British journalist and photographer John Cantlie, 46, who has been held captive by ISIS since 2012, appeared in the group's latest propaganda video, released on February 9. The Al Qaeda off-shoot ISIS has come to control larges swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.
Cantlie described the film as the last of its series, and spoke about life inside Syria's Al Bab district, located northeast of Aleppo, like education and Sharia law. In the video, he also interviews two militants about the deaths of ISIS leaders and the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France.
The documentary-style film is very different from their earlier ISIS propaganda series that Cantlie appeared in. The two-part “Lend Me Yours Ears” lecture series showed Cantlie sitting on a table with a black background, wearing an orange jumpsuit, as he delivered several messages about intervention in Syria.
Now, in the new film, “From Inside Halab,” ISIS has seemingly given Cantlie a bigger role in its propaganda films, presenting him as a free man who is able to tour the open markets, riverside sceneries, and report from the front lines, as a documentary filmmaker would. This time around, Cantlie wears a fitted brown leather jacket and black trousers, and pronounces Arabic terms with fluency.
Produced by Al Hayat Media Center, which dubs itself the “Media wing of IS Englesh,” the film opens on Cantlie climbing and walking among the ruins of Al-Bab district in Aleppo. Cantlie begins by saying:
We're in a city that's been at the heart of the fighting since summer 2012. Used to be home to more than two million people, and housed some of the most ancient architecture all of the Middle East. But now after two years of bitter fighting, much of the city lies in ruins, and many of the people have fled.
He also notes that the 12-minute video's purpose is to prove that Assad's bombing, which is now joined by coalition air-strikes, has not stifled the group's advances:
What we're gonna find out, is if all this fighting, all this destruction, has even slowed down the advance of the Islamic State.
The film's next scene shows a group of underage boys, who wear the state's flag as head bands, studying and reciting the Quran in a mosque setting. The film then shows an old man writing verses of the Quran on a board that says, “Prohibition of Injustice,” in Arabic. Cantlie says the young boys, “with any luck, will form the mujahideen of the next generation in the region.”
Nevertheless, Cantlie takes viewers outdoors, where he points to drones hovering in the sky, and says that the “mujahideen really don't care how many eyes in the sky are looking down on them.”
In a later scene, Cantlie sits in a Sharia court waiting room, and describes the “remarkably simple” rules of Sharia. The waiting room plays the group's videos, which Cantlie says are “a lot more entertaining than watching the 6 p.m. news.”
Cantlie then interviews a militant speaking in Arabic who says the deaths of their leaders would not deter them from fighting, and it instead “emboldens and motivates us upon this path, by Allah's permission.” Later, as Cantlie's narration describes the West as an aggressor invading the peace that people are trying to achieve in the city, the video shows scenes of ordinary life: A young boy eating fruits in front of a grocery stand, a baker aligning pastries for the oven, and a street vendor pushing his cart through a busy street.
According to Cantlie, the group's media outposts are scattered across several towns, where they hand out news pamphlets to passersby. The reason behind this, he explains is:
That it counters the news that comes out from the west. It gives people here on the ground an idea of what the Islamic State is really doing, and not the distorted view that people get from the western media.
A scene of a media outpost run by the center Al I'tisam segues to video's final topic: the attack on Charlie Hebdo in France. The fighter Cantlie interviews says in French that the attacks “only make us happy,” and issues renewed threats to the country.
More than just propaganda: Questions arising after the facts
The video, which suggests locals have acclimated the ISIS's presence in their home, raises questions about the group's expansion plans within the region, as well as the fate of the British hostage, who was reportedly captured on the Turkish border, along with the late James Foley. The lack of women in the video is also worrying, leading to concerns about the role women do play in Aleppo's new social order.
Linking to the video [warning: graphic content], Amnesty International's Joanne Mariner points out that the education Cantlie boasts about is empty of girls:
— joanne mariner (@jgmariner) February 10, 2015
Jon Williams, foreign editor at ABC, remarks that Cantlie is the last remaining Western hostage of the known 23:
— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) February 10, 2015
Jean Pierre suggests that Cantlie is attempting to survive the only way he knows how:
— Jean Pierre Duthion (@halona) February 9, 2015
Kriszta Satori of the BBC reminded everyone that Cantlie remains a hostage under duress:
to all who retweet the latest ISIS agitprop: John Cantlie is a hostage under duress. just saying.
— kriszta satori (@fulelo) February 9, 2015
Answering someone who asked why Cantlie would offer his services to an extremist group, Twitter user Oscar says Cantlie was most probably filming at gunpoint:
@OssFM89 خدمات مين؟ إذا ما في 4 ورا الكاميرا حاملين RPGs ومصوبينها عليه أنا ما بعرف شي. هو بأول مقابلة حكى إنه “يمكن يتم إعدامي بعد الحلقات”
— Oscar (@awni_inwa) February 9, 2015
What “services”? If four people from behind the camera aren't pointing RPGs at him, then I'm a monkey's uncle. He said in the first interview that he could be executed after the interviews come to an end.