Unmasking ISIS

by Jack Queen

I am looking for an ISIS execution video, but I have no intention of witnessing its macabre conclusion. I’ve seen the stills in the news—emaciated men clad in bright orange prison garb kneeling next to black silhouettes baring knives—but I need to see a little more. I need to peer into the blackness of the masks and see if there’s anything there. More importantly, I need to figure out what’s so damn terrifying about them. 

“David Haines Speech Before ISIS Killing [Beheading Not Shown].” 

It opens with a cheesy clip of a David Cameron speech accompanied by Arabic subtitles. He’s affirming his country’s commitment to the coalition of states seeking to eradicate the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), a group of Muslim fundamentalists hoping to establish, through conquest, a caliphate—a state organized under Islamic law. 

Another cheesy cutaway edit followed by a flash of Arabic: 


Now the image I’ve seen before: David Haines, a British hostage, in an ill-fitting orange shirt billowing in the wind. Next to him isthe archetypal, knife-wielding ISIS fighter with only his hands creeping out from his black robes. They're almost too black, as if they've been edited. Centered on his face is a miniscule white dot, the tiniest chink in this self-styled freedom fighter’s shroud of anonymity. 

Understanding why terror groups wear masks is an exercise in speculation, one many have attempted in the context of ISIS and other similar groups, namely Hamas. For Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, it’s about keeping atrocities from the light of scrutiny and perpetuating the falsehoods upon which terror thrives. 

Like Hamas, ISIS’s masks began as a tactical consideration to conceal the identities of its operatives while the fledgling group still had to hide. However, after its astonishingly successful Blitzkrieg across the Levant last summer, it’s everyone else who needs to hide from ISIS; their menacing black flags fly over government buildings from Raqqa to the outskirts of Baghdad. They are the only players in town and have displayed no qualms about putting a bullet in your head if you refuse to play along.

The masks, however, still feature prominently in so many pictures from this would-be caliphate. I almost wonder if they ever take them off—it would certainly make staff meetings and encounters on the street a bit awkward. More likely, of course, it’s war paint. Hiding your face doesn’t make you any safer from a Predator drone, so there’s clearly some other satisfaction in donning a black ski mask in the middle of the desert. 

Here a parallel to our own homegrown terrorists, the KKK, is fitting. In the Jim Crow South, the white men who dressed up like spooky ghosts and terrorized innocent black people didn’t need to conceal their identities, as the ruling society was complicit in their vigilante “justice.” Some of these men didn’t necessarily share the zeal of their Grand Wizard’s racial purity. They just wanted to be part of a club.

ISIS specializes in attracting the world’s misfits. As Tom Friedman would say, those “who’ve never held power, a job or a girl’s hand and joined ISIS to get all three.” Donning the black mask can make these outcasts feel accepted in a larger community. Moreover, they are feared by the society that rejected them. This is a bit counterproductive because they wear a mask and conceal their identity.    A similar complication arises if the uniform is intended to confer respect onto the wearer. 

“Look at that brave ISIS fighter over there, on a sacred mission from Allah. We must praise him!”

“Yes, what a hero! Who is it, though?”

“Hell if I know, maybe Ahmed?” 

There is also, of course, the need to instill fear, both in the West and in the people ISIS subjugates in surrounding states. ISIS wants to draw us into another protracted and unwinnable war in the Middle East, and in order to get us out of our Iraq/Afghanistan double hangover it needs to scare the ever-living shit out of us. If ISIS has any hopes of getting followers to quit smoking and drinking, the group needs to really scare them.  

This asshole could be anyone, I’m thinking. He could be the guy from the other gruesome videos, the guy riding shotgun in a dusty truck resting an AK on his knee, the guy shouting GOD IS GREAT in downtown Raqqa. 

I guess that’s the point. It doesn’t matter who he is, what his name or rank or ethnicity or town is. Nothing matters but the cause, and all who join must surrender identity to the establishment that seeks to conquest the state for all Muslims ruled by Allah. The triumph of Islam and the destruction of all enemies is the singular goal, one that, although of this world, transcends the body—as do those who serve ISIS. 

