GUTS BUT NO GLORY: Why beheading videos may be a sign of Daesh desperation

Saturday October 1st 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

Eerie music is playing in the background. Despite knowing the grim horrors of what is to come, any sane viewer who dares to watch one of these gruesome murder videos cannot help but hold his/her breathe. In the next scene of the video, a dozen or so men, hands tied behind their backs, are shepherded into an abattoir by two or three militants clad in long white tunics. One of them has a giant knife. The victims are forced to lie in a pile in a corner faces downwards. One by one, they are dragged off by the depraved barbaric militants who then cling them to meat hooks used to suspend sheep upside down in midair, and facilitate their slaughter. Except that instead of cattle as is custom, adult men, probably heads of households and sole breadwinners are the ones being forced to hang upside down awaiting their slaughter, or having already been killed, to facilitate the draining of their blood.

The extremely graphic video showing murders of about a dozen or so “spies,” was released by Wilayat Al Khayr, the media wing of Daesh, who also refer to themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The video titled “The making of Illusion,” is the terrorist group’s depraved stab at dark humour, as the video was released on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha. Muslims celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son at Allah’s command. The sick twist on the holy occasion saw the unfortunate group of men have their throats slit one after the other, in what Abu Mohammed, founder of the rights group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently described as “the worst video we have ever seen.” The final victim in the video is seen being knelt down and being psychologically tormented in the worst way possible, forced to examine the carnage of the slaughter aftermath all around him. Walked on ground now drenched in the blood of his friends, past their corpses suspended in mid air all around him, he knows his fate is sealed and breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. He isn’t spared the fate of his comrades and is promptly killed in the same manner.

Screengrab from “Making of Illusion” video shows an executioner selecting the first of the doomed men

It isn’t the first time Daesh have released an extremely disturbing yet expertly edited execution film fraught with propaganda and fundamentalist teachings. They aren’t the pioneers of the video propaganda tool either. Jihadi propaganda videos used to disseminate extremist beliefs to a global audience have been around for decades. They can prove effective and have been catalyst in the rise of among other phenomena, lone wolf attacks in countries far away from the battlefronts of where the so called “war on terrorism” is fought. The rise of the production of such videos dates back to the post 9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but similar videos filmed by Chechen jihadists during the First Chechen War made their way to the internet in the early nineties. Typically, they were of poor quality, and used as a tool to demoralize the enemy, help spread a sense of fear and vulnerability in the general population and indoctrinate and inspire potential recruits.

But from what most experts have been able to uncover, releasing the high quality execution videos that have garnered Daesh the infamy and notoriety they have is for the most part a very costly endeavour. Unlike the videos we have seen produced in Iraq and Chechnya in previous times, Daesh video crews go through exhaustive meticulous editing before releasing the end product which is typically of decent quality. Production is a lengthy process which can take weeks sometimes months, while the movie software used can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The high definition gore and bloodshed is unprecedented. So are the horrifying methods used to kill captured combatants and innocent hostages.

Why would Daesh invest insane amounts of money in the production of propaganda snuff films? Are they getting a decent return for their efforts? What does the increasingly frequent releasing of such videos suggest about the direction the group is headed in? In this article, I’ll try to explain how the shock value of these videos and their releases on a somewhat regular basis now show a shift from the recruitment policy and ideology that predecessor groups such as Al Qaeda had with regards to execution videos. If anything, the tactic could suggest Daesh do in fact realize that the tide is turning somewhat against them, at least in Iraq, if not Syria as well.

