Why is DAESH / Islamic State Executing via Decapitation?

If it bleeds, it leads.Armstrong Williams.

Roger MacGinty recently visited the US, and shared the following on his blog:

I have been in the US for a few days. When there, I was exposed to quite a few hours of Fox News, CNN and other news channels…  Usually the sound was turned down, but it was very clear what the top story was: IS. The news channels seem obsessed with it… If an IS strategy is to gain media coverage in the homeland of their enemy then they have won that part of their war – for free.

This is interesting because MacGinty lives and works in the UK, where the government can, and does, censor news coverage, and thus US news coverage of Islamic State (IS, aka DAESH, ISIS, and ISIL) stood out in stark relief to what he sees back home.

Terror attacks create “eyeballs on the set,” which is the currency of news.[1] And groups with little visibility know this. To get the attention of a powerful actor, like the US, a group needs to mobilize the public and persuade that public that it is powerful and scary. If that happens, democraticaly accountable politicians have an incentive to rush in and gesticulate about their commitment to keeping the public safe. The challenge of the little known group is: how does it project that image? Hiring a PR firm, the tactic pursued by corporations and celebrities, is not viable.

MacGinty, a peace research scholar, knows this, and that is why seeing American cable news coverage in airports, bars, and restaurants stood out to him. “WTF?!?” he was essentially asking himself. “Don’t these Bozos know that they are playing directly into IS’s hands? Can IS shout “Dance!” and then sit back and enjoy the show?”

MacGinty’s post stands out to me because I was drawn to politics as a 10 year old watching ABC Sports’s live coverage of Black September’s kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.[2] Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming and the genre we now know as 24 hour news coverage was born due to a handful of Palestinian nationalists who recognized the symbiotic relationship between (American) news and their need for the world’s attention.

I was 23 years old when I first had the experience MacGinty posted about. For me it was TWA Flight 847, which Hezbollah hijacked. The image below is one of the best “made for TV” moments in the history of terror attacks: it is a screen shot from footage ABC news shot as a Hezbollah operative told the world of their demands (he also allowed the pilot, John Testrake, to speak). Still photos, like this one, were reproduced around the world in newspapers and magazines.

Source: ABC News

Source: ABC News

We didn’t say “WTF?!?” back in 1985, but the acronym effectively captures my reaction. “Why would any American news organization play into the hands of this goon squad? Don’t they know that if they ignored the hijackers that the tactic literally couldn’t work?!?”[3] I was on the Greek Island of Ios at the time, taking a whack at writing the great American novel.[4] UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular was critical of the American press for their coverage, but the American networks defended their decision and the American public’s “right to know” (e.g., see coverage here; for exemplars of American print coverage of the event, see these examples from Time and People).

I am a passionate defender of freedom of speech, press and assembly, and would not swap the British government’s authority to shackle those freedoms for what we have in the US. As such, I am squarely in league with Paul Wilkinson, whose coverage of this issue in the “The Media and Terrorism” chapter of his book I strongly recommend. Nevertheless, I would like to see the US media exercise restraint, and view the executives, producers and on-air talent with contempt for choosing to cover this topic the way that they do.

The weary, macho-militaristic American slogan “Freedom isn’t Free” aside, freedom of the press is costly when it comes to conflict. The reason is straight forward: political conflict is a strategic interaction[5], and political actors will pursue opportunities to advance their agendas.

The Islamic State is cutting off peoples’ heads, recording it, and posting the content online because you are watching.


[1] Lest anyone think that this is limited to television news, or contemporary America, the other day at lunch a colleague told us of his experience as a rookie reporter for a Chicago newspaper in the 1960s. It was his first night on the City Desk and a report of a murder came over the wire. He tore the paper from the machine and excitedly asked his editor for permission to cover the story. “What’s the address?” the editor wanted to know, apparently not looking up from what he was reading. When my colleague told him the address, he responded: “That’s the black side of town. Nobody cares.” #BlackLivesMatter

[2] Some friends have questioned whether as a ten year old I was really paying attention to the Olympics. My father placed 13th in the 1968 US Olympic Trials for the Finn, a sailboat. So, yes, the Olympic games were a major event in the family I grew up in, and we attended the 1976 games in Montreal.

[3] TWA was an American airline and the flight had a majority of American passengers. Oddly enough, a woman I had known in college, Laura Bergman, was a passenger on the flight, and was among those released midway through the event. I learned this via news stories that listed the passengers on the flight.

[4] I learned that I am not a novelist.

[5] See research articles about strategic dissident – state interactions here and here.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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3 Responses to Why is DAESH / Islamic State Executing via Decapitation?

  1. Pingback: Food for Thought: DAESH and Media Self Censoring | Will Opines

  2. Scott says:

    I agree that the news media in the US is bonkers. But I am not sure the UK is much better. Every newspaper today has the cover of ‘jihadi john’. Most days every paper has an IS cover. The BBC might moderate the tv coverage a bit, but they also lead with decapitation most days.

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Thanks for the comment. I have been noting the “Jihadi John” stuff as well, and from what I can tell, the UK media does suffer from the same issue, if not as highly.

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