Islamic State video of captured British photographer signals a shift in the group’s propaganda
The latest Islamic State video showing captured British war photographer John Cantlie signals a shift in the extremist group’s propaganda as it loses territory, analysts say.
At the start of the video released this week Cantlie stands in front of what he describes as a damaged bridge across the Tigris River linking the east and west sides of Mosul, the Sunni Muslim militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq. Three other bridges were destroyed by airstrikes and one remained, he said.
People try to cross the bridge’s wreckage and black smoke billows in the background.
“You can see the absolute pandemonium it’s creating,” Cantlie says. “You have to ask yourself: If this is the coalition’s war against the mujahedin then why are they waging it against the Muslims of Mosul?”
Some analysts were struck by the video, whose content could not be independently verified. They pointed to a shift in tone from previous videos featuring Cantlie that presented Islamic State as invincible, as well as the images of damaged infrastructure as the group fights U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.
“Last year he was talking about how ISIS was unstoppable, the West had to negotiate with them. Now he’s standing in front of bridges that are destroyed,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Gartenstein-Ross said the video epitomizes how Islamic State has moved from a narrative of invincibility to victimization as it lost ground in Mosul and elsewhere. Islamic State seized Mosul, once the country’s second-largest city with a diverse population of about 1.2 million, in 2014.
“The message has flipped from the ‘ISIS can’t be stopped’ theme to a ‘you’re destroying our infrastructure and hurting innocent civilians’ theme,” he said.
Islamic State went from holding 40% of Iraq at its peak to about 10% now, according to IHS Conflict Monitor, and the group’s so-called caliphate shrank at least 16% this year. It hasn’t captured any new territory since May 2015, Gartenstein-Ross said.
After the Iraqi government-led offensive to recapture Mosul started Oct. 17, forces swiftly moved to surround and enter the eastern half of the city, where they appear to be making slow progress against the militants, recently capturing a training facility and hospital.
The militants are “losing on the battlefield. It’s hard to maintain a narrative of unstoppability, a winner’s narrative, when you haven’t taken and held any new ground,” he said.
Islamic State has not only moved away from propaganda selling itself as a functioning bureaucracy, or caliphate, it has also winnowed its output, focusing on the damage done by Western attacks, according to a study released this fall by terrorism researchers at West Point.
In August 2015, Islamic State’s media arm released more than 700 pieces of propaganda in Iraq, Syria and several other countries. A year later, that had declined to fewer than 200, according to the study. The study also found that during the same period, the share of Islamic State propaganda focusing on the military topics doubled to 70%, eclipsing governance, commerce and other aspects of civilian life.
The latest video was produced recently, after four of the bridges were destroyed late last month, but before an airstrike this week, said Rita Katz, director of Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors activity by Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Katz has watched Cantlie’s popularity increase among jihadis online since he was captured in Syria four years ago.
Islamic State often doesn’t immediately claim responsibility for kidnappings or reveal the identities of its hostages. But among captives who have been identified, Cantlie has been held the longest, Katz said. American reporter James Foley, 40, kidnapped with Cantlie, was beheaded two years later, with video of his death released by the group.
During his time in captivity, Cantlie appeared in a dozen videos released by Islamic State media and later by its news agency, Aamaq. He also wrote articles criticizing the coalition for the group’s magazine, Dabiq.
Screen shots and links to Cantlie’s videos were widely disseminated on social media, and Islamic State tried to capitalize on his reach, Katz said.
As he grew in stature among militants, Cantlie evolved from a direct spokesman for Islamic State, providing insight about the group’s bloody execution of fellow Western hostages, into a voice speaking directly to potential recruits in the West.
“In the beginning, ISIS used him as an attempt to justify hostage beheadings and its killings. This role changed quickly,” Katz said.
During the initial half a dozen videos, a series called “Lend Me Your Ears,” Cantlie sat at a table in orange prison garb, at one point mentioning that he would probably meet the same fate as other hostages.
But Cantlie proved too valuable, Katz said: “He’s an asset for them.”
Islamic State then started recording Cantlie in the role of Western reporter, on the road covering Kobani and Aleppo in Syria as well as Mosul, where it appears he has stayed. More recent videos focused on airstrikes that hit Mosul media kiosks, neighborhoods and Mosul University.
In the latest video, Cantlie sports a beard for the first time, but does not appear to have converted to Islam: He talks repeatedly about Muslims without claiming to be one. That shores up his usefulness as a Westerner delivering Islamic State’s message, Katz said.
“In some ways, it’s more valuable coming from him than from anyone in ISIS. He is speaking on ISIS’ behalf as a Westerner experiencing coalition attacks on its territory,” Katz said. “The group wants to make him look like an objective observer, though his commentary is obviously approved, if not at times scripted.”
Cantlie’s message is meant to galvanize recruits at a time when Islamic State could use them most, said Magnus Ranstorp, terrorism research director at the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm.
Ranstorp sees “signs of desperation” in the video and the one filmed at Mosul University in July, which were both less slick than past productions, he said.
Cantlie looks thinner, sounds scripted and there’s no colorful footage of him mingling with shoppers at a Mosul market or riding a police motorcycle as in videos past. Editors of the July video even failed to excise the background noise of drones filming overhead shots, Ranstorp said.
“They are pulling these things together pretty hastily,” he said, “wheeling him out with very little technique, just filming him talking.”
“The ultimate goal is to show to other Muslims, ‘You need to mobilize, we are suffering,’” Ranstorp said. “They are feeding the narrative that they are the defenders. John is facilitating that message, they found his usefulness in that. This is clearly a video geared toward Western Muslims and those who could potentially be mobilized.”
By showing Cantlie among Mosul residents, including drivers hampered by the damaged bridges and children whose water supply has been damaged by coalition airstrikes, Ranstorp said, the video is “fueling the hatred of the West, and that the West is punishing Muslims, ordinary Muslims.”
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