The ISIS video depicting Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive prompted protests against ISIS across the Arab world.Bob speaks with Financial Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi, who says the slickly produced "jihadi snuff film" pierced through a numbness to violence that's developed in the Arab world.
Bob: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is away this week, I’m Bob Garfield. Under a constant pounding by bombers and a push by Kurdish forces, ISIS militants this week were at last driven out of the Syrian city of Kobani. ISIS was not, however, driven out of the realms of fear and revulsion.
news anchor: A newly released video showing a Jordanian pilot held hostage since December, caged and then burned alive.
A highly produced ISIS video, depicting the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh horrified the world -- somehow eclipsing the now familiar on-camera beheadings that have propelled the jihadi fanatics into global infamy. Some commenters have surmised that the propaganda may have finally turned on the propagandists, but not necessarily. Borzou Daragahi, who covers the Mideast for the Financial Times, says ISIS knows who it wishes to repel, and who it wishes to attract -- and how to do both at once.
Daragahi: Well I think it was the graphic nature of the execution in itself, the aestheticization of the killing of this pilot. Not just the fact that he was an arab, but the fact that this killing was depicted with hi definition video, with sound effects, and digital effects that made it resemble scenes from a horror movie. And I think the effect of that was what the people who made this movie expected: it horrified people, it shocked people, and it pierced through a layer of numbness that has taken hold of the arab world over the last dozen years of invasion, revolution, and extreme repression that has all been caught very graphically on live streaming video, put on satellite television, and more recently, on the internet. This has pretty much immunized people against some of the violence that's taking place in the region.
Bob: There has been some speculation that the particular revulsion attendant to this episode has to do with - on the subject of being inured - how commonplace a beheading is even in the regular criminal justice system in parts of the arab world particularly in the gulf states. Were previous videos regarded as kind of punishment as usual?
Daragahi: In part I think yes, because beheadings have become sadly common throughout the arab world, both by certain governments, very few, actually, and by these insurgent groups over the years. I think its also very important to note that the target audience for these - lets call them jihadi snuff films - it's not at all mainstream arabs. Its a certain kind of disaffected, disillusioned, somewhat literate, very media-savvy types of people and those are the potential recruits for ISIS. And I think this is one of the reasons why so many of ISIS's fighters are not just coming from the Arab world but even second generation immigrants to the west are finding a certain appeal here.
Bob: Is this a case of just trying to go to the basest, most morbid, most anti-social instincts of the bottom of the barrel?
Daragahi: I think to some extent it is. I think there's also a lot of noise out there. A lot of different forces competing for the attention of people in the media, on the streets, in the mosques. And this is a way for ISIS to eclipse the noise coming from other corners of the internet, of the media. I mean I hate to say this - there's a certain kind of punk rock appeal to what these guys are doing. What some analysts are calling "jihadi cool."
Bob: The idea of competition among various jihadist groups for the hardest cases out there - its on the verge of being comical. It sounds like something out of a Mel Brooks movie, or something like that.
Daragahi: Actually there's a movie called 4 lions - its a british dark comedy about 4 muslims in the UK - and these guys are like the biggest idiots in the world. Just a real bunch of losers. And it tells their story about how one of them goes to afghanistan and accidentally fires off a weapon and kills the jihadis who are supposedly hosting him.
Bob: Isis requires some level of credibility and sympathy - it is after all based on supposedly an Islamic framework. If it is to be islamic, can it go out there and just try to recruit the biggest misfits and sociopaths, and still be in any way taken seriously by the Muslim world in whose name it is doing what its doing?
Daragahi: I would say that it is not doing what its doing in the name of the mainstream muslim world right now. It in fact is rebelling against the mainstream muslim world. There is no shortage of people who are rather contemptuous of its ideology. Just to give one example - no one calls it ISIS or el dolah or el islamiya in arabic in this part of the world; everyone calls it Daesh. Which is a rather derogatory term which uses the old arab acronym for the group, and they refer to it that way on talk shows, in conversations on the street and so on. So I don't think there's a lot of respect for this group's ideology.
Bob: If the muslim world as you've described has been in some way anaesthetized by its travails there over the last 12 years, if not 50, arab forces are certainly making progress on the battlefield against ISIS forces - ISIS has lost territory in both syria and iraq - is this the last desperate act of a movement that is in its last days?
Daragahi: I wish we could say that but I don't think so. I think they still have some momentum, they still control Mosul, they still control Raqqa. Its a war of attrition in syria, and in Iraq, despite the fact that they lost Kobani - in part due to perhaps a dozen US and other airstrikes a day that helped the Kurdish forces take Kobani. So if thats what its going to take for every little town in its territory, this is going to be a long war. But i think that if you want to look at the big picture, what this video means for people is that I do think it will serve as a wake up call for anyone who thought they could perhaps sit this war out, that ISIS doesn't affect them, that its not that great of a danger to them. I think that this will alert a lot of people, not just in iraq and syria who are already aware of the danger of ISIS, but perhaps in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, other arab countries - just what a danger this group is.
Bob: Borzou, thank you so much.
Daragahi: It's been a pleasure, thank you so much.
Bob: Borzou Daragahi covers the mideast for the Financial Times in Cairo.