The Deceptive Decapitation of Mr. James Foley

The video ‘Message to America’, in which the American journalist James Foley is separated from his head by an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) desperado with an English accent, tests the mettle of the serious student of emotions. Are you up for it? How good are your powers of observation? Is it what it claims to be?

If you weren’t paying attention when the video first appeared on Thursday, August 19, 2014, you’ll find that question difficult to answer, because, at the behest of the authorities, it has all but disappeared from the internet. Too gory for our own good, or too shoddy a deception to withstand serious scrutiny?

If you’re in the UK, it’s just as well really, for Scotland Yard warned that merely viewing this video, let alone downloading it, could be a criminal offence under terrorism legislation. You Tube and Twitter clicked their heels in compliance and removed all trace of the offending video. This is as disturbing as anything imagined to be in the video.

You will find the video here though, for this blog is attached to a graduate course at an open university based in Alberta, Canada. Here in cowboy country, we make up our own minds about things. So that you can too, for teaching purposes, I downloaded a copy of ‘Message to America’ and this post casts a critical eye in its direction.

‘Message to America’ has been remarkably effective. By beheading an American journalist as retribution for America’s ‘humanitarian bombing’ in Iraq and threatening to behead another one, at a stroke, the video disarms those who oppose further military interventions in Iraq and Syria. The English-sounding executioner has frightened Prime Minister David Cameron into proposing a tightening of the ratchet of security so as to stem the flow of British-born jihadis travelling to and from Syria and Iraq. ‘What we’re facing in Iraq now is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before’, said Mr. Cameron, adding he was ‘absolutely satisfied that ISIS … would make specific threats to the UK.’

Wouldn’t you think, then, that we should all have the opportunity to inspect this video and form our own opinion on it? Here you can. The movie begins with President Obama explaining why he authorized air strikes against ISIS. This is followed by an aerial view of one such strike. This sets the stage for the appearance of Foley and his executioner. Our analysis begins with them, at 1:48.

Scene 1: In which Foley blames the United States for his Death

Foley is dressed in an orange Guantanamo-like prison uniform, knelt on the sand, hands behind him as if restrained. A microphone is clipped onto his tunic at the neck. Foley’s head casts a shadow on his tunic, suggesting that the sun is behind, far to his left. A wind blows on to his loose-fitting tunic, creating ripples. The wind and the sun are at opposite sides of the compass. To Foley’s left, so close they are almost touching, stands a tall and imposing man dressed in black, a balaclava obscuring all but his eyes. Limbs loose, he is at ease with himself. He rocks on his feet, left to right and back, like a sailboat in a swell. A leather revolver holder hangs from his left shoulder. Behind them is nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. The sky seems cloudy-grey.

Our eyes tell us that they are outside, but our ears suggest something else. Foley’s speech is deadened, as if absorbed by close surroundings. There is no ambient sound. No birds or insects tweet or call. That wind blows strong enough to ripple Foley’s shirt but it’s not touching anything else that we can hear. No sound of wind on microphone, or wind on sand, wind in brush. Come to think of it, that wind on Foley’s shirt blows a little too regularly, in a repetitive pattern, for it to convince us that it is real. There is shadow, so there must be sun and in Iraq it’s hot, yet these characters convey no sense of heat. The soon-to-die Foley is not perspiring.

This scene is obviously edited. In some frames the man-in-black is slightly behind Foley. In others he is side-by-side.

The entire scene lacks depth. It has the feel of a backcloth, a green screen on to which this image has been superimposed.

We’ve seen this kind of video before haven’t we? The condemned hostage’s final humiliation. He is forced to speak a script that damns his government for his plight while giving voice to his captors’ propaganda. Knowing what is to come, energy deserts him. Defeated, he speaks without affect, a sorry, pitiful sight.

But Foley is not like this at all. On his knees, hands presumably secured behind his back, his executioner by his side, Foley seems almost chipper. Is it actually him, in fact? Here he is in 2011. Compare the two. He certainly looks remarkably well for a man who has spent the last two years in captivity. Nor is Foley’s voice what we expect of a man in this dire situation. He speaks with conviction, bordering on relish, as if he means what he says and takes bitter pleasure in saying it.

