The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) organization shocked the West with a wave of terrorism that was accompanied by propaganda campaigns of beheadings, aimed at terrifying “the enemies of Islam” and inspiring its sympathizers to attack the West. Omar Mateen, the Orlando Pulse club shooter, for instance, downloaded and watched IS beheading videos for two years prior to his attack. The assailants of the Rouen church attack recorded themselves slicing the throat of an 84-year-old priest. In the United States as well, a man who was “obsessed with beheadings” beheaded his co-worker.
Beheadings are nothing new these days, and this IS-style gore propaganda, which has been distributed online since early 2000s, is echoed on television, in film, and even in video games. It was also reflected on the Der Spiegel cover page of its February 2017 issue, which depicted the United States’ president, Donald Trump as Jihadi John, the notorious British IS executioner. In Belgium, football fans “unfurled a giant banner depicting the severed head of an opponent.” As it seems, in the twenty-first century beheadings have gone mainstream. It is no longer alien to our reality.
While the academic literature on execution videos as Jihadi propaganda focuses on related security issues, or strategic, cultural, political and religious dimensions, little attention is being paid to the manifestations of these videos among non-Muslims. In other words, these videos have a contagious effect. Although Jihadi gore videos attract the world’s attention, Jihadists are definitely not the only violent actors who use this brutal method; and Jihadists’ videos—nowadays produced mainly by IS—have inspired non-Jihadi actors.
As is evident below, these videos affect the youth and are even linked to non-Islamic violent crimes derived from ideological, mental or criminal motives. In other words, this article deals with copycat crimes, as the technique used by Jihadists (beheading) is being imitated by non-Muslims, who were exposed to this very particular method. The academic literature on copycat violence is extensive. Researchers in the United States note that, the “media contagion” effect fuels copycat crimes such as mass shootings.
According to Ray Surette, the perpetrator of copycat crimes “must have been exposed to the media content of the original crime and must have incorporated major elements of that crime in his or her crime.” He added that “[t]he choice of victim, the motivation, or the technique in a copycat crime must have been lifted from an earlier, media-detailed generator crime.” Additionally, Jacqueline B. Helfgott wrote that “[i]mitated crimes have occurred after intense media coverage” of violent incidents, and “after fictional depictions [of crimes][…] on TV, in film, and in video games.”
In regard to the possible effects of IS beheading videos Arie W. Kruglanski said that “the very concept of beheading, that was virtually non-existent in our conscience prior to these events being propagated, is now there.” Indeed, in the last two decades, with the evolution of the Internet, this genre of videos was epidemically spread to other places, and thus it may bear lethal consequences. Instances for this notion may be found in different places such as Russia, Denmark, Japan, Israel and Brazil. This article argues that the leitmotif of all these instances is Jihadi propaganda, which documents vicious acts of murder and inspires other (non- Islamic) actors who are willing to mimic some techniques for their own purposes.
Although there is nothing new in the idea that terrorists learn from each other, current academic literature on how non-terrorist actors learn from terrorists remains under-researched. This article’s goal is to shed light on the connection between contagious violent behavior and brutal propaganda videos, and to formulate recommendations for dealing with the challenges it poses. The article’s main questions are: (1) Are Jihadi beheadings videos memetic? (2) Can this type of videos inspire violent acts that are executed due to non- Islamic motives? And (3) do violent actors learn from each other’s methods of action?
There is another relevant question: Could this contagious violent behavior be a result of ubiquitous videos rather than driven by IS specifically? Indeed, there are now more videos of everything humans do (for instance, sex) than at any point in history before. The rise in beheading videos is just one manifestation of that broader phenomenon. However, this manifestation of gore has a negative effect, with potentially drastic ramifications.
This article relies on various academic studies and media reports, as well as on primary sources (mainly videos and texts) disseminated by extremists online. This is an interdisciplinary topic, which relates to various fields of research, such as psychology, education, and the terror-crime nexus. Thus, more qualitative and quantitative studies, both on national and international levels, are required to extend the knowledge of this phenomenon and its ramifications beyond the realm of Jihadist research. “Ultimately, we’re talking about contributing to the brutalization of interpersonal and inter-group conflict all over the planet,” said Kruglanski. Accordingly, Justin Hastings also noted that these videos “might inspire some people to prefer that particular way of killing people as opposed to others.”
The Islamic State Execution Videos
Judith Tinnes, who monitors IS execution videos, has shown that from 2015 to early 2018 more than 2,000 people have been executed by the organization. IS members used a variety of ways to execute their prisoners, and its propagandists filmed many of these incidents and disseminated the documentation online. Captives were crushed by tanks, burned alive, drowned, bombed with rocket-launchers, or had explosive devices attached to their bodies. Most of the videos showed executions by either shooting or beheading. Some reports, although undocumented, mentioned the usage of chainsaws.
Although the majority of the killings took place in Iraq and Syria and over 95 percent of the victims were locals, it was the killing of foreigners that attracted global attention and became the focus of several academic publications. Furthermore, it is possible for millions around the world to be exposed to a large number of execution videos due to social media platforms (SMP) such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and increasingly Telegram, which “may play a crucial role [for Jihadists] in reaching their desired audience,” with technology that enables them to document incidents and easily distribute the documentation online.
A minority of non-Muslims also see the IS actions (reflected via SMP) in a positive way, without associating themselves with the producer. According to a survey conducted by Jack Cunliffe and Simon Cottee, involving about 2,300 American and British young adults, “a vast majority—93 percent—reported a negative attitude toward the Islamic State, and just 1 percent said they had a positive view of the group.” Moreover, they reported that “six percent were neutral. Of the 34 people who were reported to have had a positive attitude toward the Islamic State, five were Muslims.”
