reflexivity between IS media and US counterterrorism is identified through reference to a framework provided by sociologist Jean Baudrillard. Drawing from Baudrillardian theory, the analysis aims to establish insight into the ideologies that underpin IS’s recruitment strategy.
To elucidate evidence of ideological reflexivity between IS and Western counterterrorist entities, IS is variously referred to in this article as ‘terrorist’. This terminology is used while recognising the historical disputation that surrounds ‘terrorism’, as is summarised by the infamous phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ (Seymour, 1975: 62). This article correspondingly recognises prominent debates that have labelled state-based violence as ‘terrorist’ (Stohl, 1984; George, 1991). It also acknowledges the difficulty in determining state-based violence as unlawful, given protections for politically motivated violence that were attributed to states by sovereignty clauses in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (Wright-Neville, 2010:x). With respect to IS, the following discussion also reflects on contention surrounding its definition, given the organisation’s territorial, economic and militaristic characteristics. For the purposes of this analysis, ‘terrorism’ denotes the behaviour of politically violent, non-state organisations including IS, that use acts of aggression to enact political change by instilling fear in civilian populations. ‘Counterterrorism’, correspondingly, refers to the state-based measures used to inhibit the efforts of IS as a terrorist organisation.
Although a number of Baudrillard’s theories might be applicable to an investigation of modern terrorism, such as his understanding of connections between capitalism and the death drive (Baudrillard, 1993), and his psychoanalytic conceptualisation of symbolic social life (Baudrillard, 2001), the following analysis draws primarily from theoretical conjecture in Baudrillard’s essay, The Spirit of Terrorism (Baudrillard, 2003). Although this essay was originally published in 2001 in reaction to the Al Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York on September 11 2001 (9/11), the following discussion contends that it remains empirically pertinent to IS, given the group’s organisational emergence from what was in 2006, ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ (Dhiman, 2015:9). Moreover, according to this analysis, Baudrillard’s essay remains thematically pertinent to IS, given the arguably formative influence that 9/11 had on modern terrorism ideations. In Baudrillard’s and a number of other analysts’ critical assessment (Hughes, 2002; Hoffman and Raudszus, 2015: 18-21), 9/11 represented a foundational terroristic reaction to US-led modernity and globalisation.
In this article’s analysis, IS media is interpreted according to Baudrillard’s contention that modern terrorism represents ‘the purest form of spectacle’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 30). It follows his argument that spectacles of terrorism evidence ‘a sacrificial model mounting the purest symbolic form of defiance to the historical and political order’ (Ibid.). Regarding their significance, the discussion further reflects on Baudrillard’s assessment that postmodern spectacles produced via digital technology both precede and determine the reality they purport to represent (Baudrillard, 1994). Although it is not the primary focus of the analysis, the article generally interpolates the Baudrillardian premise that ‘precessions’ of symbolic spectacles in technologically advanced societies, otherwise defined as ‘simulacra’, collectively produce an ideological condition known as ‘hyperreality’ Baudrillard, 1983a). ‘Hyperreality’ is correspondingly interpreted as a subjective experience of the world in which people are unable to differentiate between the ‘real’ that exist outside of representation, and the models of reality they encounter through virtual screens. In the scenario considered, the ‘real’ ceases to be the society’s form of primary experience, and is instead replaced with the ‘hyperreal’, a composite of symbolic spectacles (Baudrillard, 1994).
In line with Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality, reflexive spectacles of IS are interpreted as both reminiscent of US counterterrorism, and as generative of novel terroristic conditions. The propaganda effect of symbolic IS spectacles is correspondingly interpreted as instrumental to the development of future political circumstances associated with the organisation. The ideological reflexivity that undergirds this symbolism is analysed with reference to two aspects of the modern terroristic spectacle, outlined in Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism.
The analysis initially explores evidence of ideological reflexivity between audiovisual media produced by IS and a US counterterrorist entity, the Centre for Strategic Communications. In relation to these examples, the investigation considers Baudrillard’s statement that ‘there is no ‘Good’ use of the media; the media are part of the event, they are part of terror, and they work in both directions’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 19). In doing so it reflects on Baudrillard’s assertion that modern terrorist organisations, like their counterterrorist counterparts, have ‘assimilated everything of globalism and modernity, without changing their goal, which is to destroy that power’ (Ibid.: 31). Next, the analysis explores how IS photographic and video media incorporates images that are often associated with US counterterrorism. This discussion examines how such reflexive imagery signifies a condition Baudrillard described as a ‘terroristic situational transfer’ Ibid.: 9) in which the ‘global perfusion of terrorism… accompanies any system of domination as though it were its shadow’ (Ibid.). It also emphasises how militaristic images disseminated by IS evoke an impression of the US military as a ‘machinery of domination’ that ideologically ‘secreted its own counter-apparatus’ (Ibid.: 10).
