The idiotic image of ISIS: are we losing our critical thinking?


Does anyone remember the bizarre stories that began circulating in the mainstream press in the summer of 2014 and into early 2015, alleging that certain of ISIS’ infamous snuff videos had been faked? The following appeared in that bastion of the official narrative,the Times August 25:

Foley video with Briton was staged, experts say

The video of a British jihadist beheading an American hostage was probably staged, with the actual murder taking place off-camera, according to forensic analysis.

Footage of James Foley’s death at the hands of a man with a London accent provided a powerful propaganda tool for Islamic State — formerly Isis — when it was uploaded on to the internet and broadcast around the world last week.

Now it has emerged the Briton might be a frontman and not the killer…

(The Briton in question was of course the infamous “jihadi John”, whose alleged identity was revealed in what looks like a very contrived and potentially dishonest media storm earlier this year.)

The Telegraph also ran the fake video story at around the same time as the Times:

Foley murder video ‘may have been staged’

The video of James Foley’s execution may have been staged, with the actual murder taking place off-camera, it has emerged.

..a study of the four-minute 40-second clip, carried out by an international forensic science company which has worked for police forces across Britain, suggested camera trickery and slick post-production techniques appear to have been used.

Both articles quote what they say is clear evidence of staging. The Telegraph says “there appears to be a blip” in James Foley’s speech, which suggests the scene had been cut and re-shot, maybe for a fluffed line. An anonymous “forensic analyst” is quoted in both sources as saying:

After enhancements, the knife can be seen to be drawn across the upper neck at least six times, with no blood evidence to the point the picture fades to black,

An “expert”, also unnamed, alleges:

I think it has been staged. My feeling is that the execution may have happened after the camera was stopped.

Though the company who did the analysis was careful to add:

No one is disputing that at some point an execution occurred.

This “conspiracy theory” of the kind normally relegated to the outermost fringes of alt media, was repeatedly floated over the ensuing months in the mainest of mainstream outlets. Not just the Times and the Telegraph, but Fox News, which ran this piece on a different ISIS snuff vid in January 2015:

ISIS’ army of 7-footers? Experts say video of Copt beheadings manipulated

Video of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being marched along a Libyan beach before being beheaded by black-clad members of ISIS is hard for any civilized person to watch, but experts who made it through the sickening, five-minute clip told FoxNews.com Friday they came to the same conclusion: The footage was faked

…several anomalies in the video, which was posted online Feb. 15, indicated to trained eyes that at least some of the production was done on “green screen” with background added later, perhaps to disguise the real location of the atrocity. A day after the clip went viral, Egyptian warplanes struck hard at an eastern port city near Tripoli, where the video appeared to have been shot.

Again, Fox was careful to point out the murders themselves were real – just not done on camera. The narrative coalescing though these various pieces was that ISIS had somehow acquired sophisticated green screen equipment and other movie-making paraphernalia, together with the expertise to use them, and was making fake videos of beheadings, before executing its victims for real later, off-camera.

Fox quoted one Veryan Kahn, an “editorial director of the Florida-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium” as saying:

The Islamic State’s manipulation of their high-production videos has become commonplace. The murders likely took place in a studio, and the background image shown was likely from another location, the Bay in Sirte, a part of the Mediterranean Sea on the northern coast of Libya.

“Hollywood horror film director” Mary Lambert was also quoted by Fox as saying:

The shot that seems really tampered with is the one with the really tall Jihadists and the dwarf Christians. The close-ups of Jihadists on the beach are most likely green screen.

How much of this can we believe?

Two questions seem to arise from this strange situation.

1) Why on earth have the normally very un-curious and obedient mainstream media been drawing attention to what amounts to a glaring anomaly in the official ISIS narrative?

2) Is the claim that ISIS makes fake videos but then actually kills its victims off-camera plausible?

The first question is mired in the hopeless confusion inherent in propaganda and counter-propaganda. There’s certainly a suggestion that the Foley video presented problems for the official narrative shortly after its release, since, in a move designed to dissuade people from watching it, Scotland Yard was wheeled out to announce “viewing, downloading or disseminating the video within the UK might constitute a criminal offence under terrorism legislation.” Perhaps the video was seen to be so badly faked some sort of limited hangout admission in the controlled press was unavoidable.

