Alex Massie: Snuff terrorism stains humanity

The awful videos of Islamic State appeal to people happy to retreat from western norms of decency.
The awful videos of Islamic State appeal to people happy to retreat from western norms of decency.
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THE ever-more gruesome propaganda videos of Islamic State are like a twisted action film franchise, says Alex Massie

Five men, clad in orange jumpsuits, stand in a cage which is suspended above a swimming pool somewhere in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Cameras are attached to the bars of the cage. Slowly, the cage is lowered into the water and the cameras record the final moments of these five men’s lives before they are drowned.

Elsewhere, another group of prisoners is locked inside a maroon saloon car before a hooded executioner in combat fatigues fires a rocket-propelled grenade which sets the car ablaze, burning to death the men inside.

Most horrifyingly of all, perhaps, a third set of prisoners, again clad in the orange jumpsuits that are by now all too familiar, are forced to kneel as an explosive cable of the kind used to demolish buildings is wrapped around their necks. The seven men are yoked together and decapitated when the cable is detonated.

These are some of the scenes contained in the latest video released by Islamic State (Isis). You can find it online if you wish; I would not recommend watching it. The facts, as related above, suffice. Even by Isis’s horrifying standards these murders take the organisation’s depravity to fresh flesh-creeping heights.

Even still photographs taken from the video represent a kind of pornography of evil. Looking at them is liable to leave you feeling drained, numb, sick and in desperate need of a bath.

And that, of course, is the point. These executions are supposed to terrify. There is nothing banal about them. It is terrorism for the online age in which each atrocity merely raises the bar for the next batch of murders. Isis’s outrages have reached the point where, appalling as it is to say so, a “simple” beheading is now old-hat. Been there. Done that. Hence these ever more elaborate executions, as though Islamic State were producing a series of action movies, each requiring to be more complicated and spectacular than the last.

If this were the movies, the franchise would be subject to the law of ever diminishing returns. But of course, it is not the movies and we are, instead, left to wonder – in silent horror – what Isis will do next. What will be their next “spectacular”? How, forgive me, can their franchise be “rebooted”?

Even so, these propaganda videos suggest Isis also needs to draw attention away from a number of recent reverses it has suffered on the battlefield. Kurdish forces have been advancing on Raqqa, the Syrian city that has become Islamic State’s nominal capital, and have succeeded in taking a number of towns and bases from Isis. It remains unlikely that the Kurds intend to launch a full-scale assault on Raqqa, preferring instead to consolidate their gains and establish a secure, Kurdish-controlled area inside Syria. Nevertheless this, like the recent special forces raid in which Abu Sayyaf, a leading jihadi, was killed is a reminder that Isis, though still strong, are not invulnerable.

Nonetheless, Isis continues to attract a stream of fighters and sympathisers, not just from this country but from all across western europe. As it should, this shocks us but, perhaps, it ought not to surprise us. Evil, even in its purest forms, has never lacked for supporters. Indeed, it is precisely Isis’s transgressive rejection of all civilised norms that lends the organisation its gruesome appeal.

In that respect, Isis offers the prospect of an intoxicating freedom even as it demands its recruits live within the sharply defined boundaries of its own brand of radical Islam. Paradoxically, it offers liberation and confinement at the same time. Above all, however, it represents, to its adherents, a kind of purity that allows the believers to exist outwith the boundaries of one society and inside the limits of another. A retreat from western norms and, for some, a kind of spiritual emancipation.

It is precisely Isis’s blend of fantasy and reality that makes it such a dangerously alluring prospect for westerners disillusioned with the perceived banality of everyday life in Britain, France, Belgium or Sweden. For these people Isis possesses, whether we like to admit it or not, a murderous glamour. It is simultaneously a terrorist organisation, a criminal racket and a cult. It is a deadly combination and the more extreme it is, the more it is likely to prosper. Indeed, it cannot stand still and must, like a compulsive gambler, constantly up the stakes.

Nor, it is clear, is there very much the United States and its allies can do to thwart Isis. American enthusiasm for further adventures in the Middle East is all but non-existent. Limited, certainly, to drone patrols and occasional special forces operations. Where Washington leads – or does not lead – the world follows.

In any case, most of the options available can be plotted on a graph in which one axis is marked “gruesome” and the other “impossible”. Smashing Isis is intuitively appealing but the guessable consequences of doing so – in the midst of a multi-party, four-dimensional struggle – are so great as to render the unknowable impact of any action almost beside the point.

This is a dismal, disheartening state of affairs. Almost any action that weakens one impossible party in this conflict is likely to boost another almost-as-impossible organisation. So nervous inaction becomes the default position and, perhaps, the least risky option though it is also, unavoidably, gloomy and even dishonourable.

Perhaps the Isis storm will blow itself out though, at present, that seems a matter of wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the promise of an earthly paradise in a fallen world will continue to exert a ghastly, magnetic, pull for some. In that respect Isis is merely the latest incarnation of an extremism that’s as old as religion itself. It is simply retooled for the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube age. A kind of snuff terrorism that stains humanity. There will be more of these videos.