ISIS mixes new-media savvy with medieval savagery. It’s a diabolical marketing strategy that led us right back into war—and one that future terror groups will surely copycat. Or try to top.

By Marshall Sella
Illustrations by Mike McQuade

The James Foley video is impossible to watch with any degree of detachment. And the ensuing three sequels — depicting the murders of Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning — do nothing to diminish the shock.

The first thing that draws your eye, naturally, is Foley’s prison-orange jumpsuit, and the perfect black of his captor’s own fitted clothing, including the perfect black balaclava that, in civilized society, long ago stopped being a “ski mask.”

Almost immediately, the British press dubbed this man “Jihadi John.” As he speaks in what seems to be an English accent, his prisoners had started calling him by a Beatle’s name — so of course it was Lennon who got dragged into this, because the tabloids feed off alliteration.

John looms tall over the American journalist. His height is accentuated by the fact that we don’t immediately see Foley’s knees, so there is the momentary illusion that John is some sort of giant.

John’s hands rest at his side; his stance is wide. He is calm and mostly still. He appears to be left handed, holding a small blade. There are leather straps slung over each shoulder, exact purpose unknown. His head is cocked at a 9-degree angle, to convey defiance and contempt. He holds up the scruff of Foley’s orange uniform — eventually, of all his victims’ uniforms — as if he’s just nabbed a pickpocket.

Foley reads his lines clearly, in an almost lilting cadence, as he addresses “my beloved parents” and his brother, a member of the U.S. Air Force whose actual name is John. “Think about what you are doing,” he says to his brother, less as a plea than just to get the words out. We have no way of knowing how many takes this film required — or what mind-bending threats were quietly mentioned to the actor in order to help realize the auteur’s vision.

All this while, at the upper left corner of our screen, we see the ISIS flag. The now-familiar square black-and-white banner, which has its origins in the eighth century, made a startling comeback in the early ’00s then, in 2006, was being brandished as the standard of ISIS’s direct predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq. Yet, for the first time, on the videos, we see that the banner logo is waving. It’s animated.

That seems like a small thing, but gone are the grainy, garage-footage executions of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg. This is no amateurish video. This one (were we seeing things?) was filmed with two cameras; in subsequent videos, ISIS used three, as in a television drama. These nightmarish little scenes have (should we even have been thinking this?) high production values. After all, ISIS targets disaffected males — and, whether in Akron or Aleppo, young losers (parents’ basements, video games) reserve their sharpest mockery for bad production values. Then there’s the speed with which all four videos were released: Al Qaeda never disseminated its propaganda that swiftly, which was noted with concern by People Who Know.

In the distance behind Foley, you can see a few furrows in the desert, a few paths leading away. But they don’t matter anymore. There are no more paths away. “I call on you, John!” Foley continues. (It’s neither necessary nor appropriate to further disseminate the ISIS propaganda script here.)

Foley, frowning hard, is visibly jutting his chin up. In that instinctive moment of defiance, he is unwittingly exposing his throat. All of his features toward the end have become clenched, contorted in preparation. He is bracing for it. He’s straining to pull his whole body inward to disappear from this place. He will not move.

The murderer, who has been pointing his knife toward the camera to punctuate his “Message to America,” now comes to use it. Until this point he has been all sweep and swagger — but here he sets upon Foley, who quickly blinks twice as his mouth is being covered.

Watching now, you tense up. There’s nothing you can do watching this video; these images will not be tamed or deleted. So the giant executioner makes a series of absurd, fast little sawing motions across James Foley’s throat. The logistics of using a tiny blade reveal this avenging angel for what he is, a gutter errand boy.

Foley makes a sound that can never be correctly described: I’ve heard people call it an involuntary gurgling noise as his windpipe is opened up to the desert breeze. But to me it always sounds like he’s revving up to a guttural shout — the Last Words that are being stolen from him. He never gets there.

The knife is an ominous detail. Terrorists in the 21st century can’t wield cartoonishly large scimitars, even though that would greatly simplify their task. (They still use them in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are public and even balletic.) But a gigantic curved blade, to the West, looks like something out of Hollywood, or an emblem of some long-ago violence that cannot touch us. John’s unspoken message is clear: We are the New. We can carry a weapon such as this in our waistcoat pockets and reach you anywhere on Earth.

Yet, as John begins his grisly work, the video fades to black before any blood is seen; ISIS evidently has learned from old Al Qaeda videos that the gritty procedure of beheading — not least because it is so approximate and unwieldy — is best left out of the action.

