Since 2014, the Islamic State trademark has been ever more gruesome killings captured on high-resolution videos with slick production values. Shared widely on social media, this has proved a grisly way of not only spreading terror but also forming the group’s “brand” and serving as a recruiting tool.
What began with clips of the beheadings of prisoners – invariably accompanied by a masked man holding aloft a black Islamic State flag – has become almost an industry in its own right.
The beheadings of American journalist James Foley, Israeli-American reporter Steven Sotloff and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig were shown in a succession of clips released through 2014. Foley was the first U.S. citizen to feature in an Islamic State execution video, but Iraqi and Syrian soldiers have also been butchered, as well as men accused of defecting from ISIS.
By the following year, those responsible for the films were clearly looking for even more depraved ways to win attention, moving on to horribly creative methods of killing and well-rehearsed set pieces of mass execution.
The following month, a half-hour film showed the execution of two groups of Ethiopian Christians, including three asylum seekers who left Israel, apparently captured in Libya, who were marched to a beach and slaughtered.
In June 2015, a video was released showing the execution of 16 hostages – six were trapped inside a metal cage and slowly drowned, while four others were locked in a car, blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade and shown burning to death. The remaining seven were forced to kneel and killed by an explosive belt wound in turn around each of their necks.
The following month, the Islamic State combined child soldiers and mass execution, releasing a video showing a group of boys marching more than 25 Syrian soldiers onto the stage of the vast amphitheater at the ancient site of Palmyra. The soldiers were forced to kneel and shot in the back of the head.
Another video showed a boy beheading a prisoner, while the latest batch includes film of 10 victims forced to kneel on top of buried explosives that were then detonated.
Documentations of gruesome punishments have also been released, including men thrown to their death from high buildings for the “crime” of homosexuality. One film showed two blindfolded men being pushed off an apartment building in Homs before their limp bodies were stoned by enthusiastic crowds who had gathered to watch. Other videos showed men being executed for a range of offenses including a failure to fast during Ramadan.
Although there have been numerous executions of women, including for refusing to have sex with fighters and for “sorcery,” the Islamic State appears to have been more squeamish about releasing these videos. The group has released clips of women about to be stoned for crimes such as adultery, but has shied away from more graphic footage, presumably because it believes doing so would mar its propaganda efforts.
The trend may be coming to an end, with reports in July that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for scenes showing the moment of death to be cut. Films may now only show victims before and after execution. He was said to be concerned that the extremely graphic scenes might risk alienating potential recruits.