The analysis collectively interprets IS’s usage of non-violent symbolic spectacles as a culturally pervasive yet often under-examined recruitment apparatus. I have chosen to include media that has to this point perhaps been underexplored in the relevant terrorism literature. The material examined has also been selected on the basis that it was probably produced by an official IS entity and on the basis of its contemporary cultural relevance.
It is important to note that this analysis does not contend that Baudrillard’s theories impeccably characterise IS’s current organisation and strategies. Moreover, it acknowledges that Baudrillard’s generally pejorative depictions of ‘America’ and ‘Islam’ are inherently problematic. The following discussion alternatively reflects on Baudrillard’s mediating assertion that the ideological terrorist conflict ‘is not … a clash of civilizations or religions, and it reaches far beyond Islam and America’ (Ibid.: 11). In line with Baudrillard’s emphasis, it conceptualises this conflict as the spectre of ‘triumphant globalization battling against itself’ (Ibid.); embodied in mediatised representations of the IS spectacle, and in their symbolic evocation of US counterterrorism.
II. Modernity and Globalisation
A primary component of the modern terroristic spectacle identified in The Spirit of Terrorism is terrorist and counterterrorist groups’ mutual interaction with modern, globalised technologies. With reference to the act of 9/11 and mediatised propaganda that followed the event, Baudrillard explored how ‘the terrorists’ utilised modern and global apparatus to challenge America’s international hegemony (Ibid.: 19). Aspects of globalised modernity cited in Baudrillard’s essay include ‘computer technology and aeronautics, spectacle and the media networks’ (Ibid.), whilst specific examples include the technologies used to execute 9/11, and the responsible entities’ subsequent ‘instantaneous worldwide transmission’ of spectacular images (Ibid.: 27). Alluding to the hyperreal primacy of terroristic spectacle, Baudrillard further stated that the ‘the media is part of the event’ and it ‘works in both directions’ (Ibid.: 31).
This analysis contends that if Al Qaeda can be understood to have ‘assimilated’ the powers of modernity and globalism, IS, like US counterterrorism, has all-but predicated its modus operandi on globalised, twenty-first century technology. It further suggests that IS and US counterterrorist groups’ usage of this technology to promote their ideological agendas is reflexive in ways that are often unacknowledged. The following investigation examines thematic and technological mirroring between two examples of IS and counterterrorist media. It considers how language, music and digital editing characteristics of short informational videos about life in the Caliphate called ‘Mujatweets’, resemble audiovisual material disseminated by the US State Department’s Center for Strategic Communications (CSCC).
A mutual, global characteristic of IS Mujatweets and CSCC videos are the languages in which they are produced, and their commercial ideological conceptualisation. The Al Hayat department’s Mujatweets, for instance, are produced in Arabic, Indonesian, French, German and Dutch, whilst the CSCC communicates in Arabic, Urdu, Somali, Punjabi and English. Al-Hayat is a distinct branch of IS’s media wing that produces multi-lingual propaganda to attract primarily Western audiences. Although the primary authors of the Mujatweets are to this point unknown, a Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI) Intelligence report suggests that they were likely directed by one-time successful German rapper, Abu Talha al-Almani, aka Denis Cuspert or ‘Deso Dogg’ (Heinke and Raudszus, 2015: 18-21). This possibility is supported by Al-Almani’s personal acknowledgement in May 2014 that following an injury, he had assumed a role in IS’s propaganda department (Ibid.). In an effort to improve the CSCC’s poorly performing digital counter-narratives, the CSCC comparatively requested the help of Mark Boal, the digital director of recent Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty, Home Box Office (HBO), and Snapchat (Sputnik, 2013). Although as with IS Mujatweets, it is not possible to assign specific authorship to the center’s digital productions without confirmation from the organisation, material produced by both groups indicates their mutual aspirations for modern, populist, global outreach.
