Skip to main content

Showing off its crimes: How ISIS flaunts its brutality as propaganda

By Holly Yan, CNN
updated 7:18 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
  • ISIS militants are getting increasingly tech- and media savvy
  • Some of their videos rival Hollywood features in production quality
  • Beheadings by ISIS have increased after al Qaeda disowned the group
  • "Our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people," a militant warns Obama

(CNN) -- One video shows more than 100 prisoners paraded across the desert in their underwear, then lying face down as militants unleash a hailstorm of bullets into their bodies.

Other images show crucifixions and public executions in towns overrun by terrorists.

And recent footage showing the beheading of a second American journalist proves that ISIS wants the world to know how brutal it can be.

The insurgents are experts at using footage of their crimes as propaganda to terrify those who disagree with their radicalism and to threaten foreign leaders. The visuals are as much a part of ISIS' terrorism as its bloody march across the Iraq and Syria.

Do ISIS' videos mirror 'Homeland'?
Is U.S. citizen ISIS' social media guru?
ISIS and religious justification

In the video of American Steven Sotloff's decapitation, the executioner has a stern warning for the U.S. President:

"I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State," the man says in the video, released just days after fellow journalist James Foley was beheaded.

"Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people."

Even a 7-year-old child was photographed holding a severed head. The picture was reportedly taken in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria, where the boy's Australian father had taken his family to join the fight.

More decapitations

Publicized beheadings had actually stopped in years past

A decade ago, al Qaeda -- the terror group that spawned ISIS -- made headlines with a series of decapitations, including those of Americans Nicholas Berg and Eugene "Jack" Armstrong.

Top al Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri criticized the gruesome antics, and the decapitations stopped. But al Qaeda has since disowned ISIS, and al-Zawahiri has not condemned Foley's execution.

That means the beheadings could continue.

But it's not just Western captives who fall victim. Last week, a Kurdish man was executed in front of a mosque in Mosul in a video called "A message written in blood," notes Charlie Cooper, Middle East researcher at the Quilliam Foundation.

But because that message "was directed at the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, this particular piece of propaganda did not receive widespread coverage in the international media," Cooper wrote in a piece for

ISIS profiting from seized oil
British PM weighs in on ISIS
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
The ISIS terror threat
Photos: The ISIS terror threat Photos: The ISIS terror threat

"They have shown their willingness to kill anyone in their path -- not just Americans, not just Westerners, but Iraqis of all faiths, of all sects," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "They've shown their complete barbarism in doing that."

The media's role

Cooper said the media has a responsibility to treat ISIS propaganda carefully.

"Every time a still or clip from an ISIS video is shown, the group gets what it wants: the oxygen of publicity," he wrote.

"Of course, it is necessary that people the world over are aware of the atrocities occurring at the hands of ISIS, but journalists must be careful not to do the jihadists' job for them."

The decision on whether to publicize parts of the recent beheading videos have even divided journalists.

International broadcaster Al Jazeera said it had decided not to show any images of Sotloff from the video -- a more conservative position than other TV networks.

"We suggest all media do the same," Al Jazeera's public relations account said via Twitter, using the hashtag #ISISmediaBlackout.

And while the video has been blocked from various video sharing platforms, they have also reappeared as many times, Quilliam senior researcher Erin Marie Saltman wrote.

She said that kind of trend "once again emphasizes that the new frontline for counter-terrorist practitioners is online extremism."

Glossy recruitment tools

Part of the problem is the radicals are extremely tech- and media savvy.

Who is fighting for ISIS?
Does ISIS' brutality inspire recruits?

"We are way behind. They are far superior and advanced than we are when it comes to new media technologies, social media, when it comes to video production qualities, and in disseminating their propaganda over the Internet," said Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadi and author of "Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism."

Some videos used by the terrorists rival the production quality of Hollywood films.

One hourlong video shows a collection of bombings, executions, kidnappings and beheadings. As one roadside bomb blasts a vehicle into the sky, two men in the background of the video chuckle.

The recruitment tactics can be both blatant and subtle.

For about $10, supporters can buy a shirt with ISIS' logo and phrases such as, "We are all ISIS" and "Fight for Freedom, Until the Last Drop of Blood."

And it may be no accident that a militant with a British accent fronted the video of Foley's death.

That kind of tactic could inspire more foreign jihadists, a former ISIS fighter told CNN.

"It is possible that the goal was to project the image that a European, or a Western person, executed an American so that they can showcase their Western members and appeal to others outside Syria and make them feel that they belong to the same cause."

READ: Inside the mind of an ISIS fighter

READ: Opinion: Why we must all challenge ISIS

MAPS: Where do jihadis come from?

CNN's Nic Robertson, Brian Stelter, Mohammed Jamjoom, Anderson Cooper and Samuel Burke contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:55 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Author Juergen Todenhoefer says ISIS are "more dangerous than people realize."
updated 10:47 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
There's yet another new name for ISIS among those fighting against the terror group. Daesh.
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 guns and a radio to stand guard at an ISIS base in Syria.
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 9:18 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.
Explore CNN's interactive that explains ISIS' roots, what it controls, and where its support comes from.