TORONTO – The militant group ISIS has posted a video online, purportedly showing British journalist John Cantlie delivering an address to the Western public.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘He’s only doing this because he’s a prisoner. He’s got a gun at his head and he’s being forced to do this.’ Right?” he says.
One expert in terrorism and information warfare says the video is a significant change for ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), but relies on themes commonly used in insurgent propaganda.
The video is a departure from the Hollywood-style trailer threatening war on the U.S. released on Tuesday by ISIS, and the horrifying videos showing the beheading of two American journalists and one British aid worker in past weeks.
It’s called “Lend Me Your Ears, Messages from the British Detainee John Cantlie” and shows the man—who identifies himself as Cantlie—in an orange shirt, hands folded and resting on a table. He says he was captured by ISIS in November 2012 after arriving in Syria, and previously worked for British news organizations the Sunday Times, the Sun and the Sunday Telegraph.
“Well, it’s true. I am a prisoner. That I cannot deny. But seeing as I’ve been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose. Maybe I will live and maybe I will die, but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify, facts that if you contemplate might help in preserving lives.”
David Charters studies propaganda videos and information warfare as a professor of military history at the University of New Brunswick. He said the first thing that struck him was how different this video is from the others posted by ISIS, and that it could be an attempt to shift their image.
“The image that came across with the beheadings was very brutal, ugly, mean…And I think this is an attempt to manage that image and say, ‘Look we’re not really beastly, we’re giving this guy a chance to speak in a reasonable setting and reasonable situation.’
“The reaction of the Americans and the British to those beheadings was quite dramatic, and may have produced a reaction that the ISIS movement didn’t expect or didn’t prefer; and so maybe this is a way to try and change the game a little bit. And see if they can produce a message that’s a little bit more palatable.”
Charters noted it was clear Cantlie was reading a well-prepared message from a text or teleprompter in front of him, a “coerced testimony” that he had no choice in giving.
“It’s interesting they had him speaking in English, but there were Arabic subtitles; so it suggests they’re reaching at least two different audiences—a Western audience and people in the region,” he said.
Cantlie alludes to “the next few programmes” where he will show the “truth as the Western media tries to drag the public back to the abyss of another war with the Islamic State.”
“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?” says Cantlie.
Charters says the themes in the video are “pretty standard” when it comes to information communicated by insurgent groups.
He said another theme is the guilt transfer—that if Cantlie dies, the blame will be on Britain and America, “because they didn’t do enough to rescue him and to help him.”
“So that shifts the onus of the violence on to the other countries,” said Charters.
When it comes to the monopoly on truth, Charters says the message from ISIS is that westerners are being lied to by the media, and that the insurgents are the ones who “really know” what’s going on, so the public should listen to their message to hear the truth.
In alluding to the fact that other countries have paid for the return of hostages, Charters believes ISIS hopes to influence western policy—which is to refuse payment so as not to perpetuate kidnappings. But he doesn’t see it having an effect in the U.S.
“The Americans aren’t going to change their policy because of a British hostage when clearly they weren’t prepared to change it for an American one,” said Charters.
He adds that right now, Britain is likely more focused on whether Scotland is going to break away from the United Kingdom than what’s happening in the Middle East.
“This is something that probably groups like this don’t realize: that in spite of all the rhetoric governments issue about terrorism, it’s usually not the number one priority of governments, and even events like this are competing for the attention of administrations.”
Charters suggests if anything, the latest video will influence public opinion on whether the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria.
“The timing on this is pretty significant, because it’s happening while the debate is going on in Congress in the States, with the news reporting that the Americans are about to make a decision on whether to strike in Syria or not,” he said. “So I think this is attempt to get public opinion to put pressure in Congress to influence the debate there…not so much on whether to release hostages.”