Music and language featured in the Mujatweets and CSCC video clips likewise indicate their respective ‘assimilation’ of cultural standards that derive from interactions with globalised modernity. One slideshow released on 23 December 2015 by the Urdu language communication team for the CSCC (USDotUrdu), for instance, features postcards displaying the devastation caused by ‘terrorists’, and the function of the government sponsored humanitarian organisation USAID in rebuilding devastated Pakistani community centres. Urdu captions for the pictures include ‘Attacks on funerals, places of worship and school are attacks on religion and humanity’, and ‘taking away the lives of innocent citizens; the favourite sport of terrorists’. The slideshow also includes a byline that the music is composed by ‘Al Qazi & AQ Records, A unique blend of Rabab and Western Melodies’ (USDotUrdu, 2015). The global and historic form of the music made apparent by the conspicuously featured melody played on the rabab, (or ‘rubab’), a lute-like instrument that originates from the 7th Century BE Khorasan, and is currently a national icon of Afghanistan. The ‘Western’ musical influence probably refers to the modern syncopated melody intoned by the rubab, and the contemporary guitar strumming technique that the rubab player adopts. It likely also connotes the heavily synthesised drum beat that plays in counterpoint to the melody and complements the dramatic storylines depicted on the postcard images (Ibid.).
Evidence of ‘globalism’ and ‘modernity’, utilised for the purpose of ideological persuasion, is also apparent in the first episode of the Al Hayat Mujatweets. Although seven out of eight Mujatweets released by Al Hayat since May 2014 do not feature background music, (perhaps to bolster their ‘cinema verite’ depiction of dramatic realism), this example foregrounds music as a central aspect of its narrative (Al Hayat, 2014a). The episode is based entirely on a German-language ode to the IS Caliphate composed by an IS foreign fighter. Entitled ‘Aus dem islamicschen staat’ and translating in German to ‘From the Islamic State’, the unnamed onscreen composer sings lyrics including; ‘We announce glad tidings. From the land of the prophets … So come and join ranks of the Islamic State. Live in obedience, full of honour, satisfaction, and to scare the Kuffar [non-believers]’ (Ibid.).
Like the Rabab-Western melody adapted by the CSCC, the IS composition may be considered both a global and modern adaptation of traditional musical forms. In line with Baudrillard’s symbolic spectacle, it might also be interpreted as ‘triumphant globalization battling against itself’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 11), to the extent that the vocalist praises the Caliphate through a characteristically ‘global’ melody, whilst discursively denigrating international populations critical of IS. With German lyrics and a modified strophic tonal structure, the song is overtly reminiscent of a 17th century French air de cour or a 19th century German lieder. It is also syncopated and a cappella in the style of a modern jihadist ‘nasheed’, and as with other nasheeds, it is written in a traditionally Western minor key. Although this particular example does not feature other modernist characteristics often noted of IS nasheeds, including their integration of gunfire and sword sound effects, its mournful yet fast-paced tempo denotes the inception of some war-torn modern era. Furthermore, like the center’s Rabab-Western melody, the song represents an example of cultural integration that is ultimately designed to render IS’s ideological message relatable to a global, modern audience (‘Aus Dem Islamischen Staat’).
Where music is not a dominant feature, various editorial characteristics of CSCC posts and IS Mujatweets also signify both groups’ interaction with global and modern digital norms. This is perhaps unsurprising in the case of the State Department’s heavily digitally doctored productions, particularly given US counterterrorist entities’ historical penchant for consulting Hollywood directors for advice on political propaganda (Thussu and Freedman, 2003). In the comparative case of the Mujatweets, however, a number of often-unacknowledged editing characteristics are potentially significant given their potential for subtle ideological persuasion. Furthermore, IS’s integration of these edits reflects Baudrillard’s assessment that the US counterterrorist system experienced an ‘almost automatic reversion of its own power’ against which it can (technologically at least) ‘do nothing’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 10-11). In the context of IS media, this can otherwise perhaps be understood to signify the tenet of modern terrorism that Baudrillard referred to as a ‘shock wave of silent reversion’ (Ibid.). An explicit example of such reversion is the IS Mujatweet producers’ adherence to North American and European compositional industry standards.
Media analysts Cori Dauber and Mark Robinson explain how IS adheres to ‘Western’ digital standards through their integration of a number of editing techniques including sophisticated colour adjustment, graphics, angles and lighting, and expert file compression and uploading Dauber and Robinson, 2015). In IS’s seventh Mujatweet episode set at al-Raqqah Market in Syria, for example, the fruit and vegetables intended to signify abundance in the Caliphate are dramatically highlighted by the editor’s reduction in colours that are incorporated from the available palette. Because fewer shades of the same colour are incorporated, those that do exist, like those in Hollywood, are more ‘vibrant, brighter, higher contrast, and they come across looking sharper and clearer’ (Ibid.). As Dauber and Robinson also explain, the Mujatweet editor uses modern, ‘Western’ cinematographic techniques. An example of Baudrillard’s technological ‘reversion’ in this video is the editor’s usage of a first person point-of-view to depict a child collecting prunes at the market. Identifying with the child, as viewers identify with the protagonist in Hollywood first person media, the audience becomes emotionally situated within the cinematic atmosphere of the bustling marketplace.
