The Stephen Sotloff and Jihadi John Morality Play: A comment on ‘A Second Message to America’

Preamble

This post examines ‘A Second Message to America’ from, we are told, Islamic State. The video features the testimony and apparent death by beheading of Steven Joel Sotloff, a citizen of both the United States and Israel, who plied his trade as a journalist most recently in Syria where he was captured a little over a year ago.

The video is said to have been discovered on September 2, 2014. By whom? I will address at the end of this post.

Like its predecessor, ‘A Second Message to America’ begins with a clip of President Obama. In this case, it’s his 20 August press conference in which the he responds to the beheading of Foley, another American citizen. Obama tells the world that America looks after its own citizens. Harm any one of them, and America will avenge them. In more diplomatic terms, ’We act against ISIL, standing alongside others’. The remainder of the video essentially mocks Obama’s words.

It’s worth mentioning that President Obama looks noticeably less upbeat than in his appearance in A Message to America, i.e., before he knew of these videos. He is tie-less. He looks down at his notes, not side-to-side at his teleprompter as is usual.

Act One: In which Sotloff mocks Obama

Act One features Sotloff himself. Outfitted in orange Guantanamo-like attire, he is knelt on desert terrain, hands behind his back as if tied. To his left is the man in black, his would-be executioner, who we have come to know as ‘Jihadi John’. His knife glistens in the sun, full of menace.

Sotloff looks square into the camera and does not flinch. For all the notice he takes of him, the man in black might as well not be there.

Sotloff speaks thus:

I am Steven Joel Sotloff. I’m sure you know exactly who I am by now and why I am appearing before you. And now this is the time for my message: Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be the preservation of American lives and interests, so why is it that I am paying the price of your interference with my life? Am I not an American citizen? We’ve spent billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and we’ve lost thousands of our troops in our previous fighting against the Islamic State, so what are the people’s interests in reigniting war?

From what little I know about foreign policy, I remember a time when you could not win an election without promising to bring our troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan and to close down Guantanamo. Here you are now, Obama, nearing the end of your term, and having achieved none of the above and deceivingly marching us the American people into the blazing fire.

Some preliminaries.

Sotloff seems in good shape considering he’s been a prisoner of the sadistic Islamic State for just over a year. His face reveals no signs of stress or trauma. He looks well-fed. His teeth look clean and well cared for. He doesn’t look nor does he sound like a man about to be  beheaded. There are people living on the streets of most cities who look a lot worse than this after just one night of sleeping rough.

Note how his tunic ripples in the breeze, very much as Foley’s did, from exactly the same direction, although this is supposed to be a different location. That same wind, then as now, is there to persuade us that these figures are outside and not in a studio and that the depthless panorama behind them is not an image superimposed on a green screen. It doesn’t persuade me. As with Foley, this stiff breeze does not trouble the shrubs dotted around this tableau. Curiously, at several points in the video, Sotloff’s body casts no shadow, while that of his executioner does.

Sotloff speaks deliberately and with feeling. There is something in his tone of voice when he says, ‘I’m sure you know exactly who I am by now’ that strikes me as odd. It is accusatory. ‘Exactly’ is a word we would use when addressing someone who feigns ignorance of some misdemeanour. As in ‘don’t pretend you don’t know who I am. You know exactly who I am’. Presumably, this accusatory tone of voice is aimed at Obama, the man he blames for his death.

Sotloff speaks as if these are his words. He sounds as if he believes in what he is saying. This is surprising, for they are patently dishonest words and as a journalist working in the Middle East  he must know this.

He is not ‘paying the price with his life’ for Obama’s ‘interference’ in Iraq. If there is any price to be paid it is for Sotloff’s foolishness in choosing to go to the hellhole that is Syria, journalist or no. He must have known that as a Jew and an Israeli citizen he was taking a big risk. Obama cannot be blamed for his predicament.

As for ‘We’ve spent billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and we’ve lost thousands of our troops in our previous fighting against the Islamic State’ this is not true. Thousands of American troops died fighting the Iraqi resistance to the invasion and occupation—ordinary men and women doing what anyone would do when a foreign power invades their country.   There was no ‘Islamic State’ until a few months ago. Sotloff’s  words are a means of giving the Islamic State a pedigree that it does not have. Claims made elsewhere that it is the successor to ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ led by the infamous al-Zarqawi are true only in the sense that all have the same characteristics of a deception operation. Neither actually existed except as deceptions. I will show how in a later post.