One last fade-in finds James Foley chest-down on the ground. In the commotion he has kicked off his sandals and is sprawled barefoot. Next to his body, it looks as though much of the blood in his system, most of the six quarts of it, have been spilled onto the sunlit orange sand. Despite the blood all over his face, Foley now bears the expression of a man who has nodded off for a moment, just resting his eyes.

But it’s all wrong. Foley’s head has been laid upon the small of his back; it’s nestled against his cuffed hands and is behind him — which makes no sense. That is not where heads go. That’s not where they ever are. None of this, instinctively, makes any sense.

We are now in a war to restore sense. Which, near enough, is what people think at the start of all wars.

There were many years when very few people in this country gave a lot of thought to ISIS (or knew what it was). Certainly not when the terrorists reorganized from a splinter group and in 2004 became “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Or in following years, when they became the “Islamic State in Iraq,” then, gaining more men and territory in Syria, annexed “the Levant” into that name. Who even cared over here? Fringe groups always have these grandiose names.

In February, a few eyebrows were raised when even Al Qaeda disavowed ISIS. In May, the group kidnapped 153 Kurdish schoolboys. The following month, they moved on Mosul, on Tikrit, and on Al-Qaim, taking them all.

During the summer, we read stories about civilians and Syrian forces being slaughtered, by the tens of thousands, in the most barbarous ways imaginable. There were documented accounts of every form of violence the human mind can conceive: children’s heads on pikes, crucifixions, abducted women raped then passed along as gifts or killed. For every part of the human anatomy, ISIS seemed to have devised a corresponding mutilation. These men were openly pro-slavery, with every last urgent horror that the term implies.

But at the time: To us, it was all just a damned shame, it really was. These tales, each more impossible than the last, took place in distant and mystifying lands. And we wished, we really did, that we had the wherewithal to do something about it, but after all — as the familiar saying now has it — “we are not the world’s policemen.”

And then ISIS crossed the reddest of red lines, by beheading two of our men and making ghastly shows out of them. In the 20th century, totalitarianism strove to combine the most advanced methods of mass communication with the most advanced methods of mass murder: the films of Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, and the gas chambers. ISIS has struck upon an even crueler formula. Connect the newest media with the oldest violence, and the message will never be obsolete. It is a monstrous innovation.

Suddenly, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll was showing, in fact, that more of us were aware of Foley’s beheading than we were of any major news event of the previous five years: more than Assad’s use of chemical weapons last year, more than the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare the year before that. A war-weary public suddenly was shouting at a president who had dedicated his governance against war — to, in some way, make war, on ISIS.

Perhaps it would be an oversimplification to claim that a video caused a war — just as it’s historically absurd to claim that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (almost exactly a century earlier), in a vacuum, had “caused” World War I. But virtually no one, anywhere on the political spectrum, denies that the James Foley video changed everything. The beheading seared into our minds, led us to dark rooms of our national psyche, rooms that are better left bricked over. And a picture is worth a thousand troops.

The storyline of Jihadi John was far from over. Each of his videos ended with John showing us the Man Who’s Next. So after Foley was dead, there was a kneeling Sotloff, looking absolutely helpless. And with his death we met David Haines; and with Haines’s, Alan Henning. These awful previews of our next show always contained some impossible demand, mainly John warning the U.S. and the UK to cease hostilities. The sheer audacity of it: to suggest that ISIS could influence our foreign policy (and it could).

Was it possible that ISIS was so insane and so marketing-savvy that it could compound the affront of the Foley video? They were on it. In another three-camera format, ISIS even produced a little talk show, called “Lend Me Your Ears,” which released its fourth episode last week. The host was a hostage, clad in an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit, named John Cantlie. He was a British journalist who’d come to Syria, was captured then released in 2012 — then returned the same year, and was captured again. From the very first show, Cantlie’s line readings were actually as good as Foley’s. Better, really. He was immensely measured. On the desk in front of him, his folded hands made unified little gestures at just the right times. He was very professional. Yet here he was pleading for his life, and calmly admitting that this explicitly was what he was doing.

At the end of the video, Cantlie issued his surreal sign-off: “Join me for the next few programs, and I think you may be surprised at what you learn.” After that, the version I saw fed straight into an ad for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Most of us have not viewed the ISIS videos. I don’t understand why any sane person would willingly do so. But we all saw the picture of Foley and his killer, shown, one man looming and the other low, on a sunny day somewhere. It took me days to work up the nerve to watch the actual video, but in the meantime, I constantly imagined how his death might have played out, on an ever-changing loop in my mind. Imprinted with just that single picture, I had a nightmarish internal video of my own. Everybody did.