He tells us that he is about to die as retribution for America’s ‘recent aerial campaign in Iraq’. Those who ordered and carried out those aerial attacks are his ‘real killers.’ ‘Who made the decision to bomb Iraq recently and bomb those people whoever they may have been?’ he asks rhetorically. Answer: the US government, against which he urges his family, friends and loved ones to ‘rise up’. Rather cruelly, he blames his brother John for his imminent death, simply because he belongs to the USAF. ‘I died that day John when your colleagues dropped that bomb on those people they signed my death certificate.’ How is that his brother’s fault?

Who are these ‘those people’ anyway? The preceding clip of Obama authorizing air strikes against ISIS, and the executioner’s angry words in the next scene, suggests that ‘those people’ refers to ISIS warriors, for why else would he be killed as retribution? But Foley’s own words are imprecise as to who was killed and when. He blames those people ‘who bombed Iraq’ recently. He refers to a ‘recent aerial campaign in Iraq’. How recent is ‘recently’? Nor is he specific about who is bombed: ‘Those people whoever they may have been’. ‘That bomb on those people’. He pointedly does not say ‘Islamic State fighters’. Since he knows that he’s about to be decapitated by one of them, wouldn’t we expect him to be more specific?

One might argue that Foley is reading under duress what is written for him. If he is reading from a script, however, in this ‘Message to America’, why weren’t his ISIS captors more precise about ‘those people whoever they may have been’? And if he is reading from a script, what has he got to lose by resisting saying these things and why does he have to speak with such conviction? It is almost as if he takes pleasure in the pain his death will cause the United States and his family, especially his brother. His last words ‘I guess all in all I wish I wasn’t  American’ are a non sequitur. We can only imagine the terrible things they must have done to him for him to say that.

Just as our emotions are evident in our speech, so they are evident in our body, its gestures and movements. The video invites us to believe that Foley and the man standing next to and over him both know that a knife is going to be worked through the flesh, sinew and bone of Foley’s neck. But that thought is absent from their bodies. To the contrary, their body movements suggest a certain emotional closeness. They are at ease in each other’s company, almost as if they are co-conspirators.

Most of us in Foley’s situation would be all-too-aware of our executioner’s presence. Foley, however, makes no anxious glances in his direction. There is not even a glint of recognition in his peripheral vision. He looks straight ahead, looking at his cue cards, as if he were entirely alone.

Finally, lest it escape notice, there is not the slightest hint in Foley’s voice and body language of fear. This is unusual in a man who knows he is about to be beheaded.

Scene 2  In which the Man-in-Black Scolds Obama

In this scene the man-in-black, the executioner, speaks and a grim-faced (microphone-less) Foley listens and faces straight ahead. At the outset of this scene, the executioner’s right hand rests on Foley’s left shoulder. He shows no sign of feeling that hand. It is as if he is unaware of his executioner’s presence. The executioner looks directly into the camera and gesticulates with his knife towards the imagined Obama watching. He is relaxed in his body and passionate in his facial movements and his speech. He is disengaged from Foley because his emotional energy, his anger, is directed towards the evil Obama, President of the United States, the target audience of this video. But if he hates America so much, why is he wearing US Military Desert Boots? And if he’s such an ardent Jihadi, why is he known as ‘John’? Come to think of it, why is the executioner wearing a mask? What has he got to hide? He surely doesn’t fear death by American hands? The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, does not hide behind a mask, so why should this underling? Since we can’t see his face we don’t know if that South London accent belongs to him or if it was added post-production.