What do Sotloff’s words on his plight hope to achieve?

First, to weaken Obama by making him seem ineffectual. In the opening clip, Obama tells the world that America looks after its own citizens. Sotloff essentially says ‘You promised to look after Americans and aren’t I an American citizen?’ (yes, and an Israel citizen as well so what about having a go at Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu). It’s a foolish, dishonest argument.

Second, to shift responsibility for his immanent death away from the man with the knife at his side and towards the distant Obama’s ‘interference’ with Islamic State. ‘When you avenge the deaths of Americans you make things worse, so stop doing it.’ This heaps guilt on Obama with the intention of weakening him.

Sotloff’s, patently dishonest, argument relates to his complete emotional detachment from his executioner. All his emotions are directed at his audience, especially Obama, on the other side of the camera lens. It’s as if he really believes that Obama is killing him. In other words, Sotloff is acting.

One might argue that these words were written for him to speak under duress. Since he is about to die, however, what has he got to lose by refusing, and why does he have to speak them with such authenticity? It’s an odd and dishonourable way for a journalist to depart this world.

Act Two: In which ‘Jihadi John’ is ‘Back’

I’m back Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and [unclear] on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. You Obama, through your actions, have yet again killed another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.

‘I’m back’! is something a character in a horror movie might say. And a horror movie is exactly what this is. He’s like Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or Heath Ledger as the Joker, but, unlike them, JJ lacks irony, an awareness of his own ridiculousness. With this humourless attitude he wouldn’t last long in South London, if that’s where he’s from, however shiny his knife. In this series of morality plays, he plays Death, in this case to Sotloff’s Innocence. He’s a modern day Mephistopheles of the Faust legend, trapped in his own hell, collecting the souls of the damned. What he isn’t is himself.

He can be accused of many things, but not of bad manners. He complains of America’s ‘arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.’ For its critics, especially in the Middle East, it’s not ‘policy’ that’s objectionable; it’s what America actually does that’s beyond the pale. ‘Policy’ is a euphemism for death and destruction, but this character is too polite to say so. He may (or may not) decapitate people, but he doesn’t want to offend anyone. This is aimed at America and American politicians speak in euphemisms so JJ does too. In Act Five he says ‘we take this opportunity’ as if he were attending one of the Queen’s garden parties.

With lines like these, it’s no wonder he’s angry. As he accuses Obama of this, that and the other, he punctuates his words with knife jabs in the direction of the camera operators. If he carries on like this he’s going to have someone’s eye out.

We can usually understand what angry people say because the emotion expels the words cleanly. But Mr. Prickly Bear here slurs his words. He sounds like Darth Vader with a cold. If he’s got A Second Message to America he should speak clearly so we know what it is. But this is not the Dark One’s real voice. He wears a mask, in part, to disguise this deceit. It’s a dubbed voice and there is a trade-off between clarity and scariness. In some places they got that balance wrong.

He is so angry it is almost as if the real Obama was there in person. But he’s waving this knife at the camera operators and—who knows—costume, make-up and catering. Since he’s not angry at them and Obama isn’t there, we must conclude that he’s acting.

Act Three: In which Sotloff simulates his own Death

So this is it. The time has come. Having bad-mouthed his President, Sotloff is at peace with himself and awaits his fate with no complaint. For the man about to decapitate him, Sotloff has no words at all, not even glances. But why should he? It’s not the man with the knife who is to blame. That’s right, it’s Obama’s ‘interventions’.

Death moves behind the passive Innocence, seizes his chin in his right hand and makes the now familiar cutting motions with the knife in his left. Sotloff’s eyes are closed. His mouth responds slightly to the presence of the hand on his chin and then the knife on his throat. His body leans, or is drawn, back a little.  As his torso reclines darkness descends, but if we look carefully and quickly we can just make out that Sotloff’s left knee moves up off the ground and then his right. He is about to fall over and if that head is going to come off the Dark One is going to have to get his pristine clothes dirty and wrestle Sotloff on the ground like a cow hand with a loose steer. It’s a sight I find difficult to imagine. The Islamic State does not secure their victims before beheading them? It just assumes they’ll stay there like well-trained Labradors, that they’re not going to make a run for it? How very unprofessional.