Other sophisticated Western commercial editing techniques including the ‘pull’ or ‘rack’ focus used extensively in each of IS’s eight Mujatweets has been examined elsewhere (Atwan, 2015), however, it is useful to briefly elaborate on modern and global signification in the organisation’s sophisticated use of graphics. The ‘MT’ or ‘Mujatweet’ graphic in particular is liberally displayed throughout each of the eight Mujatweets, and is variously accompanied by sounds of knocking, cameras clicking, and ‘whoosh’ noises. Notably, the IS Al Hayat graphic symbol also distinctly resembles that of the Arabic language news program Al Jazeera (Ingram, 2015). Both feature Arabic writing in the shape of a ‘tear’ droplet and both are frequently animated in different contexts with (perhaps Islamic) water symbology. In conjunction with Al Hayat’s use of European and North American editing standards, these graphic characteristics potentially resonate on an ideological basis with international audiences that are acclimatised to culturally pervasive, Hollywood-esque forms of audiovisual media. With respect to their intended target audience, they likewise typify Baudrillard’s assertion that modern terrorism ‘secretly connects with the fracture internal to the dominant system’ Baudrillard, 2003: 10).
These aspects of Al Hayat Mujatweets also resemble video clips disseminated via YouTube by the CSCC that variously incorporate similar editing techniques. One Arabic language video published by the center on 31 December 2015 entitled Ramadi battle: defeat a new Daash, for example, opens with an animated graphic of warplanes bearing the US insignia launching missiles to smash through Arabic writing that reads ‘Daash’ (the Arabic name for IS) (US State Department, 2015). Like the ‘heartbeat’ sound effects that are featured in various IS execution videos, the audience hears heartbeat effects in the CSCC that overlay suspenseful Western, symphonic music, and audio excerpts of interviews with Iraqi fighters. Together with graphic depictions of tank fights between Iraqi and IS forces, and first person angled images of US soldiers distributing aid to Iraqi civilians, the video’s fast edits tell the story of Iraqi forces’ December 2015 recapture of the Iraqi city, Ramadi. This footage and other similar video segments also feature the same high contrast, bright, North American style colour production used in the IS Mujatweets. Also like the Mujatweets, the State Department videos aspire to communicate a Hollywood-style ‘happy ending’ narrative, although in this context the genre is ‘action’ rather than ‘lifestyle’.
In the cases examined, IS and US counterterrorist entities’ usage of computer technology signify their mutual connection with globalism and modernity in subtle yet foundational ways. The language, music, and editing of the Mujatweets and CSCC audiovisual material indicate how the ‘powers’ of globalism and modernity are mobilised dialectically by opposing terrorist and counterterrorist entities. Moreover, whilst IS and the counterterrorist CSCC are connected by the digital proximity identified in these examples, they are also paradoxically bound by a mutual antagonism towards the other that globalization makes possible. In Baudrillard’s estimation, this represents a displacement of the ‘universal’ for the ‘global’ that can be understood as ‘a kind of dialectical tension and critical movement which found form in historical and revolutionary violence’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 33). In the case of IS, this tension and the violence that it symbolises are also characterised by imagery in IS media, and its reflexive evocation of images associated with US counterterrorism.
III. Reflexive Imagery
In deconstructing the symbolic power of modern terroristic spectacles, Baudrillard emphasises the dominance of the reflexive image. Perhaps subtly alluding to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, he contends; ‘the impact of the images, and their fascination, are necessarily what we retain, since images are … our primal scene’ (Ibid.: 28). In line with the desire associated with the primal scene, and its related ability to achieve pervasive symbolic resonance, Baudrillard suggests; even those that ‘share the advantages’ of the US-led global order retain a ‘deep-seated complicity’ with those engaging in terrorist acts (Ibid.: 6). Moreover, ‘terrorist acts’ such as 9/11, and subsequent correlated events, are described as ‘both the exorbitant mirror of [the system’s] own violence and the model of a symbolic violence forbidden to it’ (Ibid.: 18). The ‘system’, or US militarism, is classified by Baudrillard as a ‘machinery of domination’, that through its exertion of hegemonic global influence, ‘secreted its own counter-apparatus’ (Ibid.: 10).
