Is AQIM Parroting the Islamic State in Its Latest Hostage Video?

The new video features a Swedish and a South African hostage.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 2crop

There’s the British-accented jihadi defiantly addressing the camera, the attempts at slick cuts between desert scenes, and the Western hostages in chains. But this isn’t an Islamic State video; it’s a dispatch from the Sahara branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s Mali affiliate. It’s the latest example of how radical Islamist groups are appropriating the visual language of the Islamic State and attempting to imitate its strikingly successful propaganda efforts.

The video released Monday features appearances by the group’s last two Western hostages — South African Stephen McGowan and Swede Johan Gustafsson. The video opens with a man addressing the camera and speaking in tones made famous by “Jihadi John,” the fighter who gained infamy for beheading Western hostages on tape. “Welcome to the world’s largest prison, a prison that has no boundaries, a prison that has no walls, no cells, no bars. A prison with a fear, where prison break is nonexistent,” the masked AQIM fighter says. “This is the mujahideen’s prison — the Sahara.”

The fighter then takes the viewer on a journey to meet McGowan and Gustafsson, who are interviewed under the canopy of a few scrappy desert trees. In a painful scene, the fighter shows a video to the two captives of Serge Lazarevic, a French national, arriving home after being freed in exchange for the release of a group of imprisoned militants. Lazarevic had also been held by AQIM, and the two captives can only look on plaintively as the Frenchman triumphantly greets President François Hollande on an airport tarmac.

The fighter informs the two men that while the group is engaged in negotiations for their freedom, the French government is “impeding” the talks. “They are making it very difficult. They are making it very difficult for your governments and for the mujahideen to come to an agreement,” the fighter says to the captives. Mali is a former French colony, and French troops intervened in the country in 2013 to halt an Islamist advance in the north.

After a series of complaints about France’s alleged behavior in the negotiations, the captives address their families and respective governments. McGowan thanks the South African government for its efforts to free him and cites close commercial and political ties between South Africa and Mali in hoping for his quick release. “To my beautiful wife: Happy wedding anniversary for last week. I’ve now been in the Sahara for half as long as we’ve been married,” McGowan says. “I know we had some very big plans, big family plans for our life. I pray we still get to do all these things.”

Gustafsson pleads with the Swedish government for their assistance and asks that they support his family. “I miss you terribly, and I love you. I hope you don’t forget me. I hope you’re strong and go on with your life,” Gustafsson says, addressing his family. “Travel, learn, and go on with your work. Don’t sit and wait for me. I don’t know how this is going to end. I hope for the best, but who knows what’s going to happen. Our time together until now has been wonderful, and I’d like to continue that.”

As a statement, the video is more an homage to the style of the Islamic State than a replication of their efforts. The captives aren’t seen wearing orange jumpsuits, and no threats are issued against the hostages’ lives. The AQIM video isn’t nearly as slick as those produced by the Islamic State. The audio quality is lower. The lighting is worse. It includes several cartoonish, melodramatic moments, in which fighters try to impress the viewer and come across looking somewhat buffoonish.

Indeed, the Islamic State released a barbaric video on Tuesday that features alleged spies being executed using explosive collars, being drowned in cages, and immolated in cars. That video was filmed in sparkling high definition and featured studio interviews with professional lighting of several of the victims.

But in comparison to their previous video showcasing Western hostages, the latest AQIM video marks a step-up in production quality. When in December the group released a video featuring Lazarevic and Dutch national Sjaak Rijke, the two men were featured speaking in the cab of a truck and in front of a cloth backdrop, respectively. It was a simple video, designed to renew attention on the hostages’ plight, not use their deaths for propaganda purposes. While Lazarevic was released, Rijke was rescued in a French special forces operation in April.

The attempt to imitate the Islamic State comes amid a reported split within AQIM as to whether it should pledge allegiance to the group that has established what it calls a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. In December, AQIM’s judicial authority said that the Islamic State had not met the requirements in Islamic law to establish a caliphate. Then in March, two AQIM divisions reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Monday’s hostage video contains no reference to the Islamic State and AQIM’s relationship to it. But within the context of the sophisticated public relations campaigns waged by AQIM and similar groups, it’s difficult not to interpret this visual homage to its brutal Syrian cousin as a slight tacking toward that group.

 Photo credit: screen shot of AQIM video.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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