In the southern city of Karbala, locals are exchanging video clips made by Sunni Muslim extremists on their smart phones. The city is mostly home to Shiite Muslims, who the Sunni Muslim extremists say are their enemies, so the videos have a big impact on the local populace here.
One of the most famous clips is one where women from Mosul are being interviewed about being raped by fighters from the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State. Another well known one shows the execution of Iraqi security forces in Tikrit.
There seem to be several purposes to the videos made by the Islamic State, or IS, group. The videos show the group’s power over their enemies and allies and help to recruit new fighters from elsewhere, including overseas. Clearly the videos also have an impact on locals who plan to fight them – the videos make it clear they can expect no mercy from the IS fighters if they are captured and some say an onslaught of videos and other messages online were part of what spooked the Iraqi army so badly, when they fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul; the city was taken over by fighters from the IS group when the Iraqi army, which vastly outnumbered them, simply threw down weapons and uniforms and left.
But the videos are having an altogether different impact in Karbala. There they are causing young Shiite Muslims to want to volunteer to fight against the militants.
“When I saw the video where the women were talking about being raped I was determined to go to volunteer and to train for the military,” says Hassan al-Amiri, a 23-year-old student. “I want to become physically fit so I can resist the IS fighters on the battlefield.”
Rida al-Khayat owns an Internet café in Karbala and he says he has noticed a lot of young people watching the IS group videos online. “I was actually afraid of what kind of impact these videos would have on the young men who come here,” al-Khayat told NIQASH. “So I actually blocked some of the sites that were posting the clips. I want to advise our sons not to watch them.”
Abu Nabil is a retired teacher who has been keeping an eye on a number of Facebook pages hosting the IS group’s videos. “Their aim is to influence ordinary citizens,” he says. “They often show army and police officers handing over their weapons and declaring allegiance to the IS group in a mosque.”
Most locals who know about the clips in Karbala have conflicting opinions on what to do about them. Some believe they should be monitored and that people should talk about the clips. Others believe that the clips are nothing but mindless propaganda and should be blocked because of the impact they have on local youth and because of the fear they inspire.
There should be a response, argues Umran al-Karkoushi, a professor in media studies. “Moderate satellite stations need to prepare a response,” he says. This could include experts on Islam who point out the differences between moderate and radical Islam as well as political messages.
“All researchers and intellectuals should denounce this organization,” al-Karkoushi says. “And media organisations should ask well known cultural figures to help them get this message out.”
Karbala-based journalist Majed al-Khayat agrees. “The terrorists are skilled in mounting this kind of media campaign. It needs to be confronted,” he says.
No matter what one’s opinion is of the IS group videos, there is one thing that is clear in Karbala: The graphic clips have been a major reason cited by young people who volunteered to fight against the extremists and to protect their home towns in Iraq’s south, particularly along the border with the Sunni-Muslim-dominated Anbar province, which is currently not under Baghdad’s control.