P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

Hostage videos: tropes of terror as social practice

Hanne Miriam Larsen

More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003 and the subsequent invasion by the U.S.-led military coalition. At least 60 of these hostages have been killed, in many cases after video footage of them pleading for their lives as they recited their captors' demands (typically that foreign military forces in Iraq be withdrawn) have been issued by their captors. [1] Disturbing as they are, the hostage videos are distributed worldwide in an instant via satellite TV networks and the Internet. While some of these hostage incidents - and the accompanying videos - have contributed to heated debates on national policy in relation to the situation in Iraq, none of them has led to an actual withdrawal of the military coalition. However, despite their apparent failure to successfully influence the military situation in Iraq, images from the hostage videos have become recurrent items in news media around the world.

In this essay, I wish to explore the idea that hostage videos can be seen as a form of social practice embedded in and put into play in the complex and contested field of mass media in which a range of aesthetic and politically potent strategies are applied. I am inspired by anthropologist Michael Herzfeld's concept of "social poetics" which refers to the creative social practice where countries and social agents make use of dominant and/or popular signifiers and tropes in an attempt to represent, reify and empower ethnic and national groupings (Herzfeld 1997). According to Herzfeld, the rhetoric (or statements - or "texts") resulting from this appropriation is not a by-product of reality or a by-product blocking our access to reality. Instead, rhetoric is part of the everyday social interaction in which ideas, social identities and relations of power are continually reproduced and contested (Herzfeld 1997). Furthermore, drawing on Herzfeld's point that "[...] the ground each media covers is a contested one, involving multiple participants whose ends often compete but occasionally coincide" (Herzfeld 2001, 301), I will show how differently situated social agents relate to and are engaged in the hostage video phenomena in different fashions, and will indicate how these videos relate to other ways in which the short video message format is appropriated as a means of representation, persuasion, identity-building and empowerment. I do not intend nor pretend to provide an exhaustive contextualisation; rather, my aim is to point to the diversity of appropriations of and reactions to the hostage videos and related video productions. My starting point is the case of Douglas Wood, who was in captivity in Iraq from May 1st 2005 until he was freed as a result of a military rescue raid on June 15. As in the case of many other hostages before and after him, video images of Wood in captivity were distributed to a global audience via electronic and Internet-based media.

The Douglas Wood hostage video(s)
On May 2nd 2005, the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera broadcasted video footage featuring Douglas Wood (a 63-year old US-based Australian engineer) in captivity, pleading for his life and urging Australia and the United States to withdraw their military forces from Iraq. On the DVD which was released to Reuters and various news agencies in Baghdad, a group calling itself "The Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq" claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

The video (duration approx. 1 minute) consists of five elements or scenes:

(1) A graphic image in brown and golden colours, showing a circle containing a sword and an automatic pistol crossing with an open Koran in the middle, flanked by text in Arabic.

(2) Another graphic image with more text in Arabic. In the lower right corner we see a picture from a Muslim funeral scene, two men carrying a dead body on a stretcher. These two graphic images together last about 9 seconds.

(3) Cut to a medium shot with no camera movement: We see Douglas Wood facing the camera with eye contact; the barrel of a machine gun is visible in the upper right corner of the picture; on the left side we see part of a uniformed person; and in the upper left-hand corner we see a text in Arabic in bold red letters. Wood is in the center of the picture and looks directly into the camera as he speaks the message of his captors. This scene makes up about 2/3 of the video's content. [2]

(4) Cut to a camera movement, starting with a pan to the right showing a close shot of a uniformed person with his face masked by a scarf, carrying an automatic weapon which he points to the right. The camera pans to the left showing a similarly uniformed, masked and armed person pointing his weapon to the right. Then the camera pans to the right showing the two gun-barrels pointing at Wood, tilts down showing Wood kneeling on the floor with his hands cuffed and tilts upwards, briefly showing Wood's face looking straight into the camera before the scene ends.

(5) The circular "logo" from the beginning of the video appears again, now in black and white, flanked by a text in Arabic. This image lasts 3-4 seconds.

The DVD from May 2nd was followed by a second video issued on May 6th. The short and simple format and the visual setup were similar to the first video; however, Wood's head is now shaven, and wounds in his face indicate that he has been beaten. Kneeling on the floor between two masked people holding him at gunpoint, Wood reads out an ultimatum on behalf of his captors asking that troops be withdrawn from Iraq within 72 hours; otherwise he will be killed.

Two points: First, in their use of strategies such as rapid editing, direct address to the spectator, eye contact with the camera, iconography laden with symbolism, emotional appeal mixed with an urging of the audience to act, these hostage videos bear references to more familiar usages of the short video message format such as commercial TV-ads and political campaign videos. Second, these videos display agency and power, and, importantly, not just in the representational sense: this IS agency and power, real people exercising real power over a real hostage.

