This story was updated at 1:40 p.m. ET on December 10, 2018.
If you discover that your neighbor—a decent guy and a known history buff—maintains a small collection of Nazi memorabilia, you might not think less of him, especially if his record of tolerance and anti-fascism is beyond reproach. Now imagine that he maintains not a small collection but the largest in the world, in private or public hands. He lets anyone examine it, including actual Nazis, without asking for a name or a reason. How big does the collection have to get before you start murmuring with the neighbors, and stop inviting him to cookouts and seders?
Last month, the British government expressed official concern about the contemporary equivalent of such a collection, a website devoted to archiving every scrap of propaganda published by a jihadist group of significant size. Jihadology.net, still live as of this writing, is a multiyear effort by Aaron Y. Zelin, an expert in global jihadism. The site makes Der Stürmer look genteel. It is one thing to publish a cartoon that calls for the extinction of one’s fellow citizens, and another to publish a video that shows one of those citizens retching in the gas chamber at the moment of her death. Many of the videos are from the Islamic State, and some contain scenes considerably more nauseating than even this. Critics believe it serves terrorists; jihadists circulate links to the site’s videos long after YouTube and Facebook have deleted them.
YouTube and Facebook, as private companies, are of course free to censor their sites however they wish, and I do not blame them at all for refusing to be a clubhouse for religious monsters. The U.K. has asked Zelin to password-protect his archive, which is already blocked or criminalized in other jurisdictions.
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But I believe that Jihadology is different and should remain open to all. It enjoys moral safe-harbor, first of all, because unlike YouTube or Facebook it accepts no advertising and earns no click-based revenue. (Zelin offers translation services for a fee, but access to his archive is gratis.) No one profits from his collection. Second, he presents the specimens without endorsement or, indeed, explicit disapproval; unlike YouTube, it does not “recommend” videos, and unlike Facebook, it doesn’t favor certain pieces over others based on their popularity or clicks. The website is as close as one can have to a bare, unadorned catalog, coded only by source (Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, etc.) and date.
Even if Zelin took a salary, he would be earning it. These videos are valuable. Other than the traumatized pros who watch the videos for a living, few understand how much the propaganda can teach us about its makers and their intended audience. For the past four years, I have consumed many of these videos, sometimes peeking through my fingers to do so, and I can attest to their worth.
Do you remember the grainy beheading videos from the early 2000s, when al-Qaeda began its series of snuff films, starring foreigners caught in its web in Iraq and Pakistan? Let me spare you from searching: They showed little of interest. The executioners’ faces were always well hidden, and the mise-en-scène usually obscured all details that might indicate the time of day or even the type of building in which they were filmed. The vibe in these videos is of an underground organization, safe only in its ratholes.
The Islamic State’s international success, and perhaps later failure, derived from its willingness to emerge into the daylight and show itself to the world. It was not clandestine. In practice, that means most of its videos take place in identifiable, and often identified, locations, and many feature subjects and spokesmen without masks, committing atrocities with pride and impunity in a world where they are heroes.
This world, available to us largely through the videos Zelin has curated, is a fantasyland stage-managed by ISIS. On that basis alone, some might dismiss the videos as worse than useless. But remember that the fantasy, not the reality, is what motivated tens of thousands of men, women, and children to migrate to Syria and Iraq. These videos, along with private messages from friends, lured people over in defiance of all sense, rationality, decency, and instinct for self-preservation. The notion that we know too much about this fantasy, rather than too little, strikes me as incurious at best. Those preparing to fight the next terrorist movement need to understand what inspired the last one.
Finally, this collection is useful for intelligence gathering. Over the years, analysts in media and government have spotted details, small and large, exploitable for investigation. A video of a public execution allows you to see not just the victim but also the audience of civilians. Do they have mobile phones? Are their pant legs rolled up to mid-shin, in the Salafi style, or are the morality police getting lax and letting that rule slide? Once I saw an open-air restaurant in the background of an execution. The prices on the menu board told me what currency was being used and, by comparison with earlier prices, the rate of inflation. Is the executioner’s accent Syrian? Iraqi? Sudanese? French? Still more valuable are the faces. Foreigners rarely appear in the videos, except intentionally. But now and then a video provides proof that a hunted man is alive and in Syria, rather than dead or on a mission elsewhere.
Zelin could password-protect his site or force users to register. (I’d like to see the “Click to accept” boilerplate. “Taking pleasure in these videos is a violation of Jihadology.net’s Terms of Service and grounds for account termination.”) But there’s a cost to restricting this content only to those willing to prove that they are academics, journalists, or law enforcement. Swarms of hobbyists and amateurs on social media have provided valuable scrutiny of the images coming out of Syria. These outsiders would, I believe, fear that registration is a prelude to suspicion, surveillance, and arrest. (In some countries, proposed legislation would make viewing this material a crime in itself.) We need many eyes, not few.
Jihadist propaganda has been all but extinguished from YouTube, and that’s beneficial both practically (fewer persuaded to fight for ISIS) and morally (no one deserves to have his execution viewed for entertainment). But a side effect of the hunt-and-delete process is that it makes propaganda more forbidden, more titillating, more cool. Jihadology, with its spareness and objectivity, handles this problem too: Nothing dulls the pleasure of a fetish more reliably than its total and unstigmatized availability. The continued operation of Jihadology is a boon for researchers and only modestly useful to our enemies. In the unlikely event that I, a non-Jew, hold a seder, Zelin is welcome. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not.
* The photo caption in this article originally misattributed the flag to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.