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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."

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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.

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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?

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