Let’s rewind all the way back to the conflict that would later introduce Daesh. May 2004. The United States and its allies are bogged down in Iraq fending off nationwide insurgencies. It is starting to sink in that President George W. Bush’s victory speech upon an American warship adorned with a giant banner that read “Mission Accomplished” a year earlier, was premature and downright naive. Instead of basking in the glory of “victory,” the Americans are now reeling from the effects of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Just months earlier, photographs depicting Iraqi detainees in a series of humiliating and torturous poses were broadcast all over the world and the Americans were now embroiled in the backlash of their dirty secret coming to light. The horrific stories of suffering at the detention center were aired all over the world as the media clamoured to interview former detainees. Detailed accounts from former prison guards included confessions of rape and torture meted out as punishment by American servicemen against captured insurgents, causing widespread condemnation and global outrage. The “liberator” tag the Americans were hoping to maintain in the aftermath of their toppling of the Saddam Hussein leadership was forever lost. Now occupiers, the US marines were seen as marauding vikings operating in Iraq, using merciless brutality without the slightest inhibition. This was in total disregard to the principles of human rights their government tended to vocally espouse. Public support in Iraq for their presence, if any remained, would be nearly dissipated upon the world learning of the systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The scandal was portrayed by locals opposed to the US presence in Iraq as the dishonouring of Muslims by a foreign non believing occupier. With the Arab world up in arms and a desire for justice ripe, the Americans had a public relations disaster on their hands. Cries for justice rang loud and Al Qaeda pounced on what they saw was a recruitment opportunity, seeking to exact “revenge” for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, while simultaneously appearing to restore the honour of Muslims. In April of 2004, 26 year old American civilian contractor Nicholas Berg was kidnapped by the Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist group. Weeks later, the group released a video depicting Berg’s beheading by the group’s emir, the Jordanian terrorist chief Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. In the video, Berg, clad in an orange jumpsuit similar to the ones worn by inmates at Guantanamo Bay, identifies himself and speaks briefly about his family and upbringing. Al Zarqawi reads out a statement in which he says Berg’s murder is punishment for the horrors committed at Abu Ghraib and promises more of such killings until the Americans withdraw from Iraq. Al Zarqawi and four other men are standing behind the seated and bound Berg, and upon Al Zarqawi’s finishing of his speech, the men converge on Berg and hold him down. Al Zarqawi starts sawing at Berg’s neck and Berg is heard screaming in images that shocked and disgusted the world.

Nick Berg (seated) minutes before being killed by the man directly behind him who is said to be Al Zarqawi (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The video made international headlines, as it was the first of its kind (although it isn’t the first execution video ever made as I’ve articulated above) and sent shockwaves throughout the world. The lengths Al Qaeda in Iraq were willing to go to spread fear and terror had been documented in mainstream media, but this was the first time people had an opportunity to see such cold blooded cruelty in moving pictures. People were understandably horrified. The Bush administration attempted to use the murder as a rallying call for the public to support American military efforts in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq meanwhile, managed to portray the act as safeguarding the honour and dignity of Iraqi resistance fighters. The despicable act undoubtedly inspired recruitment drives and served to advocate Al Qaeda’s cause.

Months later, Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, 46, was also kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq. The sight of de la Cruz wearing an orange jumpsuit and pleading for his life in a video released by his captors was cause for great distress in the Philippines, as by then graphic execution videos of three or four other hostages kidnapped in Iraq had surfaced and the worst was feared for the father of eight. The kidnappers threatened to behead de la Cruz unless a fifty member Filipino police contingent withdrew from Iraq. During his time captive, reports emerged that de la Cruz had been moved by his kidnappers to a new location where he would be executed if the deadline given by the kidnappers expired. Bowing to public pressure, the government of Gloria Arroyo decided to submit to the demands of the kidnappers to save their national. The Philippines withdrew its military personnel from the country and de la Cruz was released promptly. Angelo de la Cruz’s liberation was reason for celebration in his native Philippines, but the US frowned upon the terms of his release. The Americans felt the move gave groups like Al Qaeda leverage and political credibility. The release of the harrowing video showing him begging for his government to comply was enough to sway the emotions of millions across the world and pile pressure on Filipino negotiators. For Al Qaeda, it was evidence that the video execution threat tactic worked. Extremists capitalized on the chance to portray themselves as Iraq’s real liberators, with their successful use of a threat to release a decapitation video hastening the exit of coalition troops from the country.

Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz seen pleading for his life in a hostage video broadcasted on Al Jazeera in 2004 (left) before being reunited with his wife and children later (right). (Images credit: Al Jazeera International, CBS)

A year later in 2005, Iraq is still a warzone. Al Qaeda in Iraq had been dislodged from the stronghold which was the city of Fallujah by Christmas of 2004 after a massive coalition offensive. Insurgency leaders were said to be looking at what went wrong, analysing failures and seeking to rebound afresh ahead of 2006. In the midst of this, Al Zarqawi had been exchanging letters with members of Al Qaeda’s leadership including the group’s deputy chief, the Egyptian Ayman Al Zawahiri. In one intercepted letter dated July of 2005, Al Zawahiri bemoaned what he believed was the loss of popular support among Muslims worldwide. By that time, the execution videos of dozens of foreign hostages were circulating the internet and Al Zawahiri told Al Zarqawi that these videos were actually counterproductive and served to turn mortify and offend Muslims and turn the populace against the Al Qaeda cause. Indeed the grisly killings were globally condemned and Islamic scholars routinely sought the opportunity to speak publicly against the release of such videos they would say defiled the very basic principles of the religion. Often times, the victims in the execution videos were Muslims themselves. Al Zawahiri urged Al Zarqawi to immediately cease use of a tactic which he deemed had backfired on their common cause. Al Zarqawi is said to have scoffed at the leadership’s attempts to tame him and seems to have enjoyed his portrayal as a slaughterer. The execution videos continued to be released, albeit at a much slower pace than the one maintained in 2004. Al Qaeda’s central leadership was losing its authority and influence in Iraq. On the 3rd of June 2006, Al Zarqawi was killed when US Air Force jets bombed the safehouse he was staying at in rural Iraq. Weeks later, a video showing the gruesome beheadings and shootings of three Russian diplomats kidnapped in Baghdad in June of 2006 made its way to the internet. It was further evidence that even after Al Zarqawi’s passing, militants in Iraq were emboldened to the point of defiling Al Qaeda authority figures in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi featured as executioner in many beheading videos before his death in a US airstrike in June of 2006 (Image credit: CNN)

However, despite the global disgust of Muslims worldwide turned off by the graphic and offending nature of Al Qaeda signed execution videos and extremists ignoring the advice given to their leader by Al Zawahiri, credible international media outlets covering the Iraq war collaborated to render the tactic moot.

Throughout 2004, terrorist organisations in Iraq relayed their messages across the world by directly contacting Arabic language news networks, most notably Al Jazeera, then only an Arabic language network. The kidnappers would then deliver their videos to the network. Al Jazeera broadcast videos of foreign hostages pleading for their governments to meet demands by a deadline set by their kidnappers. In the case of the hostage being killed, Al Jazeera would subsequently air parts of execution videos that didn’t show any graphic content. The images were chilling enough. The world’s media would pick up the story, garnering the negotiations and the kidnappings valuable publicity. The real threat of the victim’s filmed death would create a global outpouring of sorrow, grief, outrage which piled pressure on negotiators and governments. Even without significant battleground gains or casualties inflicted upon coalition forces, any group of rag tag militants could be portrayed as fearless, ruthless and cunning power players in the war due to the coverage their broadcasting of a video depicting a hostage pleading for his/her life or being brutally murdered, would receive.