This asshole could even be an American. According to US intelligence, as many as 150 Americans have joined ISIS’s ranks and about 3,400 total from the West. Given ISIS’s cosmopolitan milieu, masks are a good way to consolidate the ranks and tie the ideology to physical act: renounce your state, your ethnicity and your very identity as an individual. 

ISIS doesn’t want you to know they’re all merely people. Better to be mysterious and fearsome agents of Allah. Their quest is holy, their path righteous—even if the red blood of an aid worker or a journalist or a father hides in the black cloth of their uniforms. But the dark figure methodically sawing away at the neck of an innocent hostage is ultimately just a person—or maybe even a child—with a name and a story, severely confused and a long way from home.

Kosovo, a small breakaway region of Serbia recognized by about half of the international community, was given a chilling reminder of this reality when one of their own opted to show his face during a beheading. I studied abroad there last semester, and when I asked people about Lavdrim Muhaxheri they visibly cringed, ashamed that a Kosovar from a small town in the South would give a cherubic grin while holding aloft in his bloodied hand the severed head of a Syrian teenager.

In the course of my research, I interviewed a Kosovar from the same town. He knew Muhaxheri as an amateur boxer who liked rock music, not a brute who tore up his Kosovarian passport and ran off to Syria. 

He was killed by the Kurdish peshmerga last year. When I found out, I must admit I felt a tinge of satisfaction; a failing on my part, perhaps. The words “brute,” “savage,” “demon,” “helldog” and “scum” inevitably surface when I think about ISIS fighters like the one in the video before me, bubbling up in the venomous stew of words you save for special occasions. In my mind, they are all brutes, savages, demons and a whole spiteful quiver of English searing brands. 

These black masked figures weren’t always this way. For all the utopian ideology and false piety, terror has material causes, namely systemic unemployment, poverty and poor education. Recruiters exploit these vulnerabilities, offering oil money, a gun and, most of all, something to do for young men with zero prospects living in dead-end towns half bombed to smithereens by another empire. If ISIS can dehumanize themselves and sufficiently scare us, they can conceal the logic that underlies the decision to join terror organizations and prevent us from addressing it. Addressing this issue is a monumental task, but we can at least try to do things like funding infrastructure projects and civil society (a strategy that worked to an extent in Afghanistan but wasn't pursued with sufficient vigor), improving education, particularly for women, promoting democratization and refusing to prop up authoritarian regimes that steal from their people to enrich their oligarch friends. Not bombing the shit out of everything might help, too. 

If we think of terrorists only in subhuman terms, swallowing up the contrived image of black silhouettes without faces, we are doomed to ignore these strategies, and instead rain incessantly down on them with fire and shrapnel. Unless we at least attempt to address the systemic causes of religious extremism, we will continue to rip out these “tumors” only to watch helplessly as they metastasize once more. 

The production quality of the average ISIS beheading video, with its alternating camera angles and crisp picture, betrays a strong preoccupation with image. Although ISIS’s organizational structure is largely unknown, it’s safe to assume they have a PR department or propaganda arm. Unlike their Al-Qaeda counterparts, who relied on DVDs tucked in envelopes and dropped at Al-Jazeera stations, ISIS has embedded itself in the flow of global information. Hundreds of Twitter and YouTube accounts spread its call for jihad across the Internet, and its horrific videos produced on oil money cameras stream to every corner of the connected world. 

With such a wide audience, it’s important to project the proper image. Calculated anonymity: We are one. Not the rag-tag Boko Haram with their mismatched thrift store garb. Not the Luddite al-Qaeda with their Russian army surplus garb and grainy videos shot in some miserable cave. Unlike them, you will never see our faces. Our faces don’t matter.

My stomach turns as David Haines speaks. I hadn’t heard him before, but I know what he will say: “This is your fault, David Cameron. I hold you responsible for my death.” 

As the video cuts to a more dramatic angle I notice he’s mic'd up. His speech isn’t labored, nor particularly distressed. He is a man resigned to his fate. It’s as hard to listen as it is to watch, his face twisted in some unimaginable mix of emotions as the executioner stands stoically with an empty blackness where his face should be. 

Cut to another angle and now the executioner speaks, gesturing with his knife while he delivers the final sentence in English through a voice modulator. His mask has been adjusted slightly, and I can make out a bit of eyebrow, two eyelids and the beginning of a nose.