Since 2014, the militant group known as the Islamic State (IS) has captured the imagination of the western public. My PhD project examines IS’s public display of violence, focusing on IS’s use of violent imagery and propaganda, as well as how the spectacle of violence created by the group has shaped western security politics.
On August 19, 2014, Al-Hayat Media Center, the Islamic State’s (IS) western-aimed media outlet, shared a video on the social networking platform Diaspora. The slickly produced video entitled “A Message to America” purported to show the beheading of the American photojournalist James Foley at the hands of a masked IS-fighter.
In the video, the IS-fighter — also known as Jihadi John — condemns the American government’s actions in Iraq and announces that the execution of Foley is in retaliation for the airstrikes ordered by US President Barack Obama on August 7, 2014. The actual beheading is not explicitly shown in the video. However, the video does show Jihadi John slicing Foley’s throat, followed by a shot displaying a beheaded body in a prone position with a head placed on the back, thus leaving little hope for Foley’s fate. Ominously, the video ends with the reappearance of Jihadi John, this time holding another kneeling hostage (the American photojournalist Steven Sotloff) and warning Obama that “the life of this American citizen depends on your next decision”.
I start this brief presentation of my PhD project with the image of James Foley and Jihadi John at the verge of engaging in a 21st century public display of violence, because this scene better than anything else encapsulate the theme of my research.
I started working on my PhD thesis during the summer of 2014—at the same time as IS burst onto the international stage via a steady stream of images and videos triumphantly displaying the group’s advances in the Middle East and fondness of publically executing its enemies. Due to my interest in the relations between visual politics, political violence, and power, IS’s imagery and mobilization of spectacular acts of violence presented a crucial case. Thus, I decided to spent four years of my life immersing myself in IS’s spectacle of violence.
Imagery, International Relations, and the Islamic State
My research activities are a part of ”Images and International Security”, a research project at the University of Copenhagen devoted to building new theory and empirical insights on how images influence international relations (www.images.ku.dk). The academic field of International Relations (IR) has only recently turned to the study of imagery and visual communication. Yet, imagery – and aesthetic politics more broadly – has been central to international politics for centuries.
From the gladiatorial spectacles over the fascist rallies to 21st century terrorism, the mimetic mix of image and violence has often proved to be more powerful than rational discourse. In an era of new media technologies, nonstop live-television broadcasts, and increased visual interconnectivity across borders, the importance of imagery for international politics is becoming increasingly manifest.
The individuals controlling IS’s media campaign seem to understand the power of imagery and aesthetic politics better than most. IS’s “tech-savvy” mobilization of visual media have both repelled and intrigued audiences far from the actual battlefield.
Since the launch of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), IS has suffered significant military defeats. The group has lost large territorial areas, including valuable resources and strategically important cities from Fallujah over Palmyra to Kobani. Yet, despite these defeats, the group’s international appeal and symbolic-expressive power, including its ability to create spectacles of violence and produce instant icons, has not necessarily diminished. As the debates following the recent attacks in Orlando (12/6/16), Nice (14/7/16), and Wurzburg (18/7/16) indicate, IS’s “brand” has become so powerful that its multiple media departments only have to disseminate a brief press statement — claiming responsibility, but providing no evidence — to get the group’s name attached to violent attacks.
Thus, IS is not only a militant group, operating on a territorial battlefield. It is also a visual, aesthetic phenomenon, operating on a representational, virtual battlefield. And the group’s international appeal, as well as its ability to attract attention, shape public representations, reach multiple audiences, and create spectacles of violence are not necessarily determined by its military performance. Thus, there is a need for engaging with the group’s activities on the representational, virtual battlefield, and on this battlefield images — particularly images of violence — are the strongest currency.
Examining IS’s Public Display of Violence
IS’s public display of violence has repeatedly been condemned as nihilistic destruction. Admittedly, it is tempting to conclude that individuals displaying deliberate cruelty against human bodies must be evil or just raving mad. However, the description of IS’s violent displays as senseless evil tends to obscure the group’s messages and power of attraction, and prohibits a deeper understanding of the logic, dynamics, history, and politics of the group’s practices and techniques.
Thus, a key aim of my project is to try to complicate, further, and re-politicize our understanding of IS’s violent imagery and propaganda. I do so by tracing the overall discourses, themes, and structure of IS’s media campaign. I conduct in-depth analyses of IS’s execution videos and videos inciting to terror. And I seek to draw out the logic, dynamics, and politics of IS’s spectacular displays.
Yet, the project is not just about IS’s imagery. It is also about the image of IS in the West. Since 2014, IS has gradually replaced al-Qaeda as the new public enemy and terrorist foe in many western societies. Often, IS is described as an exceptional evil—“beyond anything we have ever seen”—meriting a new, tougher counter-terrorism approach. Following, a key aim of my project is to examine how IS’s imagery and spectacular violent performances contributed to the constitution of IS “threat status” in the West. This also involves problematizing the public perception of IS – and the tendency to describe everything the group does as an exceptional event – by placing IS’s spectacle of violence in a broader historical-political context that reaches beyond the sensationalism.
In short, my project is about how IS mobilized violent imagery and displays of violence as a power strategy, as well as how the spectacle of violence created by the group has shaped western security politics. This particular focus enables the project to address a number of more general, yet increasingly pressing academic and political questions. Questions about how militant groups are becoming remarkably adept at establishing their presence and manipulating their impact through spectacular and often violent imagery. Questions about how acts of violence and their public visibility are intimately tied to power and political authority. And questions about how the global public sphere is being transformed due to accelerating global dynamics, including new forms of mediation and alterations of who controls what should be seen when, where, and how.