To break the direct link between kidnappers and a global audience, sometime in late 2006, a sort of a media blackout was agreed to by news networks. Unlike the manner of covering previous hostage crises, videos of kidnapped foreigners released by Al Qaeda and its affiliates wouldn’t attract a media circus anymore. In news reports, hostage videos wouldn’t be broadcasted and in some cases, upon requests from the families of kidnapped hostages as well as law enforcement and negotiators, news networks wouldn’t cover the story at all. Thus journalists refrained from being unwitting mouthpieces for terrorist groups. Reports on kidnapped foreigners became much more subdued in nature. Without the mass hysteria surrounding a kidnapped civilian and the possible release of an execution video, the kidnappers started to lose their legitimacy and their influence of the mass media. They no longer had a direct route to millions around the world to whom they could directly parlay their messages. Hostage taking and the production of execution videos started to lose their lucrative nature. Besides this, the pendulum in the Iraqi insurgency had since swung towards Iraqi nationalists and sectarian groups, both who didn’t share Al Qaeda’s Islamic extremist ideologies nor had the same affinity for murdering people on film that Al Qaeda and its affiliates had. The Al Qaeda in Iraq organisation had managed to thrive as a fighting unit upon the juxtaposing of Iraqi Ba’athist party elements and Islamic extremists recruits from around the world. Seeing a chance to create a rift between Sunni militia groups who were opposed to the extreme forms of violence employed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the United States put a number of these Sunni tribal fighters on their payroll and they immediately started to attack Al Qaeda in Iraq strongholds. The Sunni groups turning on Al Qaeda combined with an American troop surge led to the widely unpopular Al Qaeda in Iraq group being dealt severe battlefield blows that they wouldn’t recover from. The group was a shadow of its former self by 2007.

After Al Qaeda in Iraq’s defeat, videos depicting the execution of hostages by Islamic extremists became a rarity, until the rise of Daesh in the region a good seven or eight years later. Syria, was now engulfed in a civil war ignited by NATO trained rebel groups and religious extremists. Daesh emerged as one of the stronger extremist groups battling the Asaad regime along with ideologically non aligned groups such as the Free Syria Army (FSA) group and Al Nusra, formerly an Al Qaeda affiliate. Syria would provide a breeding ground for Daesh training and recruitment ahead of their much publicized summer 2014 capture of swaths of Iraq, including the major city of Mosul.

After Daesh’s capture of much of Iraq’s territory, President Barack Obama announced that the United States and a coalition of its allies would launch an aerial bombing campaign to diminish the fighting capabilities of Daesh and aid allied forces in wresting the country from the grip of religious fanatics. Months later in August of 2014, Daesh released a video that appeared to show the beheading of James Foley, an American freelance journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly two years earlier. A masked gunman later identified as British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, stated that Foley’s death was as a result of the NATO bombing campaign and threatened to execute another American hostage.

James Foley was held hostage in Syria for nearly two years before being killed by the man clad in black Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen (Image credit: Mirror Online)

James Foley’s kidnapping had been relatively hidden from the public until his execution video was released. The media blackout pact agreed to nearly a decade earlier with regards to kidnapped hostages was still in pact. While no credible news broadcasting agencies published the four and a half minute beheading video, the terrorists made use of a tool their predecessors in 2004 didn’t have, social media. Twitter and Facebook accounts sympathising with the Daesh cause shared and retweeted links to the video which made the rounds on the internet. Daesh would continue to release graphic execution videos that contributed to their growing fame. Several more videos depicting the executions of westerners were released in succession.

As I mentioned before, the videos reveled in gore like never before. High quality close up shots purposely intended to capture the extreme agony of the victim’s final moments document the group’s bloodlust as well as its desire to terrorise audiences far away from Syria and Iraq. This was especially evident with a November 2014 video release that showed the very graphic beheadings of up to sixteen Syrian Air Force pilots.

The videos were also used as deterrence for countries considering joining the American anti Daesh coalition. 26 year old Jordanian pilot Muath Al Kasasbeh was captured after ejecting from his plane while flying a sortie over Raqqa Syria. In a video released in February of 2015 he appears to be doused in petrol before being set ablaze by a Daesh militant. A man can be heard screaming as he suffers terribly, being burnt alive. The message was for the government of Jordan who had deployed Al Kasasbeh as part of the American coalition bombing campaign.

The lengths Daesh have gone in their shock and awe campaign are unbelievable to say the least. They have been denounced and criticized by leading Islamic figures around the world. Their well documented raping and enslavement of women captives is another reason for the organisation’s being ever so abhorred. It is said that their glorification of murder is to such an extent that even the likes of Al Qaeda haven’t spared them their condemnation. Via the Dabiq magazine, the group’s English language online publication, Daesh lambast jihadi groups and Muslim preachers who disapprove of their cruel and shocking methods.

