Aerial shots, slow-motion explosions, scenes filmed through a rifle’s crosshairs… You might think this is footage from a new summer blockbuster, but you would be wrong. It is, in fact, a new propaganda video produced by Sunni jihadists from the armed group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The extremely violent hour-long film was published online just days before ISIS launched a massive offensive in northern Iraq.
The film is called “The Clanging of the Swords IV”. The Roman numeral is there because, much like with Hollywood blockbusters, the film is part of a series. This one was first published on Internet forums heavily frequented by ISIS members, and was then reposted on the group’s official Twitter account on May 17, 2014.
The opening sequence pans in on a map of the fictitious geographic zone that the ISIS fighters call the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, which encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq. This is followed by footage from a drone flying over Fallujah, an Iraqi city that ISIS has controlled since early 2014. Then, a rocket launch is heard, as if to mark the start of the “action”. (The full-length, original video can be viewed here).
A message for the Iraqi army
The three videos that came before “The Clanging of the Swords IV” primarily consisted of footage filmed by ISIS during its fighting in Syria. However, on May 17, the organisation aired this action-oriented montage of scenes filmed in Iraq, which includes real footage of, for instance, official Iraqi vehicles being machine-gunned full of holes, the execution of Iraqi soldiers and the destruction of tanks. This footage came as a warning, three weeks before the start of the ISIS offensive on the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Kirkuk.
On an Iraqi road, fighters shoot at vehicles that Iraqi officials are allegedly riding in.
The film, which includes many graphic images, has been taken off YouTube multiple times, but is each time uploaded anew by different users. It is hard to say how often it has been viewed and whether it has impacted the morale of Iraqi soldiers. Some Twitter online commenters predicted that “this video will cause 10 to 15% of [Iraqi] soldiers to desert.” And indeed, many Iraqi soldiers did not fight back when the jihadists arrived, opting instead to take off their uniforms and disappear into the crowds of fleeing civilians – even though in northern Iraq, soldiers outnumbered jihadists ten to one.
A tank explodes on a mine, as ISIS fighters cheer.
When reality looks like fiction
In this video, ISIS fighters shy away from the face-to-camera statements normally made by jihadist groups, instead focusing on action and combat. A CNN journalist even noticed similarities between certain parts of the montage and scenes from the US film “Zero Dark Thirty” on the search for Osama Bin Laden.
Even though the production style is reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, ISIS insists that everything depicted is real. To this end, the names of fighters appear on the screen when they come into view, as well as the names of fighters who died in combat. In the same way, the film points out the locations of much of the footage.
The cruelty of ISIS’s execution scenarios are chilling. At the 38 minute mark, men accused of having worked for the United States are filmed digging their own graves.
ISIS and Sunni civilians
By selecting these particular pieces of footage, ISIS aims to show that they are primarily attacking officers of the Iraqi army and those who collaborated with the United States or with the Iraqi government, which is controlled by the country’s Shiite majority. At the 27 minute mark, ISIS soldiers, dressed up in Iraqi army uniforms, film themselves standing at a fake army roadblock they’ve set up on a road in Iraq. The passenger of one cars, who believes he is addressing soldiers, informs them that he is a high-level Iraqi bureaucrat. He is promptly executed.
By focusing their propaganda on these targets, ISIS is letting Sunni civilians in northern Iraq know that they will be spared by the fighting. It is crucial for the jihadists to convince the residents of Sunni cities not to flee, because having them around allows the jihadists to conceal themselves behind a veritable human shield. However, these videos do not mention the fate that could befall civilians in the region’s Shiite areas.
Fighters addressing Iraqi civilians.
Following an astounding advance in the Sunni north, columns of ISIS fighters are allegedly less than 100 km away from Baghdad. This jihadist group, which is about ten thousand strong, aims to create a huge Sunni caliphate in the region.
An ISIS operation by ngiht.