This investigation applies Baudrillard’s theory that the spectacle of modern terrorism incorporates a reflexive blowback against US militarism, towards an analysis of IS photographic and video media. It specifically explores how ‘mirroring’ evidenced in the imagery of IS media productions evoke images that are often associated with US counterterrorism. To define the ‘blowback’ characteristic of this media, it reflects on the symbolic power these images have to generate successful recruitment and radicalisation. Regarding their ‘hyperreal’ function, it also considers Baudrillard’s statement that in representations of modern terrorism, ‘the real’ became ‘superadded to the image like a bonus of terror’ (Ibid.: 28).
These theories connect with Baudrillard’s earlier, Marxian speculations that elements of society repressed by dominant capitalist powers react symbolically in ways that are ‘obscene’ in excess of the ‘scene’ that was previously apparent (Baudrillard, 1983b). Empirically, the following analysis explores evidence of such reactions in reflexive IS imagery of US apparel, hardware, and videogames.
In relation to IS’s ‘reflexive apparel’, it has been often acknowledged that IS prisoners are frequently clad in either an orange jumpsuit or an orange t-shirt and pants combination that resemble the outfits worn by US domestic prisoners and detainees at Guantanamo Bay (Friis, 2015). Some suggest that as a deliberate evocation of US detention centres, the outfits undergird an implied justification for retributive acts of violence made in response to humanitarian crimes committed by America (Kroker and Weinstein, 2016). Others conversely speculate that the clothing is designed to recall a more generic theme of prison-industrial imprisonment (Marsico, 2016). This analysis suggests that whilst these perspectives certainly shed new light on the IS ideology, it is also pertinent to consider the signification that the orange jumpsuits assume when they are juxtaposed against the clothes of the IS militants. Collectively, the clothing worn by all figures in IS videos conjure images associated with US counterterrorism.
When considered in tandem, the clothing worn by IS militants and their prisoners in video and photographic propaganda recalls the condition Baudrillard defined as a ‘terroristic situational transfer’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 9). This might be otherwise understood as a moment in which the terrorists appropriated the ‘weapons of the system’ (Ibid.: 27); where terrorist and counterterrorist entities were intertwined in ‘a dual, personal relationship with the opposing power’ (Ibid.: 25). This is perhaps most apparent where, in addition to the stark orange outfits worn by IS hostages in execution and combat-related videos, the militants themselves are featured wearing American military-style apparel. Differentiated depictions of the apparel (with and without US military hardware) appear to some degree tailored to the specific narrative of US militarism communicated in each example.
One example in which the spectacle of IS terrorism appears as an ‘exorbitant mirror’ of covert US military violence is the clothing the IS members wear in certain shorter and medium length execution videos. These videos are again distributed by Al Hayat, and by another group that specialises in disseminating the organisation’s brutal propaganda, the Al Furqan media department. In Al Furqan’s shorter videos, for instance, Message to the Government and People of Japan (Furqan, 2015a) and Message to America (Furqan, 2015b), the IS executioners are clad entirely in black sweatshirts, trousers, and what has been described as ‘ninja’ head-gear (Carr, 2014). In the medium-length group execution videos, Although the Disbelievers Dislike It (Furqan, 2014), and Message Signed to the Nation of the Blood of the Cross (Al Hayat, 2014b), the spokesperson executioner is either solely clad in black, or the team of executioners wear a black uniform with the sole exception of the spokesperson. As Philip Brophy has noted , these examples symbolically foreground the black-clad IS member as the ‘black ops’ figure in the piece, charged with interrogating and executing the political prisoner. In the manner of Baudrillard’s ‘mirror’, this imagery reflexively recalls how CIA covert operatives were charged with torturing and (allegedly) executing detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (Brophy, 2015).
The symbolic signification of a ‘terroristic situational transfer’ between IS and US terrorism is also strengthened by imagery of IS militants in other execution videos clad in different shades and patterns of camouflage that correspond to their narrative role. In the 22 minute highly produced film, Healing the Believers’ Chests, that depicts the pseudo ‘trial’ and execution of the orange-clad Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, for instance, IS ‘soldiers’ wear a pattern that strongly resembles Marine Pattern or MARPAT, the beige camouflage design that was patented by the US Navy (Sanborn, 20150. Throughout the ‘trial’ of the video, the soldiers line the perimeter of the destroyed crash site where al-Kaseasbeh is burned alive. Recalling the dysfunction Baudrillard defined as a ‘fracture internal to the dominant system’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 10), they ‘stand guard’ over al-Kaseasbeh with assault rifles, as Navy officers stand guard of prisoners in open-square environments at Guantanamo Bay.