However, Daesh’s ability to recruit jihadis from around the world stemmed from the fact that unlike Al Qaeda, the group has proven its might in conventional war. Having declared a caliphate and governing millions of people in the areas of its rule, Daesh have proven superior to the customary band of hopeful jihadist guerrilla fighters fighting by day and retreating to the safety of caves by night. Unlike Al Qaeda, Daesh promise to usher in victory in the foreseeable future, unlike Al Qaeda who would call on Muslims to engage in a struggle that had no timeline and no aspirations for the near future. While Al Qaeda would release propaganda videos of their leaders and fighters from unknown secluded locations, Daesh are seen in their propaganda videos openly parading their captured humvees in the streets of towns under their control, while black flags waving high above buildings. The difference is clear. Daesh’s proven capability of launching deadly assaults in western cities whose defences were once thought un-breachable is one of its strengths. But the appeal of being in control, of running an entity, of being part of a holy caliphate which can only expand and not shrink has perhaps been most key to attracting foreign fighters.

So what happens when the size of the caliphate does actually start to shrink?

According to a report by the IHS Conflict Monitor team, by July of this year, Daesh had lost up to a quarter of the land it occupied in January 2015. At its peak a population of about ten million people were living in Daesh controlled territories. That number has been reduced to around six million today. These figures could be set to shrink even more if the Iraqi army has its way and successfully recaptures Mosul in an offensive it has planned for later this year.

Celebrating Iraqi soldiers pose for a photo with a Daesh banner they tore down from a flag pole after having recaptured the city of Fallujah from Daesh in June of this year (Image credit: AP)

Daesh face an existential threat. Losing Mosul could spark a domino effect that could see the group’s influence be rendered nil in Iraq. Losing Iraq means that the “caliphate” led by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi isn’t the long anticipated one from the jihadi circle prophecies that have convinced many to give up everything and abandon their old lives for. After all, the caliphate to come is supposedly supposed to dominate the entire planet due to the divine support it will enjoy. If Al Baghdadi’s caliphate shrinks, it’s not the prophesized caliphate, but a hoax declared by a religious figure. It’s going to be quite a task for Daesh’s top lieutenants to explain the territorial losses to their countless indoctrinated fighters and potential recruits who were assured that the creator is supporting their efforts and nothing could stop them. But there is nothing divine about a military retreat. Especially when that retreat would almost certainly signal their downfall in Iraq, a decade after Al Qaeda’s obliteration from the country.

With no territorial gains, no newe propaganda films showing the cheering crowds greet the black flag waving “knights of the caliphate” as they gallantly waltz into the cities they capture, rampant desertions and increasing reports of Daesh leaders being killed in airstrikes, Daesh are running out of new production material.

So as is the tradition with war propaganda, Daesh will attempt to use their outlets media to portray the group as the big bad scary wolf it wants to appear to be, despite its reeling from the losses of Fallujah and Ramadi this year alone. This is where the execution videos take on a new importance.

Perhaps out of an attempt to shield the group from queries over its idleness on the battlefront, in recent times, the group’s leadership has overseen the capturing of some of the most horrific, inhumane and downright atrocious acts imaginable on videotape. The Daesh library has everything from alleged spies being hung upside down as they watch a trail of fire eventually set them alight, to others being locked into a cage and immersed under water to drown. In that same clip, another group of captives were bound together with explosive necklaces which were detonated and horribly mutilated the men who fortunately, died instantly and didn’t suffer agonizingly in their final moments. Then there’s another clip showing a man bound and forced to wait on a road as a tank drives towards him and crushes him to death to the cheers and ululations of his captors. The victims, almost always dressed in those same orange boiler room jumpsuits, are typically seen “confessing” to some crime before their grisly ends. Children as young as five have been used in the videos as executioners of grown men, people have been thrown off of buildings to their deaths with HD cameras zooming in on the gruesome aftermath.

