Hedayah will be publishing a monthly blog series covering a range of different topics related to counter violent extremism (CVE). These blogs will highlight the latest trends and challenges faced by the CVE world and highlight topics that receive less attention in the international CVE space with a unique perspective. The authors of the blog posts will be Hedayah’s staff, Hedayah’s Fellows, and guest experts. The opinions expressed in the blogs are their own and not representative of Hedayah. We hope that these blogs will contribute to the conversation around CVE solutions, and push forward the quest for more research and innovation in the field.
WRITTEN BY DENIS SULJIC
While on his way to cause what the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern described as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”, Brenton Harrison Tarrant – an Australian born right-wing terrorist responsible for killing 51 people and injuring 40 in Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 – played a Serb nationalist song featuring Radovan Karadžić, a Bosnian-Serb indicted for genocide in Srebrenica against Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Much ink has been spilled in the discussion of Serbian nationalism and its inspiring elements driving radical right extremists the world over to commit terrorist acts, but experts have neglected the similarities of the role and impact of videos capturing the systematic executions of Muslims in the Bosnian War and the shootings at Al Noor Mosque in the Christchurch attack. The power of media and the viral video culture in the world of multimedia technology lies in its ability to dehumanize victims, radicalize, and drive others to emulate the violence. This short piece uses the context of the executions of Bosnian Muslims in Trnovo by the Serbian paramilitary unit and the Christchurch attack to shed light on the dehumanization of the victims through the filming of the killings and the cumulative extremism resulting as a consequence of the viral video sharing culture.
On June 1, 2005, video evidence from executions that took place on 16 and 17 of July in 1995, in Trnovo (about 90 miles from Srebrenica), was introduced at the Slobodan Milošević trial as a testimony to the involvement of Serbian police units in the Srebrenica genocide. The video shows the members of Serbian police, the Scorpions, executing six men, three of whom were under the age of 18, in the hills of Bosnia near the town of Srebrenica.[i] In the disturbing video, the six men were commanded to get out the truck, and as they are walking to their death into the endless fields, the soldiers are heard mockingly yelling, “Yalla, Yalla” – a colloquial Arabic word that means “Let’s go.” The unit members continue swearing and taunting the detainees saying they will only kill two of them and release the other four.[ii] At one point, the cameraman, who is involved in the mocking of the prisoners while recording the video, expresses disappointment that the camera’s battery is almost out and that he would have to return to the base to get a new one.[iii] One soldier orders the men to kneel, followed by a comment directed at the victims by one of his comrades: “just like that, do your prayer”[iv] – alluding at the motion that Muslims do when they are praying on their knees. The rare video went viral among the Scorpions and the underground of Serbian nationalist circles for years after the war.[v] When it first appeared in the public, it sparked outrage among Bosnian Muslims but also the Serbian people who continued to deny the involvement of Serbian paramilitary forces in the war. Besides the evidence of Islamophobic and deeply rooted Serbian ultra-radical ideological motives, the existence of the video is a testimony that the incident was more focused on the dehumanization of the victims by humiliation and intimidation as illustrated through the disturbingly playful behavior of the executioners throughout the videotape of the killings, than anything else.
It is not hard to deduce that Tarrant was inspired by the same ideology that led the Scorpions to kill the civilians in Trnovo, and sought to dehumanize the victims in Al Noor Mosque in a similar way. His live-streamed video of the shooting of Muslim worshippers peacefully praying on their knees in the same way that the Bosnian Muslims executed in Trnovo did – with a helmet-mounted camera – sent shockwaves across the world. Unsurprisingly, he admired Anders Breivik – an open devotee of Serb nationalists[vi] – and spent time studying the history of the Balkans and touring dozens of the cities in the region, including its popular historic sites.[vii] In his lengthy manifesto shared on the 8chan website known for its radical content, Tarrant paid homage to historic figures from the Balkan history; the similar Islamophobic rhetoric that was employed in the Bosnian War by Serb nationalists echoes throughout his manifesto. Moreover, the names of several Serb nationalist figures that fought against the Ottomans in the 14th century such as Stefan Lazar, a Serbian prince from the 14th century, and Miloš Obilić, a famous Serbian knight who was in the service of Prince Lazar, were scribbled on his weapons. The link to his live-stream video was first shared on the 8chan website, but then also YouTube and Twitter.[viii] The video and images of the shooting went viral. His fascination with the idea of “us versus them,” or what Dr. Samuel Huntington coined as “the clash of civilizations,” explains his obsession with Serbian nationalism and the extreme hatred against Muslims who are perceived as the “invaders.” This explains why at the beginning of his live-stream video he was listening to a Serb nationalist and anti-Muslim propaganda song called “Remove Kebab” in a language that he does not speak because the language and the quality of the song are less relevant as opposed to the anti-Muslim sentiment that it propagates. “Wolves are on the move from Krajina. Fascists and Turks, beware. Karadzic, lead your Serbs, let them see they fear no one,” the lyrics say. The “Turks”, of course, is a reference to Bosnian Muslims most of whom are descendants of people that willingly embraced Islam in great numbers.
