- Monday, April 20, 2015

The Islamic State’s latest mass-beheading video might seem like guerrilla camera work shot on a desolate Libyan beach. But a closer look reveals a level of cinematic sophistication that U.S. officials and one American filmmaker say likely involved rehearsals and perhaps even multiple takes to pull off successfully.

The video purports to show the executions of dozens of Ethiopian Christians against multiple backdrops — including one replete with blood-colored waves lapping up from the Mediterranean.

U.S. officials say the carnage appears to have been carried out by a Libya-based offshoot of the Islamic State, but the elaborate pre-production, editing and dissemination of the video were most likely run out of the extremist group’s central media operations in either Syria or Iraq, an effort that puts on full display the terrorist group’s state-of-the-art mastery of modern media techniques.

Most striking, according to a Hollywood filmmaker who examined images from the beheading video Monday, is the sheer scale and sophistication of the main beach shot at its climax.

“This isn’t just a couple of guys running around with a camera,” said Paul Buhl, who edits independent feature films from his studio in Los Angeles and has worked on a range of productions during his career, from boutique short films to commercial videos and full-length features.

“What you’re looking at here is a lot of planning that went into that one shot — the way they’re using the location, right at the line of the water, with the lighting, more than a dozen men walking in a straight line in unison — this had to have taken a decent amount of preparation,” Mr. Buhl said.


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“Just organizing one shot like that could take days of communication and coordinating,” he said, “just to make sure all of the uniforms are right, that people know where to stand and walk, what to do.”

Counterterrorism officials say they are grappling with a range of implications from the Islamic State’s increasingly polished productions. Since a similar video emerged in February showing operatives of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, beheading 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, U.S. officials have been weighing a host of questions about the production values on display.

Among them: Where did the pre-production, scripting and probable rehearsals take place? How many individuals were involved? How did the various professionals assembling the film communicate with one another?

More critically, where was the final cut ultimately edited? What footage was left on the cutting-room floor? And could the edited footage contain clues to the inner workings of the terrorist group’s expanding filmmaking operations?

The video released Sunday mirrored the one circulated in February. Both are anchored eerily by a narrator speaking in North American-accented English, so there is speculation that they were produced by the same team.

Both feature branding images from al-Furqan and al-Hayat — the main media operations of the Islamic State. What is less clear is whether those operations, which U.S. officials have tied to Islamic State propaganda videos that circulated last year, sent production teams on the nearly 1,000-mile journey to Libya.

Leveraging resources

One U.S. intelligence official, speaking on background, said the Islamic State has an internal system for identifying digital-savvy recruits and channeling them into the filmmaking and propaganda operations.

“ISIL leverages the resources it has within the group, probably including individuals with skill sets beneficial to producing and filming things such as these videos,” the official said.

The goal is to create slickly produced content that can play well not just as a propaganda tool via social media and Internet circulation, but also can display well through international media outlets.

The intelligence official said advances in technology — such as off-the-shelf media editing software, high-definition equipment and the portability of such equipment — enable the Islamic State to “present sophisticated multimedia capabilities.”

But slick-looking videos are one thing. Highly coordinated movie scenes are another.

The video released Sunday starts with what it frames as an illustrated history lesson about Christian-Muslim relations. It then moves into an edited montage of clips showing militants destroying churches, graves and icons.

It’s during the last section of the 29-minute video when the higher-level production values come into play. Using editing cuts and at one point a split screen, the video purports to separate groups of captives identified by the narrator as Ethiopian Christians.

The technique suggests that the action is unfolding simultaneously in separate Libyan locations. In one part of the screen, masked fighters lead a row of bound captives dressed in black across a desert landscape before shooting each prisoner in the back of the head.

In the other, masked fighters lead a row of captives in orange jumpsuits along a beach before decapitating each one. Bloody surf is then shown as severed heads are placed atop the bodies lying on the sand.

Although the grisly images convey the Islamic State’s infatuation with explicit, violent iconography, Mr. Buhl suggested that the beach shot is carefully designed to communicate something else as well.

“The message it’s sending is clear,” he said. “They’re producing a grand cinematic shock here, and with it they’re showing that they’re able to create, organize and produce on a bigger level than before.”

“In order to do that, you have to be better organized and you have to have more people involved in the plan,” Mr. Buhl said. “That’s just Filmmaking 101.”

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