It is doubtful that ISIS could be shrewd enough, despite its vaunted new media savvy, to have anticipated that the still-image icon alone would be so incendiary — so successful. Without even realizing, we take in all of the photo’s details as a unified image, a single visual bash to the brain: the cinematic angle of the jihadist’s knife; the collision of natural desert orange with the shock of Foley’s artificial Gitmo orange; and the rakish appearance of the killer himself, because villains in violent icons need to be perversely attractive.

Icons have a direct path to our instincts. Words and anecdotes, even when we utterly believe the data they convey, need to pass through cool intellectual channels. Icons are immediate, all-access, indelible. The first time you ever see one, you already recognize it.

Even the early painted Christian icons were shunned by some believers for fear that such graven images would be worshiped instead of the Word. The apostle John was said to have rejected his own portrait as “a dead likeness of the dead.” They were scorned not because they were frivolous but exactly because they were too powerful.

Inevitably, there was pushback against the ubiquitous ISIS icons. Not even the videos themselves; no proper news outlet would disseminate something so profane. The still photographs inflicted enough shock that, in news networks and among the general public, a decision was made that we must limit them. Accordingly, the next wave of coverage showed Foley — Jim Foley, we now were calling him — in happier times, playing cards, laughing with friends, sipping an espresso.

By the time the fourth high-profile snuff video was released, showing the murder of a Manchester taxi driver named Alan Henning, the press had stopped pushing the still-photo icons. A headline of Britain’s The Independent declared that, with Henning’s death, “the media finally stops playing the terrorists’ tune,” adding: “It took the death of the British aid worker for papers not to publish images of ISIS’s brutality.”

So here was Henning, a beloved and optimistic man known as Gadget, making tea with a fellow ambulance driver in Syria at Christmas; holding a happy child somewhere; wearing a powder blue T-shirt emblazoned with a bear that was holding a surfboard.

The color scheme in the Jihadi John videos, four and counting, is no small matter. Henning’s chosen light blue, of course, is a color of tranquility, directly opposite orange on the color wheel. But it is hardly a match for man-made, hot orange. Ever wonder why the major fast-food chains’ color schemes are red and yellow? McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and the rest? It’s not a wild coincidence. Those are not tranquil colors. In fact, orange is nothing more than a direct mix of those two colors. Burger King doesn’t want you to be comfortable in its restaurants; it wants you to buy your food and get out.

It is not ours to know whether ISIS chose the jailhouse orange by virtue of the effects of color on the eye and brain, or if it was just making a familiar statement about Guantánamo Bay (never mind that, at Gitmo, most prisoners actually wear white). Nothing could scar the West’s psyche more than that color, and nothing — not all the ocean blue in all the blue oceans — could un-scar it.

That shade of orange in modern usage is always connected to safety. It is mainly prized for its visibility: Due to the physiology of the human eye, it’s the easiest color to see in dim light. True, orange has symbolic meaning in every culture. Buddhists associate orange with enlightenment. But, in the 21st-century West, it’s the color of traffic cones and life jackets and even airliners’ misnamed “black boxes.” We use it to ward off danger. The ISIS murderers are using it to declare the End of Safety, to usher in a new authority on what is visible and what is not. They’re obliterating a modern color on their path to restoring all of the ancient ones.

Were there design meetings? Storyboards? The very notion is ludicrous and plausible.

Steven Heller is uniquely qualified to hazard a guess. He’s co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the author of Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State, in which he analyzes Hitler’s use of the swastika, Mussolini’s black shirts, the import of aggressive typefaces — in short, the whole strange media effort of some of history’s most savage corporations. Heller is convinced that, where it comes to ISIS, there is less accident than meets the eye.

“If you call yourself a ‘state,’ or a terrorist organization,” he says, “this is what you do. ISIS knows to dress its people in that black, and to include that flag in the video. They are certainly not idiots.”

Nor is the overwhelming power of the iconography lost on Heller. “Talk to someone in 20 years about ISIS, and they’ll say, ‘Oh — we’ve seen that before.’ ISIS is more powerful than previous groups because of our increasingly degraded media. We’ll show their images. I remember watching feeds of suicide bombings, and there was no showing those results.”

In the immediate aftermath of James Foley’s killing (followed fast upon by the taped murders of Sotloff, Haines, and Henning), ordinary conversation inevitably turned to the subject of who had watched the clips, and why. One friend of mine, masking his lurid curiosity, claimed he had to watch “to better understand the world,” which was risible. Others didn’t seem to think it was different from any other type of news. One guy I know decided against watching, on the peculiar logic that it might become a habit.

