November 18, 2015

From Guerrilla to Boy Band: The Paris Ringleader and ISIS Photo Tactics

So, which “mastermind” are we talking about?

Is it the soldier in the headband and scruffy beard touting that dreaded flag and the Quran in front of an armored vehicle? Or, is it Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud, otherwise Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the young Belgian in what looks like a catalog ad, or what a commenter on the VICE tweet likened to a boy band?

And, what’s with the immediate “mastermind” insta-brand? (The term has been referenced literally or in quotes in headlines by VICE; TIME; The Telegraph; The Guardian; NBC; ABC; USA Today; CS Monitor; Yahoo News; US News; Mashable; Daily Beast … and more, it’s just that my fingers got tired.)

In Politico, columnist Jack Shafer relates how framing these figures as evil geniuses “increas(es) their global status and recruiting power,” while it also “under-estimate(s) the capacity of the West to confront, if not defeat, terrorism with its prestigious resources and military might.” Shafer then turns his focus to the actual effectiveness of the Paris attack. Comparing the potential versus actual loss from the Paris operation, as well as the result of two other events attributed to him, he sees Abdelhamid as underwhelming. That fits with his identification in this NYT profile, by the way, as a low to middle level figure, at best, and likely unknown, at least operationally, to ISIS HQ.

Beyond that, and this brings us back to the different visuals, Abdelhamid hardly earns the attribution of a religious warrior, having grown up as a decently well-off Belgian kid of Moroccan descent who went to private school before detouring into drugs and petty crime. According to his sister, Abdelhamid never even came close to a mosque.

A primary way ISIS has succeeded al-Qaeda is through its PR and marketing expertise. (Since commercial Mad Men overwhelmingly define the age we live in, branding and marketing itself has become a weapon.) Toggling between an ascetic and murderous, and a more western and secular appeal, being stylish and charismatic serves various aims. It takes the edge off the barbarism. Also, the commercial sheen appeals to youth and its entrancement with marketing culture.

…All the photos in this post, by the way, including this charismatic shot of Abaaoud with the engaging smile and stylish THERMO FORM cap, come from his cover interview in Dabiq  — yes, the official magazine of ISIS, issue IV.

The discrepant visuals of Abdelhamid not only demonstrate the visual acumen and audacity of ISIS in what is just as much a perceptual war, but they demonstrate how ISIS so easily tweaks the west. If the western security apparatus is truly getting better at defending the damage on the ground, God knows — as we propagate their material for them — how to disarm these people visually.

Of course, the Le Pens and the anxious governors and the western nation’s various far right parties instantaneously sized up Abdelhamid as the next bin Laden, or al-Zarqawi. But for the rest of us simply trying to understand who it is we’re actually looking at, how do we process the visual curveball – programmed by the pseudo-Caliphate — of such irreconcilable images?

Take this VICE post for example, bookending both of these trending images:

So you start off with Evil Incarnate and you end with “where do I get the mixtape?”

Surely, cognitive dissonance is the aim. But it goes further than that. If the ISIS narrative puts the blame for jihad on us and our values, here the photo editors enable them. Because, looking at these two pictures, to the extent the version named Abu Umar Al-Baljiki is a tool of the east, the one named Abdelhamid, as fashioned by ISIS, presents like a product of the west.

(correction: the article and quotes from Politico were original attributed to visual scholar, Barbie Zelizer. The byline instead belongs to Jack Shafer.)

(photo 1: IS, via IS propaganda magazine Dabiq, via VICE. caption: In photographs accompanying the interview, Abaaoud is pictured with two of the alleged IS members he says Belgian authorities killed during the anti-terror operation, named Abu Khalid al-Baljiki and Abuz-Zubayr al-Baljik. photo 2: IS via Reuters. caption 2: Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud as he appeared in the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq. photo 3: ISIS via Associated Press. caption: An undated image, which was obtained by the Associated Press from Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq, shows Abdelhamid Abaaoud.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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