How Twitter Could Bring ISIS to Trial

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In the world of the Kardashians, an event is not just an event. Their lives emerge in an unfurling series of rumors, news reports, tweets, and official statements— and are then replayed on one of their shows, complete with teasers and recaps.

ISIS media strategists are using the Kardashian approach to publicize their efforts to destroy some of the world’s richest architectural sites—and that approach could also help in their eventual prosecution for war crimes.

A recent story in The Crime Report featured the concerns of the International Council of Museums and scholars like myself about the unfolding—and alarming—strategy of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to fund its activities through the black-market smuggling of treasures of antiquity.

Now it has become increasingly apparent that these activities are not only continuing, but expanding—often exploiting social media to achieve maximum shock value and attention. While ISIS (and of course the Kardashians) would be horrified by the analogy, Islamic State strategists are using very similar techniques to keep audiences interested in their actions: Rumors, followed by reports, followed by slickly produced videos showcasing various atrocities.

ISIS can circulate these materials to its own followers through the tens of thousands of Twitter accounts that produce supportive tweets. (Brookings Institute found at least 46,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts active in late 2014.) But ISIS needs the mainstream media to kindle curiosity in as-yet un-radicalized potential recruits. For a striking sample of ISIS use of video, click here.

We quickly grew wary of helping ISIS circulate graphic images of beheadings and burnings, realizing that publicizing them encourages ISIS to produce them. But there are certain ISIS videos that have played again and again in the last months: Unblurred, edited only to pick out and highlight their most destructive moments.

These are the images of the destruction of archeological sites—images of shattering sculptures and explosions tearing through ancient buildings. ISIS has manipulated the timing of the release of information about these destructions to spur media interest in just the same ways it does for its other atrocities—and uses our interest in them for the same propaganda goals.

ISIS forces gained control of the archeological site of Palmyra in late May. Media reports immediately began to speculate about Palmyra’s fate. Would ISIS destroy the surviving temples, colonnades and other buildings erected by the aristocracy of this fantastically rich city, an oasis on the caravan routes that brought silk, jade, spices, slaves, and other luxury goods from China and India through the Middle East and on to Rome? Or would they be content to simply loot its burials, including elaborate tomb towers with slots to house the burials of hundreds of family members and associates?

As reporting on these threats died down, ISIS revived interest by placing explosives throughout the ancient ruins in June. Then came the most careful, and most brutal, piece of the campaign.

On August 18, ISIS released images of the public beheading of the 83-year old retired chief of antiquities for Palmyra, Khalid al-Asaad. Five days later, just as this story left the front pages, reports began to circulate that ISIS had detonated explosives in the second-century Temple of Baalshamin. Two days after that, ISIS disseminated images of the explosion and its aftermath, making headline news once again.

According to Amr Al-Azm, a professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern history and former employee of the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, ISIS’ public destructions of antiquities are planned with the aim of “allowing ISIS to demonstrate its ability to act with impunity and illustrating the impotence of the international community to prevent the atrocities.”

These messages attract recruits, impressed by reports that bemoan the destruction and dwell on how powerless we are to stop it. Thus, while Twitter is attempting to disable ISIS-affiliated accounts, the media is spreading their propaganda for them.

But there’s another way to look at these images—as evidence. Theodor Meron, President of r the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, oversaw the prosecutions of several Serbian commanders who had ordered the destruction of cultural monuments in an attempt at cultural as well as physical genocide of their Bosniak opponents.

He told me that ISIS’ destructions similarly are war crimes that injure “all of humanity,” and emphasized that the “most urgent” of the steps needed to prepare for prosecutions is “the collection and preservation of evidence.”

Evidence has been hard to come by in previous prosecutions. Mere destruction is not enough, since artworks and significant buildings might be accidental victims of nearby attacks, or fall prey to opportunistic civilian looters, or be destroyed by soldiers without any definite orders.

But ISIS videos lay clear claim to their destruction. Hopefully, they will be playing again soon—in a courtroom.

In the meantime, let’s not react to them in the way that ISIS wants. After all, there are many surviving structures in Palmyra, and the Temple of Baalshamin was not the most well-known or the best preserved.

ISIS may continue the demolition if we continue reacting with proclamations of helplessness.

Editor’s Note: Watch Professor Thompson on this issue in the Criminal Justice Matters program, posted on YouTube.

Erin Thompson Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Music, John Jay College. Her website is She is the author of the forthcoming To Own the Past: How Collectors Reveal, Shape and Destroy History (Yale University Press). Her Twitter handle is @artcrimeprof. She welcomes readers comments.

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