This is Part 2 in a series; read Part 1 here.
The Gore as Jihadist Propaganda Tool
Video clips are regarded as catalysts for violence, hence, they are perhaps most significant for Jihadi propaganda.  Beheading videos have been used as Jihadi propaganda since the 1990s. This happened for example during the “Caucasus Wars” between Russia and separatists-Jihadists from Chechnya and Dagestan (1994-1996, 1999). One infamous example is a video which shows Chechen Islamist fighters slaughtering six Russians soldiers, one after another.
The first beheading video of a Western captive was of the Jewish-American journalist, Daniel Pearl. Kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, in January 2002, he was murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “the architect” of the September 11 attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tried to prevent the distribution of Pearl’s execution video by pressuring Internet service providers, as well as various website owners, to remove the video. However, these days there are designated websites for this type of disturbing content, which continue to spread violent propaganda. For example, Pearl’s murder video was uploaded to the former website Ogrish. com, which collected “snuff ” videos of murder, torture, car accidents and so forth. However, the FBI demanded Ogrish.com to remove the video. According to the website, the FBI warned its managers that they would be prosecuted if they allow the publication of Pearl’s murder. “We had no other choice than deleting the video… We live in a censored world.” Today, typing Ogrish.com on a search engine (such as Google) will get you to LiveLeak.com that distributes various videos; including execution videos, disguised as news site without censorship.
Pearl’s murder inspired and was followed by other Jihadists. As Gabriel Weimann noted, “this pattern was later repeated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the insurgents in Iraq, who beheaded numerous hostages and posted the videotaped executions online.” Beheading videos turned out to be a useful tool for terrorizing the Jihadists’ enemies. In Iraq, the first American who was decapitated in front of a camera was Nicholas Berg, who was abducted by al-Zarqawi’s organization and was beheaded by al-Zarqawi himself.
Similarly to Pearl’s case, the video of Berg’s murder was distributed online, and thus received global attention.  According to Nico Prucha, Berg’s video had a significant impact on western and non-western media.
Not only were millions exposed to the propaganda, but it seems that many were interested and “provoked” by it. After Berg’s video was spread online, it became a “viral hit” that reminded the viewers of the murder of Daniel Pearl. Dozens more people of different nationalities eventually shared Berg’s fate.
Effective IS propagandists have inspired several attacks in the West. However, as Charlie Winter argued, exposure to “propaganda alone is not the reason that someone becomes a supporter [of IS]. What propaganda does do, though, is catalyze the individual’s radicalization and concentrate their already-held sympathies.” Therefore, beheading videos serve “as a vehicle by which to convey both vengeance and supremacy.” Yet, it does have a role in the decision to kill, and in a particular way. For example, in November 2017 it was revealed that a British couple planned to behead Paul Goldwin, the leader of Britain First, an extreme right-wing British street movement, as well as Katie Hopkins, a British anti-Islamic media personality.
The influence, first and foremost, manifested itself by the act of decapitation. In September 2014, Australian authorities arrested fifteen Australian-Muslims who planned an attack in the streets of Sydney. The thwarted scheme was to abduct passersby in broad daylight and slaughter them in front of cameras. This plot was dubbed by the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbot, as “demonstration killings”, the sole purpose of which was spreading terror through the streets of Sydney and humiliate Australia. In November 2014, a young British man was arrested for planning to decapitate a soldier or a policeman.
In September 2015, in Denmark, a 15-year-old girl and her 30-year-old “Islamist” boyfriend watched IS videos on YouTube. They later stabbed the girl’s mother to death while she was asleep and decapitated her. In December, a man in London who was inspired by IS tried to decapitate people at a Subway station. In Russia, at the beginning of March 2016, a nanny of Uzbek ethnicity was caught on cameras with the severed head of a 4-year-old girl. After being arrested the nanny stated to Russian media that she learned how to decapitate a person from propaganda videos.