Repeated exposure to the ISIS pictures and sounds certainly didn’t desensitize me. My response ran hard in the other direction. In the short term, seeing the videos made life noticeably worse: confused my thoughts, rendered my moods erratic. There was a whole new range and verve to my nightmares. I was emotionally barefoot.

Worst of it was that — again, I need to assume this is short-term — people now seemed alike to me. They were in a constant and oblivious state of pre-disassembly. People were parts.

And the endless procession of videos. Christ. Merely searching for the relevant footage, I absorbed all manner of ISIS and non-ISIS obscenities. It all became a blur, a litany of the impossible: Bodies were mutilated, punctured, hacked, stacked, scattered, and otherwise enthusiastically defiled.

One video out of Pakistan, titled “Muslim Children Being Trained in the Art of Beheading,” showed what looked to be a 9-year-old girl, surrounded by other happy kids and a bunch of moms, but no men. The little girl was busy sawing away at the neck of a stuffed animal. It was a toy ram. Briefly, she stopped, as if she didn’t fully understand the point here. But she was cheered on all the same, and finally pulled part of the head off the apostate plushie, then carried around its huggable torso in circles as the proud moms actually filmed this with their cell phones.

A 12-year-old boy’s efforts were more of a travail — but this was his first actual beheading. He killed, then was vigorously carving away at, a man who had been accused of being a spy, but he really had trouble until he reached that breakthrough point when the cervical vertebrae give way. The adult onlookers were elated. When the boy held up the dead spy’s head and displayed it to everyone, the other kids didn’t look horrified or happy; mirroring what was probably my own facial expression, they mainly seemed frozen in a state of primal bafflement.

There was just no end to the creativity of terrorists where it came to displaying lonely heads. These people made a sport of it. They were playful. You’d see one man’s disembodied head poised mischievously on a ledge. Or there’d be a little crowd of heads balanced way up on a tower, “staring” out in all directions: We’re guards! There were countless heads littered around the floors of dusty rooms, pairs of heads being held two-fisted by cheery-looking “warriors,” and especially heads on pikes.

I began to understand, if not quite approve of, the news reports that, in the UK, you actually could be prosecuted for even watching the ISIS videos. To borrow a hackneyed expression from the social media upon which ISIS so heavily rely, there was no “un-seeing” any of this.

For some reason (using that term loosely), the images that stuck the hardest in my mind were those of Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and Henning in their final poses. Foley’s peaceful visage, it seemed, wasn’t uncommon. Haines’s head, too, was gently tipped against his wrists. While being killed, he had raised his eyebrows, as if he’d remembered something important, something he wanted to just quickly mention before all of this. Afterward, though, he looked as though he had fallen asleep on an airplane, unknowingly leaning his head on a stranger. Sotloff, murdered on an especially breezy day, seemed still half-awake — maybe getting drowsy, maybe noticing something just out of frame to his right. Unlike his fellows, he’d succeeded in briefly getting a step up when John went for his throat and had actually managed to get his legs out from under him.

Henning was situated differently: He looked less peaceful than simply tuckered out. His face was aimed skyward as though he was still waiting for a last-minute reprieve.

There’s no scientific way to explain why beheading is so ultimately terrifying to us — such a profound affront. After all, killing is killing. In the end, Death beheads us all.

But the terror ISIS has inflicted can’t be soft-pedaled or dismissed. They have dedicated themselves to a form of murder that millennia have failed to improve upon. Even now, no one knows, for instance, how long one remains sentient after being decapitated. There’s no end to the accounts of beheaded nobles who, it was claimed, “tried to speak” after being guillotined, or who seemed to gaze into the eyes of their executioners. Besides, there are deeper questions: If I am separated into two parts, do I only experience sensation near my brain — or am I, even for a moment, in two places, possibly looking at my torso from a distance? Where do “I” reside?

Oddly, there was a time when decapitation sometimes could be viewed as an honorable death. It all depended on method, much as soldiers were shot yet mountebanks were hanged. If you were beheaded with a sword, this was a mark of respect. If, on the other hand, you were killed with an axe, you were being disgraced. The weapon was all. Filming the heinous act — and, as with all icons, distributing it the world over — is a humiliation so deep, and still so new, that we have yet to decode the fury of it.

There is a fairly proud history of prisoners who ruined their own executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, went to her death at the age of 67, but had no intention of sitting still. By some accounts, at her execution in 1541, far from adhering to the custom of handing the executioner a coin to ensure a skillful, “painless” blow, she slipped out of the block and took to running around the scaffold until the axeman finally landed a fatal wound — his 11th hit.

