Skip to main content

Opinion: What is ISIS hoping its abhorrent beheading video will achieve?

By Erin Marie Saltman, Special to CNN
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Labeled as a
Labeled as a "Message to America," the video of U.S. journalist James Foley's execution has caused shockwaves in the West.
  • Video of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS militants sent shockwaves across world
  • "Message to America" aimed at striking fear in Western governments and citizens alike
  • Erin Saltman says new frontline for counter-terrorist practitioners is online extremism
  • "Only by empowering vast moderate majority can we turn tide against ISIS." says Saltman

Editor's note: Erin Marie Saltman is a Senior Researcher at Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism in society. Saltman is an expert on political socialization and processes of radicalization, analyzing both Islamist extremist and radical right trends, addressing ways of countering extremism. She has a particular expertise in online extremism and social media usage by terrorist organizations. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- The recent video depicting the final words and beheading of U.S. journalist James Wright Foley by someone that seems to be a British foreign fighter has sent shockwaves across the West.

The video has already been blocked multiple times from various video-sharing platforms, only to reappear as many times, something that once again emphasizes that the new frontline for counter-terrorist practitioners is online extremism.

Labeled as a "Message to America," the video adds another line of fodder to ISIS' tech-savvy and social media-driven propaganda and messaging. The scene is filmed on a high quality device with seamless editing of President Obama's speech authorizing military action against ISIS positions, something which it argues led directly to this, ISIS' brutal response.

Erin Marie Saltman
Erin Marie Saltman

The answer to why ISIS -- which refers to itself as the "Islamic State" ("IS") -- makes and popularizes such videos is simple: They represent a critical threat to the West on two levels.

On the one hand, the video directly warns the West of repercussions if its intervention continues. On the other, it represents a more subtle threat reminding Europe and the United States that their own citizens are vulnerable to being radicalized, that ISIS supporters are present all over the world.

In the past, most ISIS propaganda had focused on the development of the caliphate state and on securing territories within Syria and Iraq. The primary target audience had been Syrian and Iraqi military forces and militias. So, creating an elaborate display of beheading an American represents a distinct change in messaging, turning the threat towards the West.

The act is declared as revenge for U.S. air strikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq. Indeed, the apparently British militant conducting the beheading addresses Obama directly, declaring that any attempt "to deny Muslims liberty and safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people."

Who is James Foley's executioner?
Special ops were sent to rescue Foley
James Foley: In his words

Clearly, here ISIS is attempting to strip U.S. intervention down to the rudimentary "us versus them rhetoric" -- depicting the West, and specifically America, as a force that is continually trying to oppress Muslims the world over.

This is nothing new. In the ISIS English-language magazine, "Dabiq," Westerners are referred to as "Crusaders," linking present day events with historical events where Christians (predominantly, but not exclusively, from the West) have targeted Muslims. As such, the U.S. decision to commence military action in Iraq based on humanitarian concerns, without the equivalent military intervention of other Middle Eastern political powers has played into ISIS rhetoric against America.

ISIS knows that U.S. military action is unlikely to change based on one video. However, by making this threat and demanding that the U.S. stop military interference in the region, ISIS gives itself justification for direct action against American hostages and potentially justifies action against the U.S. directly.

Opinion: Beheading video poses challenge for social media

Using an apparently British foreign fighter to carry out the beheading in the Foley execution video was a deliberate act perpetrated in order to create the maximum impact and gain as much Western attention as possible.

The use of what seems to be a native English-speaker in the video forces Western viewers to recognize an individual who has wholeheartedly rejected his past, and who is committed to ISIS' cause -- willing to carry out the most abhorrent acts of violence in the name of its political program.

Western governments face an ongoing threat that their citizens will become radicalized and go abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Center for Near East Policy, estimates that almost 3,000 foreign fighters have left Western countries to fight in Syria. This is an unprecedented number, already far surpassing the number that left to fight in Afghanistan during the previous 10-year conflict.

The success of ISIS in promoting their cause and attracting fighters from abroad is a combination of an advanced social media strategy paired with a lack of counter-narratives. While ISIS supporters handing out leaflets on London streets may gain more media attention, it is ISIS' online presence that is its most powerful recruitment tool.

Fmr. hostage: US, Europe failed Foley
Was the ISIS militant a British citizen?
Who was James Foley?

ISIS has been a game-changer in terms of using Twitter, YouTube and its own online apps to engage with potential recruits, promote its victories and antagonize its perceived enemies.

Twitter feeds regularly depict an idealized image of a 5-star jihad to draw in young potential jihadists, often mentioning the availability of young local women who are marrying ISIS fighters. These same feeds also boast of "spoils" -- military weaponry and vehicles won in battle. Violence towards the enemy is also a common theme, largely because it threatens those willing to stand up to ISIS, something that cultivates intrinsic fear in future military and paramilitary personnel attempting to face the group.

Right now, we are woefully lacking in both online and offline content that stands up against ISIS messaging.

Counter-messaging needs to come from moderate theologians explaining why Islam does not condone the use of violence. Other community voices must be louder in their arguments against the validity of a caliphate state. Finally, governments must give a clear message about why they are intervening militarily in some areas, like Iraq, but unwilling to act in others, like Syria.

The extremist minority is exceptionally vocal and continues to overwhelm discourse on the validity of ISIS and its actions, particularly online.

Only by empowering and activating the vast moderate majority can we turn the tide against ISIS.

Would you watch the video?

Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:30 PM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
The FBI warns U.S military that ISIS are looking for individuals who may be interested in carrying out attacks on home soil.
updated 11:07 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Iraq's Prime Minister says there is evidence of 50,000 soldiers being paid while inactive.
updated 6:17 PM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Pentagon insider Ashton Carter is expected to be President Barack Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary.
updated 6:32 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Wolf Blitzer talks to Rep. Ed Royce about the White House's new ISIS strategy that involves removing Bashar al-Assad.
updated 6:36 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Just two weeks ago, Yasir was regularly strapped into an explosive vest and handed a pistol, an AK-47 and a radio to stand guard at an ISIS base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor.
updated 5:49 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
How did three U.S. teenagers become radicalized? CNN's Pamela Brown reports.
updated 9:26 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Reza Aslan examines the appeal of ISIS and why the group is able to successfully attract so many recruits.
updated 9:10 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Former U.S. Commander Lt. General Mark Hertling (Ret.) says it is tough for him to watch what is unfolding in Iraq.
updated 9:18 AM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh takes a look at how ISIS is using media to desensitize children.
updated 7:33 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
A new propaganda video from ISIS features a Canadian ISIS member who died in combat.
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Captured ISIS fighters tell CNN's Ivan Watson of the group's brutality.
updated 9:33 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
British hostage John Cantlie appears from the battle city of Kobani.
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
A captured fighter tells CNN's Ivan Watson: "They gave us drugs... that made you go to battle."
updated 1:20 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
As a U.S. soldier, Jordan Matson never saw combat, yet now he's in Syria, fighting for the Kurdish militia. "All my life, I've wanted to be a soldier," he tells CNN's Ivan Watson.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
The New York Times reports that James Foley and other ISIS captives were tortured and starved ahead of their beheadings.
updated 5:00 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Is ISIS propaganda successful in getting 'lone wolf' terrorists to strike in western countries?
updated 12:48 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Ivan Watson explains why the United States' support of a Kurdish fighting group may cause friction with a NATO ally.
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Another casualty of ISIS' ruthless advance: Iraq's pricelss cultural heritage.
Explore CNN's interactive that explains ISIS' roots, what it controls, and where its support comes from.