Most mainstream analysts have, fairly predictably, found the “official” explanation of these apparent anomalies entirely plausible, though, equally predictably, some in the alternative news community have been less sanguine. 21st Century Wire described both the Foley video and the Steven Sotloff beheading video as

nothing more than crudely constructed propaganda videos, designed to start a new war at home, and abroad.

The article points to what it says are peculiarities in Foley’s career resumé which might imply he had been some form of intelligence asset.

…In 2009, just three years before his capture in Syria, Foley worked for CIA front organization USAID, apparently working on ‘development projects’ in Baghdad. In 2011, he “moved to Libya” where he was promptly kidnapped by NATO-backed Islamist fighters and held for over a month.

Then in 2012, Foley landed a gig with an unusual Boston-based, online media outlet called GlobalPost. With no visible advertising and a membership subscription base in the hundreds, somehow GlobalPost manages to pay for up to 65 foreign correspondents, sending their reporters as eyes and ears on the ground in hot spots like Syria. The answer to this puzzle comes in the form of a handful of elite US foundation, quietly injecting millions of dollars into their GlobalPost operation. They include the Ford Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Open Hands Initiative, The Henry Luce Foundation, The Bake Family Trust, The Correspondents Fund and the Galloway Family Foundation….

Whatever we make of this allegedly murky history, the entire issue with the potentially faked snuff films is just one of numerous weirdnesses in the ISIS narrative. Not much of which can pass detailed, or even cursory, analysis (why, for example, does ISIS seem to release its questionable videos exclusively through a US/Israeli-intelligence linked organisation called SITE? )

But then, hard facts – real, solid, old-fashioned, non-social media hard facts – about ISIS are amazingly difficult to come by.

What is “ISIS”?

If we strip away all the layers of hype – the photos, the videos, the column inches, the “expert” analyses crammed with assumptions, the fear porn headlines, we’re left with very little solid data beyond the fact there is a group located in Iraq and Syria, of indeterminate size (estimates can vary wildly), calling itself at various different times “ISIS”, or “ISIL” or “Islamic State”, or “Daesh”, or any other of a dozen other monikers and acronyms.

The group is claimed to have been founded in the late 1990s as an offshoot from al Qaeda, though little was heard about it in western media before the second decade of the present century.

In June 2014 it allegedly proclaimed a “Caliphate” across the territories it controls, though exactly where those territories are and how extensive or connected they may be seems surprisingly difficult to pin down. There are plenty of maps on offer, but much dispute over what they actually show. Is ISIS territory getting bigger or smaller? Even the BBC doesn’t seem to know. Does it have 20,00 fighters? Or more than 50,000 fighters? Or over 100,000 fighters? Depends who you ask.

In the chaotic war zones of Iraq and Syria all such estimates seem to be more guesswork, rumour and myth than fact, particularly when “ISIS” can morph into the FSA or al Qaeda and back again simply by the proclamation of any “source” the western media deems reliable.

In terms of its physical presence on the ground ISIS is all but indistinguishable from al Qaeda, al Nusra, the Mujahideen and all the rest of the western-backed terror networks/proxy armies currently in place in the Middle East and other areas of strategic sensitivity.

What sets ISIS apart is not hard fact, but the gigantic PR machine that pushes its name, its declarations, its agenda in the world media. Nine tenths of what constitutes “ISIS” in the popular mind is not anything directly connected with that ill-defined and fluid band of mercenaries/jihadists.

In fact, you might say there are really two versions of ISIS. One the poorly documented fighting force of indeterminate size. The other the massive brand saturation “ISIS” of media legend. And even while the barest hard facts about real ISIS on the ground seem impossibly mired in contradiction, so the media version of ISIS becomes ever more detailed, elaborate, bizarre and sometimes simply ridiculous.

How many ISIS coins to the dollar? Oh who cares, look how pretty...

How many ISIS coins to the dollar? Oh who cares, look how pretty…

This “media ISIS” is defined almost entirely by memes and iconography. A borrowed and rebranded flag, a succession of liminal “leaders” one of whom allegedly died at least three separate times (in 2003, in 2005 and again a year after that), and another of whom has been alleged to have never existed at all.A video front man whose pseudonym is a tabloid headline.

“Media ISIS” has a business portfolio Goldman Sachs would admire, and the kind of reach SMERSH could only dream of. It runs a billion dollar oil empire that can’t be stopped, a multi-million dollar artefact smuggling business that can’t be tracked, witnessed or halted, keeps a vast fortune in western banks that can’t be traced, runs movie studios and social media campaigns from locations that can’t be bombed.