The historical context of the rhetorical dehumanization of Bosnian Muslims and its link to the Christchurch attack is lucidly expounded elsewhere[ix] but more emphasis ought to be shifted toward the impact of such violent and grisly videos about which undoubtedly more can be said beyond this short piece. Video recorded dehumanization of victims and subsequent massacres provide the in-group followers with pleasure and arousal and sparks infuriation among the out-group members. Ultimately, it leads to the radicalization of both groups. The impact is further exacerbated through the desensitization of the violent acts when the videos make the killings appear like a fun activity or a videogame. For instance, while executing the Muslim men, the Scorpions are heard laughing and making jokes about the prisoners and express the importance of the massacre being recorded. Similarly, Tarrant used a helmet-mounted camera to record and live-stream his shooting which experts have compared to an illustration of an individual playing a first-person videogame. In the only comparative study of the psychological effects of videos produced by right-wing and Daesh inspired terrorists, Diana Rieger et al. found that such videos are generally utilized for the same purposes: 1) legitimization 2) propagation, and (3) intimidation.[x] While the first two categories are concerned with radicalizing the in-group members, the latter, intimidation, is directed toward the enemy. In the context of Trnovo executions and the Christchurch shootings, all of the three elements were present in some capacity.
Cumulative extremism resulting from these video recordings as the revered terrorism expert J.M Berger notes can serve as “a powerful tool to get people to emulate [the violence],” since “if somebody sees a video like this, [the Christchurch shootings] when you’re exposed to violence, it increases the possibility that you might be inclined to take up violence yourself.”[xi] For instance, the Poway synagogue shooter, John Earnest, tried to live-stream his attack on Facebook, and like Tarrant had played a musical playlist along with his shooting too, but fortunately, he failed.[xii] On the other hand, the Trnovo video triggered the support of many ultra-nationalist Serbs. One comment still existing on one of YouTube’s videos of the executions translated from the Serbian language into English says: “it’s nice to see them lined up like sardines.”[xiii] – highly resembling the “shitposting” culture[xiv] that many of the radical right adherents including Tarrant are part of. Numerous other, public and graphic YouTube videos from the Yugoslav Wars, are filled with comments exhibiting such hateful rhetoric. While in instances such as the Trnovo video it motivates the in-group members of the Balkan radical right adherents, it also triggers the out-group members, the Bosnian Muslims who upon viewing such gruesome killings (sometimes of their family members) and comments supporting them, also engage in hateful speech. One such comment says: “Serbs are something you can’t describe; such people shouldn’t LIVE!”[xv] A similar pattern occurred following Tarrant’s attack too. On the day of the shooting, the footage of the attack was seemingly endlessly shared on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and the 8chan website where Tarrant initially posted his manifesto; Tarrant was glorified by many. One Facebook comment by a user in search of the shooting video that was shared on Twitter says, “post it so we all get a laugh.”[xvi] Another remark that received 10 likes (including the “love” positive reaction) from a user who appears to have seen the video said, “wish I could buy him a beer, top job well done.”[xvii] The most frightening aspect of such comments is not necessarily their content but the normalization of the dehumanization of victims through taunting.
What made Tarrant’s video more successful than the videotape of the Scorpions, however, is the rapidity of video distribution on social media. And while the Trnovo executions video was released over a decade ago, it is still available online and continues to be widely shared. The power of such videos is their ability to mobilize people rapidly without providing them with much context. Indeed, this practice is not limited to right-wing extremists. Daesh fighters and other terrorists inspired by the ideology have also recorded their brutal beheadings[xviii] and battlefield actions.[xix] Experts have discussed in-depth the media strategy employed by Daesh[xx] and its importance, but more could be said about the viral video culture allowing for lightning-fast sharing of extremist material and its undeniable impact on reciprocal radicalization. More efforts need to be placed in controlling and monitoring this type of online content. It took Facebook nearly 30 minutes to realize that the Christchurch mass shooting was being streamed online.[xxi] YouTube and Twitter also struggled to remove the copies of the graphic video and images.[xxii] Before the videos were even identified from the platforms hundreds of viewers had already seen the shooting. The availability of gruesome videos from the Bosnian War alone, for instance, are plenty, and the damage caused by them is presumably eternal; so long they are present on social media they have the effect of polarizing the two communities. There seems to be a tendency by social media platforms such as YouTube to keep extremist and violent content active. Perhaps this is due to the presumption that many of such events have little effect on radicalization since they occurred decades ago. But Serbian ultra-nationalism in the Balkans, for instance, is alive and continues to gain momentum. So long as the Srebrenica massacre is denied as a genocide, a claim that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has already established[xxiii] and which has been upheld by the International Court of Justice in 2007,[xxiv] right-wing extremists will continue to derive inspiration from the region. Recent protests in Serbia where groups of men were chanting the names of convicted war criminals such as Ratko Mladić and celebrating the Srebrenica genocide[xxv] show that Western right-wing extremists have plenty of present inspiration to derive from in the region.
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