— This is something I just wrote down, without planning too much. I realize that it might be a little bit confusing. This is just me, just rumbling on. —
Time and time again, fascists try to rebrand themselves to regain traction. They look for new symbols, to replace those, that have become too easily recognizable as belonging to their despicable agenda, or to replace those, that are outright illegal to use. And with the new symbols come new slogans. The change is limited to the outside appearance though.
I have quite some knowledge of how Islamist propaganda videos look like, and when I come across videos by groups that associate themselves with neo fascist agendas in the West, quite often it strikes me how similar they are in appearance. Take for instance the video below from a group that associates itself with the so-called Identitarian movement. The way these men run through the forest and wrestle looks so youthful and modern, yet the same is true for by many of the Islamist propaganda that tries to find recruits in the West. When looking through my collection for a video to pair with the Identitarian, I was somewhat lazy. This was the one I found first and this is why I used it. There are many others, that look more modern than this one here and that utilize a similar lightheartedness, than that is found in the Identitarian video, to spread their hatred.
But why do these groups that seem to aim for a weird sense of stability, one that is promised if you follow conservative values, constantly evolve? Maybe this could be explained, if we look at these groups as part of a youth movement that changes from generation to generation. Every generation that comes of age, has to define itself new. Fashion trends change constantly, and the army boots, skinhead haircuts and bomber jackets of the 90s just lost their appeal to the next generation of Nazis.
Many parties in the West have long ago formed their youth organization. In Germany, every major party has one. That is quite clever. There is the real party, with a grown-up agenda, aiming for real world politics, and then there is the youth wing that is allowed to be more extreme and sometimes even youthfully delusional.
Maybe this is true for ISIS as well. When looking at the propaganda, I have always found it quite interesting, that there seems to be a whole multitude of target audiences. On one hand, ISIS tries to appear like a state that is somewhere out there and that does stately things. Building roads, providing food and entertainment, or even punishing criminals – whoever those might be under their jurisdiction. But then there is also the propaganda that tries to recruit young people in the West and locally. This propaganda has a different appeal to it. This is the propaganda that tries to look young and fresh. Could it be, that this propaganda looks different because it is part of a youth culture?
We have to keep in mind, that at least in part, ISIS is the result of the Arab Spring, which in itself was driven to a huge extend by a disillusioned youth. Countries, that have been encapsulated by a crust of old elites, with little to no hope for a better future, served as a hotbed for a revolting youth. And when the promises, that were made, were broken, ISIS filled the void by promising an even brighter future.
In my youth, I had been fascinated by radical left ideas. I desperately wanted to fight for a better world. It just happened, that my own endeavor never turned violent, but I guess, I might have been walking a fine line. There were certainly violent groups and players that had an appeal to me; in hindsight though, I have come to realize that the promises they made back then were lies. I wanted to struggle for freedom and liberty and these groups pretended to do fight for the same goals. Yet, the stories by folks like Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh and reality are two different things. But it sounded tempting.
When I was at that age, I might have been just lucky that there were not so many revolutions easily accessible, that were calling for volunteers to fight. Even if they would have, I could have never afforded to book a flight to, let’s say Nicaragua.
Of course, the things done by ISIS and Co are terrible, but I wonder how we will be able to cope with the next way of unrest, if we merely look at ISIS as something solitary. As something that is rooted in some specific issues, of some specific time. There is this aspect as well. The set of problems at work in the Middle East post Arab Spring are different than the problems in Cuba under the rule of the Batista regime. But there is also the struggle of the youth every society has to cope with.
The growing inequality in many societies, the overpopulation, the disappearance of job opportunities, due to the coming AI breakthrough, climate change, these problems – and many more beyond our horizon -, mean that coming youth generations might have even more reasons to feel disenfranchised in the society they live in. Struggling violently, might seem even more tempting than it is now.
I think it is very dangerous, to look at the problems ISIS seems to cause amongst the youth around us, as something that is just linked to groups like ISIS and therefore as something we might be able to defeat on the battlefield. Members of coming generations are going to take up arms again and fight their own fight. ISIS is going to disappear. And the radical forms of religion are going to grow out of fashion amongst many young people. But religion is just some banner to unite under in a world that seems to hate you.
Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.
Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.
The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.
One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.
Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.
A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.
To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.
The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.
Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.
I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.
Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.
In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.
These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.
– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.
– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.
– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.
– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?
– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.
– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.
– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.
– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.
– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.
What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.
This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling. Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.
We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.
What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.
This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.
With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.
I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.
Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?
Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.
So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.
The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.
Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.
Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.
Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.
I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.
The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.
The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!
It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.
That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.
The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.
What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.
It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.
Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.
Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.
So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.
But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.
Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.
After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.
I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.
Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.
Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.
Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.
In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.
There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.
I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.
But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.
Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule. That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.
Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.
We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.
Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.
It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.
I have to go back to the developing drone war that involves homemade drones that were first introduced by ISIS, since this currently develops quickly and that makes me think. It might be two years ago, when the first remote controlled drones – little quad copters with cameras – had been used by groups surrounding ISIS to document suicide attacks involving cars. Mostly the car could be seen speeding through a desert landscape towards apparent enemy positions, before exploding. Sometimes, before the final blast, smaller explosions could be seen as an indication of an attempt to stop the attacker. Sometimes even tiny figures were visible running away from incoming mayhem.
When the first videos of this kind showed up, that was something that changed the visual language of these videos for good. It was quite sexy to be frank and that might be the main reason why these scenes quickly became a new norm for the creation of terrorist propaganda. More and more suicide attacks were presented in exactly the same way – a long shot from the accidental documentation of terror attacks via surveillance cameras or the shaky footage taken with cellphones.
For maybe a year or so, these new visuals were a Syria and Iraq (i.e. mostly ISIS) exclusive. The fact that then, groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, managed to catch up, by producing their own drown footage reveals that there is a visual arms race at works, when it comes to propaganda. This is not new and whenever there has been an innovation in propaganda, every side involved in the struggle attempted to catch up as quickly as possible. This predates any modern form of visual creation by far. An example would be the use of woodcut prints during the Thirty Years War. But it is still interesting to look at the extremely fast pace of these developments – and it still baffles me that many of the groups involved yell “Death to the West”, while holding Japanese Cameras and uploading the videos to YouTube and Co. War is corrupt and getting involved might corrupt you – that is not new either.
A couple months ago, the next step in the development became visible. To this point, these gimmicky drones had only been used to document attacks – be it by suicide bombers or regular attackers -, or to provide reconnaissance; all things that mostly utilized the capability of these drones to record and send video images. But this changed when makeshift attachments were developed that enabled the operator to attach explosives to the drones that were then dropped on enemy targets. The first video that shows such an attack, at least the first one I have encountered, is of quite a low quality and the missile shaped bomblets seem quite crude. If the meta information of the file I have is correct, this video was created in early September 2016. The video show two attacks and does not include much more. Neither the drone itself is shown, nor anything prior to the attacks themselves.
Even though these were some of the first instances, where the drones themselves became part of the warfare, the claim that they did was made much earlier. While documenting attacks by suicide bombers in their cars, the propaganda videos containing drone footage tried to emulate visual effects one might expect from “real” drone strikes. Even though not necessary when flying a little camera drone the videos very often included different displays and markings. Like the ones one can see in computer flight simulators or in footage from real planes. So, the claim was made that the flying objects were more real than they actually are.
This became more evident, when quite recently – if I am correct, on January 24th 2017 – a video was released that showed extensive use of drones in battle. I discussed this video in particular earlier, so I might repeat myself, but this here is a more in-depth text. This video shows two ISIS fighters launching a remote-controlled plane. One that is made to resemble the newest generation of American stealth drones. Ever since one of these drones was captured by the Iranian Armed Forces, the shape of these drones became something of a prototype of what drones are supposed to look like. The drone used by ISIS is much smaller than the original, but that seems of little importance in terms of its propaganda value. The drone is even shown dropping two small bombs, which are in fact modified rifle grenades.
It is quite interesting that, upon a closer look at the video, it becomes clear that the drone shown in detail, the one that is made to resemble the American stealth drones, is not the one that drops the explosives during combat. It is quite clear that whatever drops those bombs is hovering and therefore must be different from the one shown. These shitty little helicopter style drones, might make good bomb-dropping-devices, their visual appearance is the one of toys. I find it quite funny that there is a group that has a deadly weapon at hand – the quad copters – but for propaganda purposes they need to show something that is far less effective. If they are effective at all.
