As 2016 dawned and a fresh news cycle began, the Islamic State group clawed its way back into the headlines in what has become its hallmark manner: the release of another instalment of execution theater designed to win back the media narrative after a succession of military defeats. The choice of a hooded British executioner to start the shooting of five purported spies and issue ominous threats to British Prime Minister David Cameron will have been designed to flood the UK media, as it now has, with speculation over the killer's identity and what the message meant.
The rhetoric of the pre-execution speech itself was nothing particularly new in the long corpus of IS video threats against the West. Its focus on the claimed global and military insignificance of the UK was the only thing that stood out among the predictable comments about the inevitable victory of IS — a claim incessantly made by the group despite (or perhaps because of) the long and growing list of military defeats it has suffered over the past year.
The group's previous big PR effort, a rare audio speech by their leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, achieved little traction in the western media. However it was exactly the same message packaged in a different style: that times are tough and the group is hurting, but that the West eventually lost in Afghanistan and Iraq and the group's survival and eventual victory in the Middle East is guaranteed.
If the much-discussed Baathist influence on IS is to be found anywhere it is here — in media pronouncements whose combination of demonstrative ultraviolence and boastful, if not delusional, assurances of ultimate military victory both find parallels in Saddam's Iraq.
There are different strands to IS propaganda, of which the theater of execution is just one aspect. Other releases purport to show the smooth functioning of life inside the Islamic State, where subjects go about their daily lives in the earthly paradise the group claims to have founded, and IS members carry out maintenance tasks on local infrastructure. Another strand displays the military victories of the group against its enemies in thrilling photo reports and dizzyingly edited combat footage.
In recent months, as the group's grip on its Syrian and Iraqi heartland falters, this last strand has diminished in frequency and power. While just over a year ago the group was still celebrating its capture of Iraq's second city, new releases show — with the same degree of hype — the temporary capture of a small mud-brick desert hamlet, or raids against isolated Iraqi patrol bases, evidence of the diminishing returns of IS's war against the rest of the world.
Ignored by the group, under the mask of "media blackouts" proclaimed by its internet fanclub, are the growing list of its military defeats. In just six weeks since the Paris attacks, the group has lost control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the second largest city in the country under its control. Simultaneously, a three-day Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive in Syria captured dozens of villages, hundreds of square miles of territory, and the strategic Tishrin Dam and bridge over the Euphrates.
Now the SDF have crossed the Euphrates and are 10 miles outside the city of Manbij, IS's second largest urban holding in Syria and a vital link in their supply lifeline from Turkey. Syrian regime forces, supported by heavy Russian airstrikes, are slowly inching their way forward to the nearby city of al Bab, as well as in the Homs desert further south, in a campaign of reconquest whose slow progress owes more to the Syrian army's military weakness than the Islamic State's strength. The Islamic State's last major offensive, against Kurdish forces on the Mosul frontline, ended within hours in a costly defeat.
More than photo essays of jihadist maintenance workers whitewashing kerbstones or increasingly grotesque snuff videos, IS's greatest single tool for recruiting new followers and maintaining their grasp of current supporters is probably the evidence of current military victories, and the promise of new ones.
After experimenting with often cringeworthy attempts to discourage the group's online supporters and troll them on social media, the Western-led coalition has likely now realized that the most effective way to counter the IS narrative is to defeat them on the battlefield, and kill their most prominent media spokesmen. A targeted campaign of drone strikes has killed a number of British IS media operatives, including the current British spokesman's immediate predecessor Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as Jihadi John. It is fair to assume that the host of the most recent video has now also been added to the kill list.
The IS motto of Baqiya wa Tatamaddad translates as remaining and expanding. Now it is clearly contracting on the ground, the group's media effort has shifted to emphasizing its survival. Like a fading celebrity anxiously monitoring the tabloid press for evidence of its continued existence, the group will do whatever it can to ensure a prominent spot for itself in the headlines, whether in videos like the one recently released or in dramatic acts of terrorism against the West, as in Paris.
Yet the reality is that the group's hold on its heartlands in Syria and Iraq is weakening every day, its two major cities of Raqqa and Mosul are situated on the very edges of its territory, and both will come under increased coalition pressure over the coming year. The real message of the latest video is that with five bullets, one camera and a stilted speech in a British accent, IS was hoping to obscure its grim strategic situation with an attention-grabbing media spectacle. In the sense that it is now far easier for the group to conquer space in newsprint than hold actual territory, the video's release is ultimately reassuring for the coalition.