In photographic imagery IS posted on social media sites, Justpasteit, Tumblr and Twitter, the organisation’s militants are also depicted wearing patterns of camouflage that call to mind different activities engaged in by the US military. One example of a literal ‘terroristic situational transfer’ became evident when the militants were photographically captured wearing a green camouflage kaki known as Universal Camo Print, or UCP (Kaufmann, 2014). This pattern, which has been described as ‘an old Windows computer screen capture of a fatigue pattern’, was the product of a $5 billion dollar project designed to appease US soldiers who wanted to ‘look cool’, however, it was repealed in 2012 when Army researchers discovered that it yielded almost no camouflage protection in combat (Ibid.). Given IS’s often reported on acquisition of US transport and weaponry, spectators have surmised that the organisation may actually possess the discarded uniforms (Ibid.). Moreover, when wearing the print in organisational propaganda, the militants are typically, in a ‘mirror’ of their US troop counterparts, planning, consolidating territory, and working in military formation.
In a series of recent photographs and videos shared over these same social media platforms, IS militants are also depicted wearing clothing that mirrors distinctive uniforms worn by the US Navy (Weiss, 2015). In a photographic example, they are shown training at a camp in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan (that they have renamed ‘Wilayat Khorasan’) wearing an elongated version of a uniform often termed the US Navy ‘blueberry’. Although the training ground is located far inland, the images recall the Navy tradition of wearing the blueberry as a working uniform within military compounds. Analogously, in an IS recruitment video released in September 2015, black and khaki clad militants are literally portrayed as the organisation’s answer to the US Navy Seals (Diljah Province, 2015). They emerge from the Tigris River carrying AK-47s, practise martial art moves in synchrony, ‘doggie paddle’ clutching knives between their teeth, and perform simulated clandestine assassinations. Although retired Sergeant Major of the Marines Corps James Dever found the militants’ evident lack of tactical training amusing, analysts have speculated that the legitimacy IS sought by their evocation of the Seals could work as an effective recruitment strategy (Kavanaugh, 2015). Regarding the ‘hyperreal’ function of this media, it might be fair to deduce that ‘reality is jealous of fiction … the real is jealous of the image’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 28). From the reality of IS violence to the imagery of its ‘Navy Seal’ training, there has emerged ‘a kind of duel between them, a contest to see which can be the most unimaginable’ (Ibid.).
Although it is necessary to acknowledge certain differences between IS and US counterterrorist clothing, typically in modifications made to the shape of the garments, IS’s integration of imagery related to US uniforms frames the militants as the symbolic mirror of US counterterrorism. The uniforms, combined with either tactical combat boots or Nike Western trainers, convey the distinct impression that the militants are the literal embodiment of a US ‘counterapparatus’. Moreover, the IS militants’ symbolic status is further enhanced by the fact that they are rendered anonymous by the donning of black and multi-coloured facemasks. Dehumanised and deprived of independent subjectivity, they represent an overtly symbolic reflection of images associated with US military operations.
With regard to symbolic apparel imagery, it is also worth noting that other examples potentially evidence the occurrence of a ‘redoubling’ effect that is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borge’s ‘hall of mirrors’ allegory, and its influence on Baudrillard (Ibid.: 61). In Baudrillard’s evaluation, this allegory described ‘the defeated peoples … exiled into the mirrors, from where they are condemned to reflect the image of the conquerors’, until they begin to less perceptibly resemble their conquerors, and ‘smash the mirrors and attack the Empire once again’ (Ibid.: 63). One example of such redoubling in the case of uniform imagery includes the new shoulder patch assigned to US Army personnel deployed in Iraq that features ‘crossed scimitars, three stars, and a palm wreath’ (Bender, 2015). It was criticised by US Army personnel as strongly resembling the sword symbology used by IS, and for replicating the almost exact insignia of the Egyptian Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood (Spencer, 2015). Critics have also highlighted how the patch replaces the US red, white and blue for green, a colour often associated with Islam, and integrates half-moon sabres that recall the historical ensign of the Prophet Muhammed (Duke, 2015). Interestingly, however, a converse historical ‘mirroring’ may also be apparent, given that the general integration of crossed swords in military patches is emblematic of British armed colonialism. Reflexively, these symbols betray the predisposition of terrorist and counterterrorist entities to repeatedly enact Baudrillard’s ‘mirror’ and ‘attack’.