Strategic media moves
Shortly after the DVD footage displaying Douglas Wood as a hostage was broadcast by Al-Jazeera on May 2nd, news of the hostage situation accompanied by images from the DVD was issued worldwide by electronic news media and on the Internet. The news of the kidnapping was covered most extensively in English-speaking countries, and the video footage (or edited excerpts) was aired repeatedly on Australian television on May 2nd and the days following. The release of the hostage video led to a range of actions by the government and by Wood's family, with the mass media playing a vital role.

The Douglas Wood hostage video led to an immediate response in national and international mass media from Wood's country, Australia. Prime Minister John Howard reacted promptly with a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corp on May 2nd which was distributed by news media worldwide including Al-Jazeera. He expressed his regret about Wood's ordeal but stressed that Australia would not be entering into negotiations with the captors:

We can't have the foreign policy of this country dictated by terrorists, but we have got to do everything we can, nonetheless, to assist this poor man. (http://www.abc.net.au)

The Australian government immediately set up a task force to work for Wood's release, and on May 4 when the task force arrived in Baghdad, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer appeared in an interview with Al-Jazeera making a direct plea to Wood's captors to free him. When the second Douglas Wood hostage video was broadcast on May 7 with the 72 hour ultimatum, Downer responded immediately in a statement on Australian and Arab media, saying that Australia refused to give in to the demands of Wood's captors, and on May 12 a second direct appeal to Wood's abductors was made by Downer on Al-Jazeera. Throughout Wood's captivity, leading politicians including members of the opposition were cited in Australian and international media (including Al-Jazeera), assuring the public that Wood's capture would not influence Australia's Iraq policy and that the nation would work together in an effort to free Douglas Wood.

In addition to the efforts of the Australian Federal Government, Wood's family launched a media campaign, using television and the Internet in an attempt to obtain his release. When Foreign Minister Downer's plea was aired on Al-Jazeera on May 4, the Arabic television network also broadcast an appeal to Wood's captors from his Australia-based brothers Malcolm and Vernon, who expressed their concern about his fragile health. On May 7, following the release of the second video, Wood's family made a televised plea for his freedom, saying that they were shocked to hear of the ultimatum:

Douglas is a warm man of generous heart and spirit. His work is to help the people of Iraq towards a better life. We respect the people of Iraq, their patriotic spirit and their right to independence. (http://english.aljazeera.net).

On May 11 "The Douglas Wood Family Website" was launched (http://www.thewoodfamily.info), a weblog in which the family appealed directly to Wood's captors to set him free, expressing their love for him and stressing their concern for his health. The weblog, written in both English and Arabic, included photos of Wood with his family, video footage of Wood's brothers meeting with Australian Muslim leaders in Sydney, a Baghdad telephone hotline for any relevant information, and a list of Wood's medical needs. The weblog initiative was expanded on May 15 with "The Wood Family Television appeal", as the family began a TV advertising campaign in Iraq in which they promised to make a donation to an Iraqi charity of the hostage-takers' choice if Wood were set free.

When Douglas Wood was finally released on June 15 as a result of a military rescue operation, he was reunited with his family in Australia. Wood's release and arrival in Australia drew an avalanche of news media interest, and the family hired a management company to deal with the media. On June 20 the family organized a press conference in Melbourne at which Douglas' brother Vernon made a statement to the nation and the media:

We are holding this press conference because Douglas and the Wood family want to say thank you to Australia, the press, for the unwavering support we received. And a special vote of thanks is certainly due to you, the media. From our perspective, every Australian should be proud of the way our country unified to see Douglas free. (http://www.theage.com.au)

The Australian media were generally supportive and sympathetic in their coverage of Wood's ordeal and release. However, a few days after his arrival in Australia, Wood sold his story to the Australian commercial television Ten Network and received an undisclosed sum of money for the exclusive interview aired on June 26. As a result, the sympathetic media approach gave way to new stories accusing Wood of trying to make a profit from his ordeal. [3] In the following weeks, news media interest in Douglas Wood declined, apart from occasional follow-up stories on his medical condition and his alleged financial losses or gains from the hostage experience.