Scene 3     In which Foley is not Beheaded

At the moment of an execution, forget thoughts and emotions: instinct takes over, the instinct to stay alive. Not here it doesn’t. In the first seconds of this scene, the executioner, knife in his left hand, moves behind Foley stealthily and takes his chin in his right. All this time, Foley’s expression does not change. His eyes look straight ahead. Would we not expect Foley’s body to twist and turn in resistance to the blade? Even though they are constrained, those arms would surely attempt to protect his throat with his hands. Even chickens suffer and struggle if they know they are about to be butchered. But Foley does no such thing. He simply leans back a little, rather stiffly, as if to better oblige his executioner. As the knife saws rapidly across his throat, there is no response from Foley’s body. It doesn’t even respond by bleeding. And yet, if only one of his carotid arteries was severed, blood would spray under pressure, far and wide. But not a drop is to be seen. Odd that.

Scene 4     In which we imagine Foley beheaded

Before we can quite take this in, the video cuts to a still of a headless, prostrate body, on which is placed its missing head. Not having witnessed the decapitation, we are asked to make a leap of imagination and regard both the body and the head as Foley’s. British and American ‘intelligence’ seem to have done just that. But why should we? There are several grounds for suspicion. The head looks as if it has been guillotined cleanly, not rived off with a small knife. The knife next to the body is not the knife in the decapitation scene. There is blood on the back of his legs, as if someone has smeared it there, just for good measure. The orange shirt worn by the corpse is shorter than that worn by the living Foley. Remember those billowing long sleeves from scene 1? Compare them with the sleeves in this scene. (Where’s continuity!?) The left arm, still secured at the wrist, looks pasty white and puny. In fact, the entire body looks very mannequin-like. The head looks like something from special effects, and it may well be. If this were some television show, who gives a damn? We can imagine what happened. But this is real life. Isn’t it?

Scene 4: In which Mr. Steven Sotloff is introduced as a trailer for the next episode

A well-fed Steven Joel Sotloff is held by the scruff of his neck by the man-in-black, who tells us that his life depends on Obama’s ‘next decision’.


‘The US Intelligence Community has analyzed the recently released video showing US citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff. We have reached the judgment that this video is authentic.’

Good for them, and their consciences. I do not believe this video is authentic. In military terms, ‘Message to America’ looks very much like an instance of Military Deception (MILDEC), what is referred to as a Deception Event.

Foley may well be dead and that may be his severed head, but he was not killed by the incident depicted in the video. More likely, in my opinion, he was a willing participant in this deception and lives on under deep cover. Why? is something you have to figure out on your own.

The beheading was omitted because it is difficult to simulate, not to protect us from the gore. Why would ISIS want to spare us that? Gore is their thing, isn’t it? Despite the warnings, the video is not gory at all. The appropriate response to this simulation isn’t fear and panic, it’s ridicule and laughter.

More disturbing than anything imagined in ‘Message to America’ is the rapid disappearance of the video from the internet. If you wanted to make up your own mind, you can’t. We must take the word of our betters, US military ‘intelligence’. You got a problem with that? In this sense, it’s a ‘Message to the Rest of Us’ and the message is Wake-up!

To put this disappearance in perspective, compare the efficiency with which this video was made to disappear with the apparent inability of the US ‘intelligence community’ to locate and force the closure of the website which publishes al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. (On WordPress no less). It has lured many urban Muslims to their doom, for that is its purpose and that, I suggest, is why it is left alone.

That ‘Message to America’ is a staged deception is obvious. A child can figure this out. The purpose of the deception is less obvious. Its purpose is to discredit Islam and to further demonize ISIS so as to create an unimpeachable emotional case for the Anglo-American alliance to make an armed intervention in Iraq and Syria. Obama can say: ‘You see what evil monsters these Iraqis and Kurds are up against? They’ve murdered one of our own. He was a journalist as well. We’re America, we’ve got to help them! I tell you what—we’ll attack them in Syria too!’ It will, you understand, be a compassionate, humanitarian campaign. To oppose it is to support Foley’s murderer and those like him. So no one opposes it. Cameron’s risible response —‘What we’re facing in Iraq now is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before’—is a bonus (my emphasis). That kind of foolish talk is capable of getting a lot of people killed and curtailing the rights of a nation. All from this video.

Every Deception Event is backed by an ongoing Deception Story, a narrative fed by anonymous sources and tailored to the beliefs and assumptions of those it wants to deceive. Watch it develop.