It turns out though, that “close inspection” is not necessarily what one has to be afraid of, when producing propaganda videos. The fact that murder via drones isn’t a monopoly of America any longer has been noticed by some media outlets. Guess which images are used to illustrate this development? Of course, it is the two guys launching a dysfunctional killing machine. So, the propaganda has been successful in this respect. The article shown here describes how the drone shown is the one that attacks soldiers and bystanders. That is wrong. People are attacked and maybe people are killed. But it is not by the drone shown. Does this make a difference? I would argue that it does. The fact that someone made the effort to make the drone look much fancier than it actually is, shows us that this is an attempt to appear more sophisticated. ISIS wants to be recognized as a global player and not like the random – and incredibly lucky – terror group, which they are. For a fight against a group that utilizes mere toy drones for their terrible deeds the United States would not need to raise their military budget by 54 Billion Dollar, but to fight a group that is capable of using these “highly advanced” drones? Well, take our money – right?!?
So, it seems as if one has to be careful with propaganda. I would argue that this is true for everyone involved.
This form of drone warfare seems to be extremely tempting and as it seems, ever side pretty much has started to implement these techniques. You’ll find a huge number of images and videos that refer to the use of quad copters to drop small amounts of explosive by the Iraqi Armed Forces for instance. Quite often it seems as if they just use the drones sized from ISIS forces, but things are already changing and the development is not going to stop here. Not matter how things develop from this point on, some changes are already quite apparent to me. This is the point where I believe that propaganda might come back to hunt the propagandist.
When ISIS used the first drones to produce their videos – the ones that did not kill but merely capture -, they quickly felt tempted to include the appearance of US drone strikes by adding some graphics to the videos that made them appear as if “real” drones had been involved in the attacks. By the way this was also done in the very first drone video from Afghanistan.
As with the use of orange jump suits when executing prisoners and hostages, this was done as a reference to American atrocities. We consumers of videos online are taught to expect certain looks in certain cases. We have a vague idea of what a drone strike might look like. It certainly includes some infographics. Like the ones, a pilot would see. Or the ones, that would be added afterwards to make videos released by the US Armed forces easier to decipher. In a way, this is funny, since most of the videos one can find searching the Web that are labeled as “drone strike footage” haven’t been taken by the cameras mounted on drones. Most of the material is from attacks by regular planes or more often attack helicopters. The real visual language used by real drones remains invisible and classified. Maybe this would reveal too much of the capabilities of these weapon systems.
That doesn’t really matter. We have a somewhat fixed idea of what drone strikes have to look like and ISIS and Co try to emulate it. But what happens if you overdo it? I mean the fact that the “real” drone war, the one over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – well, pretty much all over the globe, where you find people with brown skin and the wrong faith – remains invisible, while ISIS creates an visual overabundance of examples of their “do-as-if-done-war”, might come back to harm the propagandists. Already, in the West, the outrage over the American drone warfare is quite limited, but now the term “drone” and “drone warfare” becomes more and more associated with the things the other side does. Plus, the more professional the images look that are created by the new players, the easier it becomes to use them in reports by the media in the west. All the CIA and the American Armed Forces have to do is to further limit their visual output and ISIS ends up flooding all channels with their propaganda.
What had been intended as a carefully produced reference to Western atrocities is going to be a reference to one’s own atrocities. This has already happened with the use of orange jump suits, which was originally intended as a justification towards the terrible things that were done by foreigners to Muslims in places like Guantanamo Bay, but the images that were created were far catchier than the source material. Imagine a guy kneeling in an orange jump suit. What does this remind you of? An execution by ISIS or a prisoner in an American prison camp? Right now it still might be both, but things seem to shift quickly.
And now think about the images of a drone strike. There is already very little to visualize on the American side and ISIS and Co work hard to define these visuals as well. Just wait for the first drone strike somewhere in the West, where the attacker manages to capture the video feed and propagate it online. This then is certainly going to be one of the defining image when you are thinking about the term drone attack.