In 2004, an Italian security officer named Fabrizio Quattrocchi was on the brink of being murdered on tape by pro-Saddam gunmen. After being forced to dig his own grave, however, he too resisted. Quattrocchi tried to pull off his hood and declared, “I’ll show you how an Italian dies!” before being shot in the neck. (Al-Jazeera declined to air the video. The images, they quaintly claimed, were too bloody.)

Jihadi John’s victims did not protest. Who knows, in the ISIS captives’ finite final breaths, how far their hopes strayed from reason? Dostoyevsky was once shot with blanks by a firing squad, fainted, and lived to tell the tale. Couldn’t this be like that? And the captives might have been thinking: Maybe there will be an airstrike, and I can escape. They might have been thinking: Maybe I’ll come up with a last-moment plan. Or: Maybe this just isn’t happening.

So, in the pictures, they bide their time. And no matter how many times we’ve seen the video, no matter how logically sure we are that they are about to die, we want them to fucking do something. We ask for, almost pray for, a different outcome. But it never changes. It’s captured on, a captive of, video.

Nowadays we use the word “iconic” promiscuously. “Iconic,” like “unique,” should be binary. A thing is unique, or it is not. In the English language, nothing can be “very unique” or “very iconic.” By 2014, brute over-usage of “iconic” had hollowed it out into meaning “very famous,” then “pretty recognizable,” then “for sale.” Iconic is the Coca-Cola sign, in Coke Red, everywhere, and even in the poorest parts of the world, there is no one who doesn’t recognize it, no one who doesn’t viscerally understand that it stands for American prosperity.

But true icons have moral value, not just authority. Think of wartime icons that stick with you — images that at once capture a singular instant yet still reflect higher truths about the war being depicted. Though unchoreographed, they speak to something beyond themselves, and they might even change history:

Look at me: I am a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl screaming in agony from a napalm attack.

Look at me: I am standing, all alone, in the path of a Chinese tank.

Look at us: We are lying dead in Gettysburg, rotting under a July sun.

In the ’00s, Al Qaeda generated iconic images of its own. Bin Laden’s face; the towers collapsing; the Falling Man. But in terms of media sophistication, Al Qaeda were pikers. The icons they generated could be rebroadcast, but they could not evolve, and they could never be mass-reproduced. The towers fell only once and cannot be redestroyed. Al Qaeda is probably doing just fine, on the Monster Scale, but right now it seems marginalized, even quaint. It’s as outdated as Bell Telephone, SEGA, or Quisp breakfast cereal.

ISIS, though, has reached marketing maturity. The militants’ media portfolio — its slickly designed magazine Dabiq, the grim John Cantlie Show, all of it — represents their message in full. On one side of it, there’s the recruiting effort, beseeching life’s losers in the East and the West to come and be welcomed, to be a part of something. On the other side, the message to those who will not join the cause is: We are going to destroy you, but first, utterly defile you. ISIS has now threatened not only to “See you in New York,” but also to fly its square banner over the White House.

Their icons, unlike the one-off images of Al Qaeda, have the ability to continue and expand, with an eye to distribution worldwide and one hundred percent of the back end. The creation of corrupt icons, the 2014 sort of icons, and the mass production of them — that’s fairly near the modern definition of branding. That’s the horror of it. (Well, the real horror is in, you know, all the killing.) Terrorists have co-opted methods of the comparatively innocent world of consumerism in order to pitch barbarism.

So, they can reboot the Foley video—this commercial for nihilism, with its visually striking costumes, its clarity of message, its conflict and resolution—as many times as they like. With as many different murderers and victims. Black perpetually snuffing out Orange, heaping dread upon dread. They have their emblems well in hand, stark and famous. A terrorist army is waving its memorable black-and-white flags and wearing black masks, with repetitive flare. It’s an entire brand family, the equivalents of the Apple logo’s glow. ISIS is positioning itself as terrorism’s Coca-Cola, and also, in a few very real ways, as a seething repudiation to Coke Red.

We can bomb them one truck, one convoy, one Levant at a time. But even if the Islamic State is scoured from the face of the Earth, no future terrorist army will forget its media. Its innovations in branding and marketing will live on, only imprinted with different logos, different actors. After all, it’s just an ad campaign. Just a bloody ad campaign. And we’re buying.

This story was written by Marshall Sella. It was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Mike McQuade.

Follow Matter on Twitter | Like us on Facebook | Subscribe to our newsletter