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Isis sends a gruesome message but reveals little about itself

Thursday 25 September 2014

When Osama bin Laden wanted to deliver a message to the west, he summoned a journalist or a television network. Before the attacks of September 11 2001 he even gave press conferences. He was available to the media as a physical presence. This was how he communicated. People paid attention to what he said, because he was saying it via trusted journalists. When the head of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) wants to send a message, the movement does it differently. Social media is the new way of communicating, for businessmen and terrorists alike.

When the terrorist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has something to say, he posts it online, using multiple social media platforms so as to make it impossible for authorities to silence him. He need not appear in person before representatives of the western press in order to convince his audience that he is real. The message itself is enough.

Killing the messenger is an ancient way for kings to assuage frustration born of defeat or a political failure. Mr Baghdadi has taken this routine to another level. In his view, journalists are not messengers who convey information to the outside world, but merely intruders, who should be imprisoned, tortured and eliminated, or – especially if they are American or British – used as political pawns.

The tragic beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff are part of this revolting new political game. Al-Qaeda briefly attempted something similar in 2001, with the beheading of Daniel Pearl. With Isis, it has become de rigueur. In this way it expects to force western governments to sit up and take notice. In the years after 1993, I roamed around Afghanistan with the Taliban – the horrors of their day. As I did so, I learnt about their philosophy, saw how they governed and treated people, how they understood developments in geopolitics. I studied their military tactics and strategy. And I wrote books that informed others of what I had learnt. To think of those days now, when merely to show your face as a journalist in parts of Iraq or Syria is to invite a violent death, it seems like another era, another age.

The military tactics of Isis are similar to the Taliban’s – vehicle-borne attacks, hitting multiple targets at the same time, veering from defeat on one front to victory on another, sacrificing soldiers in frontal or suicide attacks. There are most likely Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighting under the Isis banner. Islamic extremists are using the latest technology – a brilliant, manipulative campaign of terror and beheadings

But there is a difference. As journalists we had the time and space and access to the troops and commanders to study Taliban tactics and understand how guerrilla warfare worked. Now we can only make presumptions about how Isis makes war.

No journalist in the future will encounter Mr Baghdadi face to face, or tour his camps, or see how he rules his new state (or “caliphate”). That is how he prefers it. We will never hear the stories or possess the information that might persuade potential recruits what a monstrous campaign Isis is waging, or what a grotesque state it aims to create. Even now, we know little of the people who are running his military and political command centres. It is Mr Baghdadi’s appearances on social media that will dominate the news when he wants to.

The Taliban were not very communicative but they were polite and well behaved; they did not torture you or hang you upside down if you were a journalist and they allowed you – albeit with tight restrictions, and a total ban on photographs – to write down what you saw.

Now we know that no objective journalist will ever be able to do the same with Isis. We will never really know their internal story, or how widely they are supported, except through scraps of information that we glean second hand and cannot properly evaluate.

Islamic extremists are using the latest technology – a brilliant, manipulative campaign of terror and beheadings – to make sure that no journalist has the nerve so much as to approach the vicinity of an Isis camp.

But, in his gruesome way, Mr Baghdadi is using journalists to transmit his messages all the same. And no one can protect us any more.

The writer is a journalist and author and a member of the Board of the Committee to Protect Journalists

The Financial Times

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