BEIRUT: It is probably the most horrific YouTube video to come out of the war in Syria. A depressingly long 17 minutes, it is a catalogue of butchery in which the ritual decapitation of human beings serves as a spontaneous “political” statement.
In contrast to last week’s videotaped execution of U.S. journalist James Foley by a masked ISIS militant who speaks with a London accent and is responding to the launch of U.S. airstrikes against his group in Iraq, the 17-minute video from Deir al-Zor in Syria contains little information about the cause of people who are too extreme even for the central leadership of the notorious Salafist-jihadist group Al-Qaeda.
There is no prepared statement or demands, just the spontaneous filming of the hastily organized killing of victims, hands bound behind their backs, quick-marched to a nondescript ground, made to lie prone and held down on a sandy surface.
From the executioners one hears boisterous laughter, cruel taunting, sick jokes, and the shouting of short religious phrases and simplistic ISIS slogans – all accompanying the casual decapitation, one by one, of half a dozen young men, all believed to be from the Sheaitat tribe of Deir al-Zor.
ISIS has been responsible for a long, diverse list of atrocities over the last year. These crimes have targeted everyone from rival insurgents to members of Iraq’s Christian, Kurdish and Shiite communities, while soldiers from the Syrian army, killed or captured this week by ISIS, have emerged in photos and videos as the latest victims.
However, the majority of the group’s casualties, particularly in Syria, are believed to be Sunnis, like the young men in the video.
When ISIS came to Deir al-Zor province last month, it set out “non-aggression” agreements with local tribes and communities, but reportedly violated its pact with the Sheaitat by detaining several members of the tribe, based in a triangle of villages south of the provincial capital.
A tense standoff degenerated into violence as tribe members mounted a hasty armed resistance to ISIS before they were forced to withdraw; they are now being hunted down throughout the province.
Ever since, ISIS has conducted periodic executions of people who allegedly rose up against them, while continuing to liquidate rival insurgents. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K-based anti-regime monitoring group, estimates that 700 members of the Sheaitat tribe have been killed in the campaign, while the fate of several hundred others remains unknown.
An anti-regime activist from Deir al-Zor, speaking to The Daily Star via Skype, said that while exact figures were hard to come by, the number of those killed was certainly in the hundreds.
The video was posted six days before Foley’s execution generated international revulsion, and although it has received nearly 350,000 views – one wonders how many have watched the entire thing – its emergence caused not even a blip on the global radar.
The victims have been sentenced to death for being “apostates,” meaning they reject ISIS’s ultra-extremist interpretation of Islam, and are slaughtered.
They are held in place as their necks are slit and severed by knives, and their heads yanked off for display, as pools of blood quickly spread on the ground.
A militant takes one of the grisly trophies and places it near the head of the next victim; he shouts at him to “kiss it” and leaves it in close proximity as the victim awaits his death.
A few instructions are heard during the proceedings, namely to avoid photographing ISIS fighters above the legs or uttering their names.
Many such horrific videos of violence, often against civilians, have emerged from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the perpetrators have also come from the ranks of the regime, their paramilitary allies, and some rebel groups. But as one Arabic-speaking commenter on YouTube put it, before the comments for the video were removed, “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The anti-regime activist told The Daily Star that even publicizing the names of the victims pictured in the video would be dangerous, due to the possibility of retribution against their relatives.
“The families of the young men in the video have fled to neighboring villages,” the activist said. “ISIS is still going after anyone connected to fighting back against it.”
The activist, who also requested anonymity because of potential retribution, said that while ISIS devoted some of its efforts to providing services such as water and electricity and security, its relentless conducting of executions, sometimes with the victims left crucified for several days, had become a part of daily life in Deir al-Zor province.
The Sheaitat rebellion also saw the tribe split, with some of its elders urging against any resistance to ISIS while a “small number of the worst elements” of the tribe took part in the jihadists’ crackdown against their kinsmen, the activist said.
In the ranks of ISIS, and particularly in the case of the video, non-Syrians are prominent.
Anti-regime activists dutifully published a transcript of the video, to highlight the comments made by the Egyptian, Libyan, Iraqi, Tunisian and Saudi nationals who took part in the executions.
“The most violent, bloodthirsty elements of ISIS are non-Syrians – people such as Moroccans, Tunisians, Egyptians and Chechens,” the activist said.