As violence is considered a “contagious disease,” so it can also be applied to “terrorism” and terrorist techniques. The idea that terrorism is contagious is not new; nor is the usage of media by terrorists. However, while the relation of media, contagion and copycat behavior among Islamist terrorists is well researched, it is important to shed light on the potential contagious effects of Jihadi beheading videos on non-Muslims. Indeed, besides Islamist extremists, “other kinds of ideologies of hate and terror are also disseminated via old and new media and communication technologies,” and thus, “there can be little doubt that the inspirational virus is particularly potent when diffused through media forms.”
Beheadings became synonymous with IS since its days as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then led by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi. As Tinnes noted, this method of execution “has emerged as a signature element and key feature of the IS ‘brand’ of terrorism, distinguishing the group from other jihadist and secular terrorist actors throughout the world.” Steven T. Zech and Zane M. Kelly wrote that IS videos “portray gruesome, torturous actions meant to terrorize and intimidate particular audiences,” and to “employ counter-normative violence against symbolic victims to gain compliance from adversaries.” By so doing, IS generates “fear and send[s] signals to international and local audiences.”
According to Simone Molin Friis, “besides the brutality of the acts portrayed, what has made beheading videos of particular concern is their embodiment of a manifest transformation of an image into a ‘weapon’ for agents engaged in warfare.” As he noted, “the fatal injury portrayed in the videos is carried out not for the sake of murder in itself, but with the purpose of being reproduced and watched by an audience far larger than the one directly experiencing it.” Thus, as Lilie Chouliaraki and Angelos Kissas claimed, these videos helped IS to introduce “spectacular thanatopolitics” to the West’s mainstream, and are turning it into a norm.
Execution videos were considered part of the organization’s strategy, dubbed by Aaron Y. Zelin as “The Massacre Strategy”, the goal of which is “not only to scare Iraqi Shiites but to provoke them to radicalize, […] and then commit similar atrocities against Sunnis.” AQI (and IS presently) wanted to provoke a violent reaction from its enemies, who will eventually strengthen the organization’s image as the protector and savior of Sunnis. These “public displays of violence”, as Friis called it, “have played a central role in the group’s global campaign.”
Online Jihadi Propaganda in the Context of Cumulative Extremism
The use of the Internet by violent extremists is well explored, as it “has become the agent of virtual inspirational contagion.” It is also applied to the Jihadi use of the Internet, which raised some questions about the influence that the Internet has on extremists. Meleagrou-Hitchens and Nick Kaderbhai explained that “Internet alone is not generally a cause of radicalization, but can act as a facilitator and catalyst of an individual’s trajectory towards violent political acts.” Online Jihadism, thus, is contagious; it helps to recruit and mobilize people to perform violent acts. The impacts of these online activities also transcend the Jihadist milieu, as explained below.
This article uses the term “Jihad” in the context of terrorism, the executors of which define themselves as Salafists, who consider this kind of violence to be a necessary part of a sacred struggle against “the enemies of Islam”. These enemies are described as both “inside” the Muslim world – regimes and societies that are seen as “not Islamic enough” and which do not apply the Sharia (the Islamic law) appropriately – and on the “outside”, referring to non-Muslim nations that engage in conflicts with Muslim nations, occupy Islamic territories or otherwise negatively affect them politically, culturally and religiously.
Propaganda “in the most neutral sense means to disseminate or to promote particular ideas.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defined this term as “any kind of ideas, doctrines or requests that are distributed [in the purpose of] affecting the opinion, the feelings, the attitudes or the lifestyles of any specified group with the intention of producing gain for the distributer whether directly or obliquely.” Online Jihadi propaganda, which dates back to the 1990s, has become increasingly sophisticated, and is aimed at influencing billions of people, both Muslims and non-Muslims. This is why IS propagandists have used hash tags that are not related to the Jihadi struggle whatsoever. For example, propaganda videos were distributed along with hash tagging the well-known American pop singer Justin Bieber. However, extending the target audience of Jihadists while using beheading videos creates new challenges: (1) it inspires other Jihadists to copycat the act; (2) it was adopted by non-Muslim political extremists; and, (3) it has been mimicked for criminal purposes.
Al-Qaeda and other Jihadi groups have used (and still use) “formal” and “informal” websites and forums through which Jihadists communicate and publish propaganda. However, these forums suffered from “technical problems” and were closed for a long period. This marked the evolution of “Jihadist social media”, which has had a strong impact on the youth and serves as an uncontrolled and violent sphere. Further, if “in today’s world any incident might easily trigger deep-rooted aggression,” it is possible that gruesome Jihadi propaganda triggers non-Jihadi aggression.
In 2006, Roger Eatwell defined the process in which one extremist group provokes a reaction (“a spiral”) from another extremist group as “cumulative extremism”. In December 2017, Ben Wallace, the British security minister, said that “extremists on all sides of arguments would love to dominate the ground and antagonize their opponents, pushing them to the extreme to ultimately cause some form of conflict.” Peter R. Neumann wrote that there is a risk “that radicals at opposite ends of the political spectrum will drive each other to further extremes.”
Accordingly, there is a risk that brutality by one group will provoke more brutality. Different extremists are not only driving each other to further extremes, they also learn and even copy from each other. For example: in Britain, the neo-Nazi group National Action mimicked IS in its videos and even advocated “White Jihad”. In Italy, the Crusader State group, with a Facebook page with more than 10,000 likes, produced several IS-style videos. In the United States, neo-Nazis planned to attack their anti-fascist rivals with a suicide-bombing. 
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. This article is the first in a two part series on Jihadi Beheadings.