Video messages: a weapon of mass persuasion
Within the past two decades, the increasing accessibility of electronic media technology and the advent of the Internet have made it possible for mass media consumers all over the world to produce and distribute electronic media content to a global audience themselves. Mass distribution of video productions has been appropriated by Islamic terrorist groups since the 1980's when video was used in recruiting campaigns for the Mujahedin who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the 1990's the video production activities expanded, the new aim being the recruitment of Muslim men for the terrorist war against the U.S. and its allies. These media activities gave rise to the production company "As-Sahaab Foundation of Islamic Media," which has subsequently become labeled as Al Qaeda's media production company. Since the late 1990's As-Sahaab, along with a range of small-scale production companies, have issued what have become known as "Jihad-videos," a general name for a wide range of video material produced and distributed by Islamic terrorists and their supporters. The format, duration and content of these videos vary; from spoken statements on various issues by different militant leaders to footage from recruitment seminars, training camps or actual terrorist attacks, and rap-style music videos in English with a striking MTV-quality in the editing style and use of animation. The "Jihad-videos" produced by As-Sahaab and others are sold on the streets in the border-regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, distributed in several Muslim bookstores in major British cities such as London and Birmingham, and downloadable free on the Internet. Also, terrorist-related video material is frequently distributed by TV news channels, especially in the Arab countries, notably Al-Jazeera, which repeatedly broadcasts video statements from Al Qaeda-leaders, hostage videos and footage of terrorist attacks produced and issued for public display by the terrorists themselves.

Since the terrorist attacks on 11/9 2001, the U.S. government under George W. Bush has put the war against terror at the top of its foreign policy agenda. As part of the anti-terror offensive, a department of "Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs" was established under the State Department in the fall of 2001. Charlotte Beers, a former top advertising executive, was hired to lead the department's campaign to counter the mass media activities of the Islamic terrorists and to improve the image of America in the Arab countries. The main thrust of Beers' efforts was the "Shared Values" campaign launched in 2002, a series of extended TV commercials intended for Islamic consumption, aiming to reposition the U.S. as a friend of Islam and of the Arab peoples. The video series broadcast in several Muslim countries featured a range of testimonies from Muslim citizens who had achieved success in the U.S., explaining how America was a democratic, multicultural, tolerant society. [4] In a recent TV-interview, Beers stated that she sees the task of the U.S. anti-terror media campaign as a difficult one:

This is a war of communication, and it is difficult really for the United States government to be comfortable with how overt that has to be, and how we have to use modern day skills of drama and emotional content and storytelling in order to be heard against the kind of outrageous but very interesting stories they tell" (TV2 Dags Dato, May 2005). [5]

In parallel with this strategic usage of video messages by Muslim terrorist groups and the U.S. government, video materials such as the "Jihad videos" and hostage videos are appropriated by a variety of homepages and weblogs on the Internet. The aims of the video distribution activities of these sites vary; while some distribute these videos in order to provide anti-establishment documentation as an alternative to mainstream media, others explicitly praise the actions of hostage takers, suicide bombers, etc. and distribute the videos in support of what they see as a "freedom fight". The user-comments that are displayed on these sites indicate that the audience includes a variety of people with different motives and agendas, and that visitors' reactions to the video material range from disgust to praise. An example is http://www.infovlad.net, a site that offers free downloads of a variety of terror-related video material, including a substantial amount of "Jihad videos," footage of terrorist attacks and hostage videos - such as the one featuring Douglas Wood, which is now long gone from the news headlines.

Hostage videos show us something that we do not want to see. By appropriating well-known mass media strategies, the producers manage to effectively put the personal ordeal of people in captivity on the public agenda. No matter how much of this footage we are confronted with, hostage videos will remain disturbing because of what they are: very real acts of social agency signifying and implying division, hostility and violence.

1 Estimated numbers of hostages and information on video releases from article "Foreign Hostages in Iraq" on CBC News Online. May 15th 2005 at http://www.cbc.ca

2 During the subsequent global media coverage of Wood's captivity, various frame-grabs from this scene circulated in electronic as well as print and internet-based media, showing Wood looking directly at the camera with the barrel of a gun pointed at his head.

3 Wood's contract with the Ten Network has been the object of much speculation. Some have claimed his fee was 400,000 Australian dollars, a figure Wood has refused to confirm or deny.

4 For a detailed outline and discussion of U.S. government media strategies in relation to the war in Iraq, see Rutherford 2004.

5 The "Shared Values" campaign was brought to a halt early in 2003 when it failed to secure a broadcast deal with major Arab TV-channels and subsequently obtained only limited distribution. Beers resigned from the State Department in March 2003.


Herzfeld, Michael (1997): Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (Routledge 1997)

Herzfeld, Michael (2001): "Media." (In: Herzfeld, M.: Anthropology. Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Blackwell 2001, pp 294-315)

Rutherford, Paul (2004): Weapons of Mass Persuasion. Marketing the War against Iraq (University of Toronto Press 2004).

Tv-programme "Dags Dato," Tv2 (Denmark) May 25 2005, an edited version of a documentary produced by NHK Japan (producers Masanon Iwahoni & Hajme Ota).









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