Sometimes, fiction has a way of catching up with reality. In the 2008 American movie Untraceable, a serial killer sets up a website called KillWithMe.com to broadcast his sophisticated killings: the more people watch the stream, the faster the victim dies. After each collective murder, and despite police warnings, the website grows in popularity.
To be honest, this was not a great movie, but it made me think. In a society increasingly influenced by our Internet activities, every single one of our clicks has consequences. Those who watched and spread the video of the gruesome death by fire of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of the Islamic state should reflect on what they indirectly support.
The Web has come to play a crucial role in the strategy of terrorist groups. It is their tool to recruit and radicalize members as well as to continuously remind the world of their presence and activities. After 9/11, Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden regularly published videos meant to prove he was still alive and out of US reach while calling for new followers to pick up his fight against the West.
Yet social networks have taken this a step further. We can so easily peek into the daily life of these radical fighters, and into the horror they put on display. Twitter and Facebook have become part of the communication strategy of these groups all over the world, from the Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab. While their accounts may be regularly shut down by the platforms, their successive versions invariably attract thousands of followers. They set trends and spread ideas through cleverly worded tweets and hashtags.
The Islamic State (Daesh, ISIL – they have many accepted names) is very much part of that game – its members have a high presence on all social platforms, especially on Twitter : the Telegraph reported that during their invasion of the Iraqi city of Mosul last November its militants published over 40,000 tweets in a single day. And their work is paying off: tweet aggregators such as Recorded Future have found hundreds of thousands of tweets, pictures and videos mentioning the radical group. They want to engage the attention of the online community, and have arguably succeeded with the launch of their latest “execution show”.
Since last summer, the world has watched on, powerless, as the jihadists beheaded one victim after the other. Syrian soldiers, American or British journalists, a French tourist, humanitarian workers, two Japanese citizens – each execution comes with its set of unacceptable demands to prevent the next one. They even star in the role of the executioner a recurrent character we have nicknamed “Jihadist John ” because of his alleged British accent.
These videos we see in our social feeds are all we remember, the horror is always just one click away. By pressing play, we let the terrorists into our homes, we give them power and legitimacy as identified enemies. Yet something urges us to watch on, or sometimes media such as the American TV channel Fox News makes that decision for us by broadcasting the video. We are right there standing next to the executioner, helpless to stop him, maybe trembling with fear but still fascinated by the scene.
The fact is that ISIL jihadists want us there. Before the execution of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, they even sent out tweets asking for suggestions on how to kill him. I do not know if fire was the most popular suggestion, but by watching these videos, we are in a very real way killing with them.