Most observers cite the desire to instill terror in the populations of the territory that they have conquered as being the motive behind ISIS’s actions, and the general consensus is that the tactic is working, though a small-scale, clandestine armed resistance to ISIS continues to operate from the provincial capital Deir al-Zor through a string of towns on the Euphrates leading to the Iraqi border.
In the eyes of its enemies, ISIS represents a modern-day Khawarij, which might the most apt description of where the group lies on the traditional salafist-jihadist spectrum.
The Khawarij movement, which emerged in the seventh century, is better remembered for what it did to fellow Muslims than it is for conducting significant campaigns against non-Muslim enemies.
The Khawarij pioneered the practice of takfir, or considering insufficiently pious Muslims as deserving of death.
In the end, the movement held territory for a relatively short period of time, and was often harassed by the many enemies that it had made along the way.
This week, Islamist insurgents in rural Aleppo province declared the beginning of yet another campaign against ISIS and repeatedly referred to the group as “Khawarij.”
As the ultimate extremists, they reject things that many Muslims hold dear, such as shrines to pious individuals, even if those shrines are dedicated to companions of the Prophet Mohammad. ISIS has detonated several such holy places in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS’s ideology is often conflated with that of Sunni Islam, and although the group certainly persecutes Shiites, it is just as enthusiastic about annihilating whole groups of Sunni Muslims for perceived laxity in religious matters or else for simple disobedience.
While its foreign jihadist element has been widely publicized, the group would unlikely be in its current position without the presence of Iraqis, and particularly ex-Baath Party or ex-Iraqi army personnel, handling the purely military and logistical responsibilities.
Some observers say that ISIS has in effect settled Al-Qaeda’s internal argument over tactics, because it has resurrected the policy – pioneered by former al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – of violence against civilians, both Sunnis and Shiites. This tactic was supposedly discredited in Iraq during the last decade and rejected by the central Al-Qaeda leadership.
In the video, when the young men of the Sheaitat are being butchered, one of the militants shouts out an appreciative “You Zarqawi!” to his comrade, indicating how the militants see themselves.
In the view of al-Hayat newspaper’s Hazem al-Amin, who has written extensively on jihadist movements, ISIS today combines distinct trends that work together.
“They have the ‘Hollywood’ aspect, such as the jihadists who want to show off while on camera,” Amin said, which is combined with the more clandestine Iraqi element – mainly ex-Baath and military personnel or members of tribes from the country’s Sunni west.
A recent two-part article on ISIS by Nawaf al-Qadimi, writing in al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, highlighted these two elements to explain how the group combines seemingly irrational violence and very pragmatic political-military behavior when needed.
Qadimi talks in detail about the Iraqi influence, and stresses how the last 40 years of that country’s history have featured foreign wars, bloody civil strife and domestic oppression, producing a few generations of cadres who have few qualms about using extremely violent methods. A significant number of the members of these cadres were imprisoned by the American occupiers and then by the Iraqi government.
Qadimi also emphasizes what he calls the “glow of achievement” that ISIS can boast of.
Instead of deferring action on establishing an Islamic state, like its rival the Nusra Front, or stooping to cooperating with non-Islamist groups, like all of its rivals, ISIS is mobilizing support precisely because it is so violent and determined to pursue its vision.
Qadimi says that although the group now calls itself the Islamic State, it is still in its “da’wa” or ‘mobilizing’ phase, as it tries to attract members.
Some observers of the conflict in Syria believe that ISIS is a force that is here to stay, and predict its sphere of influence will only grow in the months to come.
The activist in Deir al-Zor, in contrast, believes that the group will be unable to sustain a long-term presence, even though few signs of external help against the jihadists, or a concerted internal effort, have emerged as yet.
Al-Hayat’s Amin believes that while ISIS has not gained widespread political acceptance in Syria, it has not been fully rejected by the Sunni community at large – many scholars and figures have denounced it, but the group’s fundraising networks and political support abroad remain intact.
However, he also says that after the Foley video, and now that ISIS’s gains in Iraq have triggered U.S. airstrikes, ISIS has produced a situation in which the “world will not tolerate” its continued presence.
The speculation is of little consolation to hundreds of members of the Sheaitat tribe or to the thousands of other victims of ISIS, whether or not their deaths are recorded for posterity.