ISIS’ “annual report”, complete with glossy pics and diagrams…

“Media ISIS” has a “human resources” department for recruiting its oil-drilling workforce, offers “competitive salaries” to scientists and experts, which is how it manages to keep its rigs pumping “40,000 barrels per day”. Does ISIS pay these professionals in the shiny new ISIS money it’s started minting? (because, of course, the global financial market just doesn’t exist in this little alternative universe and terrorist currencies have value by merely existing, even if no nation in the world accepts them). Maybe it’s the glossy end of year reports that lure in so many would-be employees? But then “media ISIS” is a law unto itself even on Twitter. Heck, it can even create its own Android app and sell it through Google.

No, really, the Indy told us…

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 11.11.27

The tower of stupid grows so high and rickety it’s quite easy to believe there’s a focus group somewhere churning out these publicity pieces, thinking “ok, how far can we take this crap before people refuse to bite?”

And the answer would seem to be – as far as you want to go, boys.

Nothing up to this point has proved too ridiculous for public consumption. Not even when it’s proved to be a bit of a lie. Like the “destruction of ancient artefacts…” which turned out to be copies (though as with the vids, there was someone on hand to say “other” smashed statues were the real deal). Or the bogus “Caliphate map” claiming to show ISIS’ “five year plan” to take over the western world, that had people everywhere wetting themselves with dread.

the “five year plan” that wasn’t…

It looks like this franchise could run and run. Baghdadi is Emmanuel Goldstein on speed! Oceania will be at war with these tricky dickies until the end of time. Watch out for future blockbusters such as ISIS’ first satellite launch, ISIS goes to the Moon, ISIS takes over Disneyland and murders Mickey Mouse. On video. With a complementary Android app and total media meltdown. All to be spoon fed into our gawping open mouths with nary a gag or a dribble.

Don’t we need to call this?

Too few people – even in the alt media – seem to be focusing on the sheer bogusness of the “media ISIS” story. While there are plenty of articles pointing out that ISIS is likely funded by western treasure, there are few pointing out that meanie terrorist caliphates who are the declared enemy of the entire western world don’t get to market Android apps through major western corporations, or invest their money in major western banks, unless it suits a lot of well-connected people that they should. Are we forgetting how the real world really works? Where is our scepticism? Come to that where is our sense of the ridiculous?

Let’s just try for a reality check. The real ISIS is closer to a gang of sociopaths, mercenaries, deluded would-be suiciders and intelligence agents, than some sort of comic book COBRA with its fingers in a thousand pies. Real ISIS won’t be taking over the world, or Europe or even all of Syria any time soon, because hired mercenaries and nutcases don’t do that unless their paymasters want them to, and they don’t. The US doesn’t want real ISIS to take over anything. It just wants destroyed infrastructure, and failed states, and lots of lovely chaos, and mercs/nutcases are good for all of that.

Real ISIS is fighting a war on several fronts in hostile conditions, and we can be pretty sure it has little time or organisational ability for industrial strength oil production, professional grade snuff films, the setting up of human resources departments, the minting of pretty gold coinage, or the creation of Android apps. Because again, ad hoc bands of mercenaries don’t do that. These things are either being outsourced to their US/Saudi chums, or are simply being made up, wholesale, in pursuit of more and better fear porn for a populace that has lost the ability to think critically.

Which brings us back to those videos. Think about it. Do you seriously believe ISIS the mercenary jihadist Caliphate, likes to act out its murder sprees on camera first, complete with green screen and post-production editing, before offing their unfortunate victims later in private?


I think this question is as important, maybe even more important, than who is funding the proxy war in Syria and Iraq, because it touches on something even the most cynical of us tend to consider still sacred. We know the media lies in service of wealth and power, but we are loth to believe that lying might extend to wholesale, absolute invention. That we’re sometimes being fed fake news about non-existent events is something we are all reluctant to contemplate as a bare possibility.

But if evidence is mounting that such things really do occur, how long can we afford to ignore it? The alleged fake ISIS videos have to be seen in the context of increased blurring between fiction and reality in so-called news reporting. The worrying possibility of wholesale deception or manipulation by the BBC in its documentary Saving Syria’s Children, and other recent bizarre examples of seemingly blatant fiction presented as reality, require some response from us.

It’s a difficult issue. But if we don’t address it we are in danger of willingly surrendering our critical thinking. And once we give that up we’ve truly lost everything that makes us human.


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