Mimicking the Jihadists’ Technique
A survey of Cunliffe and Cottee about the propaganda videos produced by IS reveals the wide spectrum of people who were exposed to this propaganda. Cottee explains that they were “surprised by respondents” who reported exposure to the Islamic State’s videos. Fifty-seven percent said they had watched an Islamic State video before, beyond clips shown on TV and in online news material.” Furthermore, “[o]f this number, an even more remarkable 46 percent said [that] they had seen more than 10 Islamic State videos.”
Jihadi beheading videos were also mimicked by other extremists who had previously not been associated with this type of gruesome propaganda. For example, in 2007 two neo-Nazis in Russia uploaded a three-minute video clip to YouTube, in which they documented their murder of two migrant workers, allegedly Spaniards. The victims are seen lying with their hands tied and then sitting under a Nazi flag stretched between two trees. One victim was decapitated and the other one was shot in the head. The killers, both of them masked and dressed in black, were standing in front of the camera with their backs to the Nazi flag making the Nazi salute.  It is the first recording of decapitation by neo-Nazis in the twenty-first century.
According to Sova, a center for monitoring hate-crimes in Russia, “Neo-Nazi Russian gangs radicalize further and further while borrowing tactics from Islamic extremists.” Approximately a year after the murder of the two Spaniards Sova received an e-mail message with an attached picture of a beheaded Tajik immigrant. The motive for these actions is ideological, although violent Jihadi propaganda also provides inspiration for violence driven by criminal motives or mental illness. In 2008, law enforcement in the United States foiled a neo-Nazi plot to assassinate former president Barack Obama. The plot was to kill 88 African-Americans, 14 by beheading. These numbers are symbolic to neo-Nazis, as “88” stands for “HH” (Hail Hitler) and “14” stands for “14 words”, a popular white supremacist slogan.
Mexican drug cartels (MDCs), for example, are sympathetic with beheadings even more than the IS. Like IS, they are very active on SMP. Are the cartels drawing inspiration by Jihadists, or is it the other way around? It is very difficult to know for certain, but in the world of SMP it is not baseless to assume that the influence is mutual: the cartels are inspired by IS and vice versa. This type of inspiration is manifested by the actual nickname of Iván Velázquez Caballero, one of the leaders of Los Zetas cartel, who adopted the name (or received it from his peers): “El Talibano” (referencing the Taliban).
Some argue that the influence and inspiration that cartels draw from the Jihadists is expressed by the method of decapitating in front of the camera. For example, according to Ioan Grillo, a journalist who lived in Mexico, “[d]ecapitation was almost unheard of in modern Mexico” until 2006, when the former Mexican president Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels. Brian J. Philips wrote that the Mexican government reported “1,303 decapitated bodies in the country between 2007 and 2011.” As Grillo explained, “[s]ome of the first narco snuff videos looked almost frame for frame like Al Qaeda execution videos.”
Philips noted that “the use of this tactic [decapitation] took off around the same time that groups in Iraq were using similar methods to draw attention with Internet videos.” He added that “[i]t is likely that there was some co-evolution, with both types of groups learning from each other’s online butchery as the years went on.” Don Winslow argued the contrary; that IS learned from the MDCs. “This is the ISIS playbook,” he wrote, “social media as a means of intimidation, recruitment, and provocation; mass murder as a means of control – that we now watch with horror and revulsion. In reality, we’ve been seeing it for years. Just across our border. ISIS learned it from the cartels.”
Is it possible that Jihadists draw inspiration from the cartels? In 2011, two cartel members were decapitated by their rivals, one of them with a chainsaw and the other with a knife. Five years later, in the city of Mosul, Iraq, it was reported by an Iraqi News outlet that nine young men were executed by ISIS with chainsaws, after being blamed of espionage. IS videos even showed children chopping off a bound man’s head. In 2012, both IS and the MDCs produced videos with similar scenes of drive-by shootings. Both also recorded execution by explosives more or less at the same time, during 2015.
Beheadings as part of drug wars and crime are not unique to Mexico. For example, in March 2016 the severed head of a Dutch criminal was found inside a burning car in Amsterdam. In December 2014, two kids in Israel attacked a schoolmate because they wanted to steal his bicycle. The attackers hit their victim and threatened him with a knife, declaring that they would “do to him like ISIS.” One of them asked or maybe threatened: “Do you know how it is done by ISIS?”
