The Islamic world has just observed the end of Ramadan, the month-long spell of fasting that unites the world’s 1.6bn Muslims. For the vast majority, it’s a time for celebrating the virtues of self-sacrifice. And for a tiny monitory, it’s a time for celebrating the virtues of sacrificing others.
That, certainly, is the message given out by the horrific new video produced by the Islamic State, the Islamist group that last month seized vast swathes of northern Iraq.
Released to coincide with the Eid festival that marks the end of Ramadan, it’s grim even by the X-rated standards of jihadi snuff movies, a half-hour “best of” compilation of clips of mass executions and beheadings by masked Islamic State gunmen.
In one section, a group of terrified Iraqi soldiers are led to a sandy desert pit and executed one by one with an AK-47. In another, they are shot dead by the edge of a river and then shoved into the water, their pistol-wielding killer standing in an ever-expanding pool of blood. Other shots include suicide bombers and snipers in action, and Shia mosques and shrines being destroyed. Judging by the slick quality of the editing, it’s presumably only a matter of time before the Islamic State releases its own boxset of its various atrocities to date.
The idea of this stuff, of course, is not just for the Islamic State’s sadists to feel good about themselves. Its real purpose is to terrify ordinary Iraqis, showing the fate that will befall them if they try and defend themselves. One piece of footage, for example, shows a captured Iraqi soldier being humiliated for trying to hide his uniform under civilian clothes. Sadly, in a paranoid culture like Iraq’s, where no news is news unless there are pictures to prove it – or at least purport to prove it – it tends to have the desired effect.
In a sense, there is nothing new about this stuff. It first surfaced with the al-Qaeda beheading videos that followed the US led-invasion of Iraq in 2003, and since then, both sides in Iraq’s sectarian divide have producing video nasties to make their point. In 2005, I remember my old translator in Iraq gleefully showing me a mobile phone video of three Shia soldiers playing football with a suicide bomber’s decapitated head. It made the “happy slapping” craze that was taking place back in Britain at the time seem rather tame.
Back then, though, it was only relatively techno-savvy people like my translator who would see it. Now it is far more omnipresent, and it does not take a genius to work out how incendiary this kind of material is in fuelling the fires of civil war. Indeed, Western diplomats I have spoken to in Baghdad say they believe one of the main sources of radicalisation in both Iraq and Syria has been jihadist videos of various sorts, circulated among young men who may not have much in the way of jobs or prospects, but do have access to 3G mobile phones. The diplomats were referring mainly to the videos’ effectiveness in recruiting young Sunni men to join the Islamic State. But I would also imagine that any Shia who saw their loved one being executed before the camera – victims’ terrified faces are often clearly visible – would be pretty keen to take up arms as well.
That should really be enough gloomy observations for now. But there is one other that I can’t help making. During my decade as a foreign correspondent, I have lost count of the number of bombings, massacres and other atrocities that have been timed to take place during Muslim holy periods, be it Ramadan, the Eid holidays or other times. Sadly, dates in the Muslim calendar that are supposed to be synonymous with peace and happiness are now often anything but.