Clothing aside, other IS video media also subtly communicates an IS ‘mirroring’ of US military transport and hardware. A video published by IS-affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, for instance, depicts a procession of Toyota Landcruisers and sedans bearing overhead police lights and the IS flag driving unimpeded through the city of Benghazi in Libya (Akbar, 2015). These images insinuate a governmental convoy and, like Baudrillard’s ‘precession of simulacra’, symbolically implicate power and legitimacy. This effect is also replicated in other videos that suggest ‘the terrorists … have at their disposal weapons that are the system’s own’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 20). A 2015 hour long IS documentary, for instance, opens with footage taken from an IS drone flying over and descending on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, reflexively calling to mind US drone strikes in Iraq and recently in Syria (Bergen and Schneider, 2014).
Beyond life-like propaganda, reflexive imagery between IS and US counterterrorism is also perceptible in media explicitly associated with both entities’ recruitment strategy. Recalling the previous aspect of this article’s analysis, both IS and US counterterrorism utilise videogames as a medium to connect with a culture of globalised modernity, and with each other. The trend of using videogames for recruitment perhaps commenced in 2002 when the US government published a free Internet-based game called ‘America’s Army’. It was designed to deliver a ‘virtual Army experience’ in combat and combat preparations that would allow players to participate in different Army roles suited to their interests and abilities (Boyce, 2007). Since 2002, America’s Army has undergone a number of software updates and is now used to simulate real-life training scenarios for currently serving military personnel. Recalling the slippage of reality that occurred in proliferating terroristic images following 9/11, the game represents ‘the violence of the real, in an allegedly virtual universe’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 28).
The modern terrorist foray into game development following 9/11 perhaps began with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Global Islamic Media Front’s 2006 Night of Bush Capturing. It was a modified version of the US company Petrilla Entertainment’s 2003 game, Quest for Saddam, where militant protagonists executed the US President’s secret service and stormed the White House (Site Inteleigence Group, 2006). In September 2014 IS published a recruitment video that features a screen capture from what appears to be a modified version of the car-jacking, shoot-em-up videogame, Grand Theft Auto. In the gameplay, the masked protagonist blows up a military caravan, shoots soldiers from behind a tree, and pulls an Iraqi police officer out of his car before shooting him to death (Tassi, 2014). Thereafter, IS released similar images of a modified popular videogame, Call of Duty, to market its propaganda (Hall, 2014); in mid-2014, British IS member Abu Sumayyah Al-Britani declared that fighting with IS is ‘better than that game Call of Duty’ (Klausen, 2014: 4).
Another example that is perhaps most plainly reflexive of US counterterrorism is IS’s version of the videogame ARMA III. In addition to starkly resembling the virtual reality aspect of America’s Army, it also recalls the ‘bonus of terror’ that Baudrillard defined as a frisson of the real being added to the image (Baudrillard, 2003: 29). In the game, as in the ‘real life’ conflict, IS militants transverse the Syrian and Iraqi countryside and earn points by killing American and Syrian soldiers, in addition to a tribal group representative of the Kurdish Peshmerga (Fresco, 2015). The game’s relationship with the ‘real’, however, also potentially extends beyond its function of IS training and recruitment. British foreign intelligence analysts surmised that the virtually untraceable communications of videogame networks could have been used to plot the IS-affiliated November 2015 attacks in Paris (Farmer, 2015). The adaptation may thus be understood to have multiple sites of influence over actual terroristic circumstances. As a tool for radicalisation, recruitment and communication, it ideologically appropriates a cultural apparatus that is notably utilised by American counterterrorism.
Indeed, the symbolic power of terroristic imagery is inevitably contingent upon its cultural familiarity. The more that images and impressions resonate with the viewer, the more likely they are to listen, identify with and subscribe to ‘extremist’ ideological practices. IS’s reflexive invocation of culturally indicative imagery therefore both perpetuates and responds to symbolic ideations of US counterterrorism. It also provides IS with a sense of political legitimacy and constructs the organisation in a dialectic sustained by the opposing entities’ ongoing military aggression.
To determine the strategic implications of ideological reflexivity between IS media and US counterterrorism it is useful to once more reflect on Baudrillardian theory related to the reproductive effects of ‘hyperreal’ simulacra. In reference to the aforementioned examples, it is specifically useful to consider Baudrillard’s suggestion that the spectacle of modern terroristic violence is not ‘real’ to the extent that it resonates with its audience on an evidentiary basis. Although such spectacles may be founded in ‘real’ events, for Baudrillard, their importance in signification derives from their symbolic cultural resonance (Baudrillard, 1994). Alluding to the power of the ‘hyperreal’ spectacle in The Spirit of Terrorism, he contends that ‘violence in itself may be banal and inoffensive’, and ‘only symbolic violence is generative of singularity’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 7).