In February 2015, three kids in Japan were arrested after they beheaded a 13-year-old boy. The killers “watched internet videos showing the execution of hostages by Islamic State fighters and sought to mimic them.” Less than a month later, also in Japan, a 14-year-old boy tried to behead his school’s pet goat, after watching IS videos. It should be noted that in Israel, IS cell members “taught themselves to slaughter sheep, apparently in preparation for slaughtering humans.”
On the same day in which the bicycle theft case inspired by IS was reported in Israel, reports were published about a serial killer arrested in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The murderer, a 23-year-old man called Jonathan Lopes dos Santos, was arrested after decapitating the heads of five prostitutes and seriously injuring others. Dos Santos confessed that these crimes were inspired by the horror videos distributed by IS. To the question of a reporter about why he committed the murder, Dos Santos replied: “I don’t know, I think it’s because I watch a lot of war videos.”
Although some may argue that the case studies reviewed in this analysis are merely a number of incidents of the same sort of violence happening in different places around the world by different groups, scholars and professionals should not neglect the fact that IS beheading videos have an effect on various actors; not only on IS sympathizers or other terrorists, but on criminals as well, and on the youth. IS, it seems, has successfully mainstreamed beheadings and provided a source from which many could be inspired or copy practices.
The examples described throughout this article illustrate how violent Jihadist propaganda, presented in the execution videos, impacts societies and individuals in various regions across the world. It also provides inspiration for brutal acts carried out by non-Jihadists for other reasons, including ideological (as in the case of the neo-Nazis), criminal (as in the case of the cartels) or mentally ill (as in the case of Dos Santos).
This indicates that homicide committed in the name of “religion” may provide inspiration for “non-religious” acts of murder. In other words, Jihadist beheading videos are memetic. Through the Internet, visual depictions of decapitation have been adapted and imitated by an increasing variety of actors. Moreover, the mutual processes of learning among radical entities that use brutality as means of propaganda and adopt the method of decapitation is clearly evident. In this manner, such an act becomes common with its own perceived legitimacy among the perpetrators.
This brief review reflects the broader phenomenon of how these propaganda videos impact our lives in the modern age of social media. Hence, the use of violence after watching Islamic State propaganda videos, or the adoption of the decapitation technique in executions, is not a unique characteristic of Muslim extremists in general nor Jihadists in particular. It is embodied in the brutal cases of violence and physical threats that have occurred in many different places.
The distribution of violent propaganda videos may contribute to radicalization and to the adoption of the beheading technique as a means of intimidation or deterrence. A civilized society cannot afford to be carried away by propaganda, the goal of which is to undermine the order of society, personal security, and thus national security. This is also true regarding the propaganda of IS and other radical entities, from ideological types like the neo-Nazis or criminals like the drugs cartels in Mexico.
Confronting these brutal propaganda videos requires cooperation on different levels, since the repercussions of the distribution of these videos seem to affect many people around the world. For instance, cooperation is required between countries as well as corporations that create technological tools used for distributing propaganda. It is also important for the media to not encourage murderers by providing an audience or contextual resonance. For this reason, the media should consider not publishing the details of murder methods and the murderers’ identities, whatever their motives may be. Furthermore, governments should use diplomatic, legal, and educational tools that help ensure a balance between free speech and restricting the distribution of violent content on the Internet. In addition to security and intelligence organizations, governments should enlist the involvement of educational institutions as well, as an educational system is best equipped to affect young people who can be inspired and influenced more easily by violent propaganda. Therefore, cooperative efforts should be increased in the field of education, both on the national and international levels, especially in view of the intense exposure of young people to today’s violent content openly disseminated via the various SMP, a problem that is not relevant to just one nation, but rather common to all humans and societies that seek life. “Do you know how it is done by ISIS?” a young Israeli kid asked his classmate, and the answer to this question is obvious, not only in Israel but also in many countries around the world; a definite “YES”. This should be a cause for serious concern.
This article was first published in Perspectives on Terrorism, a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies reprinted under Creative Commons 3.0 license. The first part was published on August 16th, 2018.