The videos disseminated online by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of the murder of captured persons have become grisly icons of this group’s infamy. These depictions of the slaughter of individuals and groups contain evidence of the Islamic State’s commission of crimes under international law. But these videos are more than digital records of war crimes. The videos themselves violate the law of armed conflict and constitute war crimes.
The Atrocity Videos
The Islamic State has posted videos on the Internet that record the killing of people detained by the group during the armed conflicts in which it is engaged. The videos are premeditated products; they reflect planning, preparation, staging, symbolism, rehearsal, and editing. These efforts demonstrate that the videos were not random acts but were undertaken with the direction, knowledge, and support of the Islamic State’s leadership.
The videos have attracted attention under international humanitarian law (IHL) because they provide evidence of the Islamic State’s commission of crimes during armed conflict. These crimes form part of what a UN commission described as the Islamic State’s “coordinated campaign of spreading terror among the civilian population” involving “murder and other inhumane acts, enslavement, rape, sexual slavery and violence, forcible detainment, enforced disappearance and torture.” The scale and severity of the Islamic State’s violations of IHL led the UN commission to call for holding the group’s members and commanders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of genocide.
The campaign of inhumane acts and terror involves not only the violence recorded in the videos but also the posting of the videos online. Disseminating the videos on the Internet exploits cyberspace to humiliate the victims and spread terror among civilian populations under Islamic State control or threatened by the group. The videos form part of the “information warfare” the Islamic State conducts in order to communicate with supporters, radicalize new adherents, recruit fighters, humiliate adversaries, and spread terror.
Prohibitions in International Humanitarian Law
In treaties and customary international law, IHL prohibits:
- Acts that humiliate, degrade or otherwise violate a person’s dignity;
- Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among civilians; and
- Measures or acts of terrorism directed at persons protected by IHL, including detainees and civilians.
Making videos that record the execution of individuals and groups captured by the Islamic State, and putting the videos online for viewing all over the world, represent outrages on the personal dignity of those killed. In addition, posting these videos violates IHL because, as the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare states, the law of armed conflict prohibits "employing cyber means to communicate a threat of kinetic attack with the primary purpose of terrorizing the civilian population." Online distribution is also an act of terrorism directed against persons protected by IHL. The Islamic State uses these violent videos to send messages about what happens to those who oppose it. Posting and distributing the videos online allows the Islamic State to communicate this terror-laden message to individuals and populations under the group’s control and in theaters of ongoing armed conflict.
Crimes under International Humanitarian Law
Under the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, committing outrages on personal dignity is a war crime, an offense that applies to the degradation of the dignity of dead individuals. By putting its videos on the Internet, the Islamic State enabled the virtual degradation of the victims and their dignity on a global scale.
International criminal tribunals have also charged and convicted individuals of war crimes for perpetrating acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which was to spread terror among civilian populations. Under this jurisprudence, posting the Islamic State’s videos online can be interpreted as threats of violence intended to terrorize civilians and, thus, a war crime.
Under IHL, persons are individually responsible for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of genocide. Under the Rome Statute, individuals are also criminally responsible if they contribute to the commission of these crimes with the aim of furthering a group’s criminal activities or with the knowledge of the group’s intention to commit such crimes. Under this rule, those making and posting the Islamic State’s videos are criminally accountable even if they did not directly participate in killing people. The “straight to video” manner in which the Islamic State planned and perpetrated these atrocities demonstrates that the people involved in producing and disseminating the videos contributed significantly to the commission of war crimes.
In waging war, the Islamic State exploits the Internet and its applications strategically, with the atrocity videos synthesizing physical violence and digital communications in unprecedented ways. Meeting this threat requires applying IHL principles to how the Islamic State uses cyberspace to shape its criminal cruelty into digital instruments of degradation and terror. Cyber technologies are becoming more important in armed conflicts, but a fundamental tenet of the laws of war remains critical—the right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.