IS’s use of pretence and symbology in media spectacles has produced the organisation (in much popular public opinion) as currently the singular most ubiquitous threat internationally. The Al Hayat Mujatweet and the CSCC audio-visual examples demonstrate that subtle yet culturally resonant symbolism is communicated via each organisation’s integration of ‘globalism’ and ‘modernity’. The modern and global language, music, and digital editing techniques in the given examples explicated how terrorist and counterterrorist communications became transnationally relatable. The discussion of various IS media departments’ video and photographic material also revealed how the persuasive effect of IS propaganda corresponds to its integration of reflexive imagery that recalls US counterterrorism. It demonstrated how images of IS uniforms, hardware, and videogames, construct the organisation as a symbolic ‘counterapparatus’ to the US military.
So, although the ‘hyperreal’ effect of this reflexivity has not been a primary focus of the analysis, it is pertinent to reflect on how these examples might have tangible implications. As numerous communications experts have noted (Fiske, 2010), non-verbal forms of communication, such as audial and visual symbolism, have emerged with the advent of digital media as a prevalent instrument of social control. Through symbolism, distributors of media build sympathy and ideological consensus, in turn eventually fostering public consent for the application of politically questionable actions. In terms of IS, it is possible to observe how the ‘hyperreal’ resonance of its symbolic spectacles might render the organisation appealing and justifiable for susceptible audiences. By examining these mechanisms, it may be therefore possible to deconstruct the ideologies that motivated 22,000 foreign fighters to travel to Syria and Iraq, and that inspire ‘home-grown’ terrorists to execute IS-inspired attacks internationally. This article has thus revealed that IS attempts to legitimise its political orientation through reflexive invocations of US counterterrorism.
Although there is insufficient scope in this article to further elaborate on how these ideological characteristics of IS media render it relatable, legitimate, and attractive, it is also useful to briefly mention another perceptible implication related to ‘hyperreal’ effect of its media. This is the proliferating cultural hyper-vigilance that emerged in Eastern and Western societies in response to modern terrorist groups’ apparent international reverberation. In post-9/11 environments where everyone is deemed a potential terrorist suspect, the US and its allies have demonstrated their predisposition to engage in a ‘gigantic abreaction’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 4, 20) following terrorist-related events.
Following 9/11, for instance, ex-US President Bush declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea members of an ‘axil of evil’ for their apparent harbouring of terrorists (irrespective of the fact that their Baathist, Islamist and communist regimes were blatantly intolerant of civil unrest). Using a variety of justifications related to 9/11, the Administration then invaded Iraq, setting in motion proceedings that by the emergence of IS in 2013, had led to the deaths of at least half a million Iraqi civilians (Sheridan, 2014). In the latest US government interventions, President Obama has returned troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, bolstered the US drone program in the Middle East, and approved the arming of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels that were subjugated by the anything-but moderate IS. Indeed, the US coalition’s military and diplomatic policies to counter IS have in a number of ways logistically strengthened the organisation. In its ‘hyperreal’ manifestation, IS propaganda has catalysed novel terrorism realities.
Insofar as the ‘spectacle’ of IS terrorism can therefore be considered to precede and determine future political developments, it can also be observed, in Baudrillardian fashion, to ‘bring about an excess of reality, and to have the system collapse beneath that excess’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 18). As has been widely noted in counterterrorism literature, it was the intent of Al Qaeda and then IS to provoke US engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and to use this engagement as an apparatus for recruiting (Weiss and Hassan, 2015; Lister, 2014; and Stern and Berger, 2015). The ‘hyperreal’ consequences of ideological reflexivity have thus been foundational to IS’s ongoing propagandising strategy. Whilst scarce literature has considered the symbolic significance of reflexivity in IS media, this article has explicated its ideological influence through Baudrillardian analysis.
About the Author
Imogen Richards is a PhD candidate in Criminology at Monash University. Her current research explores the political-economic characteristics of terrorist and counterterrorist groups. Other research interests include: performativity and risk in contemporary counterterrorist thought; and political extremism in emerging digital environments. She completed a double Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and Media Theory; an Honours degree in Postmodernist Literature; and a Master of International Studies at The University of Adelaide.
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