A screengrab from a video depicting the execution of five captured Peshmerga fighters by children looking barely thirteen

However, the video releases despite being so graphic and so downright nauseating, their releases have become so frequent that aside from right wing publications, sensationalist media outlets and shock site news portals, they don’t even make mainstream headlines anymore. Despite the horrific way the dozen or so men were slaughtered in Daesh’s commemoration for the Eid Al Adha holiday, it got a mention by some English language news sites, but in no way was a hot talking point as Daesh’s loss of the ancient city of Palmyra to Syrian troops in March was. It almost seems that Daesh have managed to produce everything once thought unthinkable on video tape that they can no longer captivate the world and conjure up global gasps of shock.

With their methods and barbaric practices beyond any justification, your average globetrotting jihadist, perhaps scarred from conflicts in Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan, will find the Daesh program a lot less enticing than it was in 2014. The stark disdain for human life, their having no qualms with raping women and their fascination with gore will turn away countless would be fighters seeking to enroll themselves in the ranks of what they deem a righteous fight against “infidels.” So Daesh may be seeking out another type of audience: those who are equally depraved. Those who have a fascination with the notorious acts Daesh put out on film. Australian national Khaled Sharrouf is an example. He joined Daesh and was photographed in 2014 clutching what was said to be the head of a Syrian soldier. He also released an image of his seven year old son holding a decapitated head to Twitter. It’s likely that individuals known for their psychopathic tendencies could decide to join the group, swayed by the senseless violence. They could make good propaganda tools, especially if they hail from western states. But as far as fighting is concerned, Daesh would prefer battle hardened veterans.

Perhaps sensing the rapid loosing of confidence among supporters in the wake of numerous defeats and the deaths of strategic leaders, Daesh released a new video yesterday, one unlike any in their archives.

In a video being shared by Daesh supporting social media accounts since Wednesday, the group’s leader Al Baghdadi is heard attempting to rally his support base and admits that the terrorist group is experiencing “difficult times.” Perhaps in an attempt to address the general nosedive in troop morale, the video is spliced with scenes of militants in battle and later hooting with victory. It’s clear that the video is an attempt to reassure fighters that the recent setbacks have been mere hiccups and nothing more.

“Our Muslim community is passing through a difficult time in its journey,” Baghdadi says. “This period has seen a massive change to its journey going all the way back through the history of the caliphate.”

Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was forced to release a statement calling for calm in the wake of numerous setbacks for the terrorist sect (Image credit:

It’s the first time the group has publicly admitted that it has indeed suffered reversals. While Baghdadi wouldn’t specify what he was referring too, it’s clear that he is attempting to downplay the group’s military woes faced in Iraq throughout 2016. Daesh have tried to avoid bringing up the issue of their losses of key cities in their publications. The latest edition of their online magazine Dabiq is mostly concentrated on highlighting the shortcomings of Christianity and the western lifestyle in general. A mere two or three pages of the nearly eighty page document are dedicated to military operations, compelling evidence in itself that on the battlegrounds, things aren’t panning out the way Daesh would have liked. The increasingly gory and graphic collection of videos being released depicting murder and torture are a part of the group’s desperate attempt at deflecting focus away from Daesh’s weakening fighting ability and what appears to be the group’s imminent downfall in Iraq.


The end of Daesh’s territorial rule is now becoming an increasingly realistic prospect. Despite the grim reality on the ground today and the likelihood of countless more people dying in conflicts set to erupt anytime, there is reason to be hopeful. After collaborated efforts to reclaim what belongs to the people of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group that catapulted itself onto the world map in 2014 with a series of knockout blows to the Iraqi and Syrian armies, is meeker than it has ever been before. A series of chilling execution videos will serve to spread outrage, but won’t change the reality on the ground. A reality that Daesh’s fixation for filming bloodshed will have no say over.

If there’s anything to take note of, it’s that the decision makers behind the global superpowers are frighteningly short-sighted. Their insistence to stubbornly pump money and weapons into conflicts in an attempt to attain short term goals has time and time again, resulted in some of the most bloodthirsty, and perverted human beings rising to the helm of destructive armies.

The horrific videos depicting human savagery should serve as a timely reminder of what can be spawned with the careless lighting of fires in a highly combustible region of the world.


My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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