The recent video reported as showing the beheading of James Foley has caused controversy and outrage since its release last week. On the one hand it shows a level of media savvy no other Middle Eastern terror group has managed to achieve before in terms of addressing a Western audience but on the other hand it's not a beheading video. The purpose of this article isn't to go too deeply into the mechanics of beheading and nor am I going to start regaling you with conspiracy theories as to what might have been because they are just noise. Let's stick to what we have clearly seen.
Before we get to the video itself we need to look at the reactions from our politicians and - more importantly - our media. Firstly the video itself is often referred to as "the beheading video" despite the fact the video at no point actually shows any form of beheading. On the news it was also frequently reported that the video was too graphic to broadcast, too violent yet the video itself contains only one graphic still image at the very end. This image is indeed graphic, it shows James Foley's severed head resting on his back and you can understand why it's not suitable for mainstream media but given our news reports have been full of images and video showing - for example - horribly mutilated children from the Israel / Gaza conflict you have to wonder which parts of the video were actually "too graphic".
I'd seen these reports over and over on the television and I have no doubt whatsoever it's this description which drove so many people to take a look from themselves. No matter how people like to portray their sensitivities many do have a streak of morbid interest. Whatever the reasons for viewing, and there are many, people were titillated by the media into taking a look for themselves. Along with this the leaders of both the UK and the US returned from their holidays to voice their outrage before returning to whatever it was they were doing on their jollies. It's worth pointing out that, at this time, I've already heard of certain websites who have had their sites taken offline while they are being encouraged to remove the video despite having far, far stronger content available. I suppose that's a case of the authorities wanting to be seen to be pro-active. This has been predominately in Europe as far as I am aware.
The police in the UK hinted that it may be an offence to even view the video (it isn't) and this was run with by various outlets online to further stir up the levels of interest and fear. Yet all along there was nothing here in terms of graphic content which was shocking. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria videos have emerged of both sides carrying out horrific acts and quite literally since the inception of IS they have been releasing documented evidence of the most awful slaughters yet nobody really seemed to care in the wider world, we only started paying attention when the mainstream media decided to cover the fate of the Yazidi people. The 'world' still didn't get too worked up until a certain video emerged, a video in which nobody was actually killed.
Now to the video itself. I'm going to work from the premise that James Foley was indeed murdered. The image at the end shows no artefacts I can see which would indicate it was faked and until those far more experienced than myself can prove otherwise it's reasonable to assume he is no longer alive. As I said at the top of the article, I want to deal with what we can see not what people suspect because those suspicions often bear ever more ludicrous fruit. Let's break down some of the anomalies present in this video alongside some of the more common questions which have lead to conspiracies flying around.
James Foley seems remarkably calm in the video.
He does seem remarkably calm for a man about to be killed doesn't he? I wouldn't say relaxed, there are clear signs of stress and discomfort during his speech but there's little in the way of terror. Some are claiming it's because he's an actor but I would suggest an actor would insert more terror into that situation. I believe a more likely explanation is that he, along with other hostages held with him, was subject to several mock executions. It would be very interesting to hear how these mock executions were carried out but it's hardly unreasonable to assume that after a few of these your mental condition could very possibly collapse into one of miserable acceptance. Each time you think it could be the time it happens but each time it doesn't your mind must convince you the next time won't be either. Many have commented on how victims of beheadings rarely struggle, try to escape, or simply make it difficult. I believe this has a lot to do with a collapsing mental state and a belief that 'this won't happen to me'.
There is another video from a decade ago we can draw parallels with and that is the video of Ken Bigley. In his execution video he was reasonably calm and the content of the speech was a lot more 'positive' than that of James Foley. Mr Bigley sounded like there was still a possibility of his life being prolonged. He'd already given more than one speech kneeling in front of his captors, perhaps he thought this would be another time that he would give a speech before being returned to confinement. Perhaps it was the same for Mr Foley. There is another similarity with the Ken Bigley video but we will come to that later.
The Knife in "Jihaddi John's" hand didn't match the knife in the image at the end of the video.
This much appears to be true from what I can see. There have been beheading videos before where one man has started the execution but another has finished it due to the first man being incapable. Is that the case here? I personally don't believe so but it's important to consider all possibilities which have been previously evidenced rather than leaping to the first conclusion you come up with.
Why would they cut away rather than show the full execution?
Many have claimed this is without precedent and this is not the case. There have been several 'lower profile' beheadings in recent years which haven't shown the full act although almost all show the beginning of the act and even there you can see a marked difference. In the Foley video the victim appears to have his neck sawn at around nine or ten times (I haven't slowed the video down to count) without any obvious signs of damage. This is completely inconclusive with any other video of its kind. The only higher profile video which didn't show the act that I can recall was, once again, the Bigley video. In that they cut away as Bigley was rolled onto his side. At the time this lead to people theorising they might have killed him in some other manner. I couldn't say, I wasn't there, but you have to keep in mind one important fact which has been documented, quite often the people carrying out these beheadings get it wrong. Horribly so. But would they show it anyway? I suppose that would depend on the intention of the videos.
There is one final thing which I want to address which does cast a great deal of doubt that the video we saw was actually the video of James Foley's execution. Only one of his captors appeared in the video. In every video shown of this type there is never a single murderer. There are normally at least two more people with them (often more) and they often have to help subdue the victim who, naturally enough, often tends to struggle once the murder has begun. In this video we see one reasonably calm victim and one of his captors. Nobody else is in evidence. In all of the videos I have been unfortunate to have watched I have never seen only one assailant.
Does this mean it's all a fake? Not really, no. To my mind it seems very much as if they released a video of a mock execution. This would explain the relative calmness of the victim who was probably mentally brutalised enough at that point to be pliable. It would also explain the single captor being in the video as well. There is one important thing though, one massively important thing. If you accept that James Foley is indeed dead, and there is no reason not to, the validity of the video is pointless next to the fact a man is dead. Murdered for a religious ideology.
So what conclusions can we draw before falling down the conspiracy rabbit hole of CIA dirty tricks and a way of getting boots on the ground in Syria? What I can conclude is that IS are incredibly media savvy. They've released a relatively calm video which has inflamed the west. Sensational headlines screaming about something nobody saw happen. Sensational wording describing events nobody saw happen (unless you were there or a part of the company responsible for the editing and distribution of said video I suppose). They're already playing the world's media (social and mainstream) like a violin and that's something I don't want any part in. I've no doubt that their current stockpiling of hostages might well lead to far more graphic examples of execution but I feel they'll still all be wrapped in this cynical, slick packaging and our media will eat it up like sweeties whilst all the while practically ignoring the many other atrocities being carried out by IS.
It would be remiss to not point out that given that James Foley was most likely murdered it doesn't actually matter that the assailant in the video might not have carried out the murder himself. He's still guilty and if the authorities are correct in identifying him then when he is caught he has earned whatever comes his way be it a trial and imprisonment or an undramatic ending via a bullet somewhere in the Syrian / Iraqi wilderness.