I have two observations here. First, as with Foley there is no blood and, especially in that part of the human body, if there is no blood there has been no cutting and if there was no cutting there was no pain. There was certainly no sign on Sotloff’s face that he was in the process of being decapitated. Compare with actual, real-life beheadings, all too common and available on the Internet. Second, Sotloff’s clumsy and unconvincing knee-jerk was a response to critics who spotted Foley’s lack of response to the knife. The people producing these videos are professionals. They note criticisms of their productions and make the necessary changes. Sotloff is acting, but not very well.

Act Four: In which we view the evidence of Sotloff’s death

The camera pans left to right revealing human legs and torso. That ever constant wind blows with the same rhythm and from the same direction to ripple the prostrate tunic. Continuity. Sure enough, on its back is a severed head looking very much like that of Sotloff. Before we can inspect that which it is severed from, his neck and shoulders, the considerate director fades to black and we are spared this agony. But we have already seen enough.

What more proof do we need that the poor man’s dead? Well his body for one thing, and not just an image of it. Murder investigations normally require the production of an actual dead body, for otherwise we cannot be sure that a crime has been committed. Corpus delicti. Not in these cases apparently, but, then, there have been no investigations either. We’re prepared to take Islamic State’s word for it.

This is an age of simulation in which just about anything can be faked, even authenticity. The props department of most major theatre and opera companies can produce a severed head on demand, even of a specific individual. Here the Royal Shakespeare Company shows how it is done. Props departments have their counterparts in film, they’re called digital artists. We see their work in most movies these days. With digital technology, they can produce a realistic looking image of a severed head too.

For these reasons, I am unmoved by these images of torsos and severed heads. If these were common murders, here at home, the police would want a body and they would set their digital forensics people to work on these videos to deconstruct how and where they were created. Instead we are expected to suspend our disbelief as if this were just a movie.

Act Five: In which David Haines is introduced

Death holds David Cawthorne Haines by the scruff of his neck and speaks thus:

We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.

Now this man looks like a prisoner. He is grim faced and haggard. He looks like he could do with a good meal and a shower. The backcloth is slightly different but that same wind blows.

The Emotional Dynamics of ‘A Second Message to America’

This video is a vehicle of emotional marketing. The brand being marketed is War With Islamic State. As with all emotional marketing, the video attempts to stimulate certain emotions among its target market, in this case it’s the United States. Sotloff’s bitter words against Obama attempt to stir feelings of compassion among Americans for their doomed fellow citizen and to isolate Obama by heaping guilt on his doorstep for failing to protect him. These feelings are compounded by anger at seeing Sotloff’s severed head and the cruel act of beheading. America’s righteous (and fearsome) anger maneuvres Obama towards putting ‘boots on the ground’ to destroy Islamic State. It’s digital goading. The overall effect is to say one thing and stimulate emotions that will lead to its opposite. It says both ‘don’t interfere’ and ‘interfere with a vengeance’. It’s clever, dishonest and effective.

 Where and how was this ‘message to America’ delivered?

Finally, any serious forensic examination would want to know where and how this video was acquired. One might assume that the billion dollar US intelligence community earned its keep by spotting this. But we’d be disappointed. It didn’t. Just as well then that Search for Terrorist Entities or SITE was on the ball. SITE apparently discovered this and the video featuring John Cantlie in some Jihadi chat room. Perhaps all of these videos were discovered in this way.

In fact, just about every dubious looking video and audio tape related to terrorism aquired over the ten years that I’ve been researching this has been discovered by either SITE or IntelCentre—never by the US military and intelligence apparatus. Both are highly secretive organizations with apparent Zionist credentials. They exist in the shadow of the Pentagon and the White House but at arm’s length from both. They maintain just enough distance from the political and military wings to sustain plausible deniability.

The only forensic examination (in 2007) of one of these videos (one discovered by IntelCentre) that I’m aware of found evidence that suggests that the same organization that discovered the video had a hand in creating it in the first place. [See Kim Zetter, Researcher Analysis of al Qaeda Images Reveals Surprises. Wired. 08.02.07.]

All videos of this nature should be forensically examined by an impartial and qualified person and the results made public.

As for the credibility of SITE, this is best researched on your own.