Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Burning outside
AMMAN, JORDAN - Relatives of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, who was captured by ISIL militants in Syria, protest in front of Royal palace in Amman, Jordan, on January 28, 2015. He was tragically murdered by burning soon after [Jamal Nasrallah/EPA]

Reporter’s notebook - analysing the video of a brutal murder

I spent a week watching a sickening video of the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive by ISIL. Here’s how I set about verifying its contents and how I coped

 

The Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was shot down on December 24, 2014, near Raqqa, Syria and captured by IS after landing in the river Euphrates. He was burned alive on either January 3 or 8, 2015 - it still isn’t clear which - at an old Assad security site near the Euphrates outside Raqqa and it was filmed in a high-production video titled “Healing the Believers’ Chests.” The video was released on February 3, 2015, first as stills and clips via ISIL-linked Twitter accounts, then fully on YouTube.

I investigated this video for a week. Here’s why and how I did it.

Burning 4
AMMAN, JORDAN: The father of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh reads a statement in front of Royal palace in Amman, Jordan, on January 28, 2015. The family of al-Kasasbeh pleaded with the government to strike a deal to safe his life, but he was burned to death only days later. [Jamal Nasrallah/EPA]

I’m a master’s student in investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Every year, the students in this programme are given the opportunity to work with the investigative journalism programme “Uppdrag Granskning” (Mission Investigate) on SVT, the Swedish state television service. We worked directly with Fredrik Laurin, a journalist and special projects editor at SVT. He, together with the head of our master’s programme, Ulla Säterie, assigned each of us to a group based on our skill sets. Because of my background in film, I was put in a group that was assigned with the task of watching ISIL (ISIS) videos and helping UG modernise their storytelling. What I didn’t know when I signed up for this was that I’d be watching some of the most horrific footage I’ve ever seen.

Once we began working, we were given individual tasks to share between us. During the first week of the project, one of the members of my group watched documentaries on ISIL, while another was focused on a “side-task” of looking into WhatsApp messages between IS fighters and their family members. I took the task of investigating the video of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive. The video is titled “Healing of the Believers’ Chests” – and “video” is an understatement – it is more of a movie, about an hour and a half in length, with high quality production and state-of-the-art graphics. It took money and skill to make this video, and it was my job to find out everything about it: who made it, where it was made, how it was distributed, and whatever else I could find.

Knowing that he was going to be burned alive made me sicker to my stomach than the burning itself

 

I began by simply watching the video. The first time I watched it, I decided to do so from start to finish, no matter how difficult it might be for me. The video consists of an “interview” with al-Kasasbeh detailing Jordanian/coalition military strategies against ISIL (including specific plane and tech details), and him giving the names of his air force colleagues. It goes on to feature him being burnt alive. 

Throughout the video, highly produced graphics support the details given by al-Kasasbeh (graphics of planes, bombs, maps and more). At the end of the video the names, locations, and workplaces of Jordanian pilots are listed, and a reward is offered for their capture and killing.

Burning 3
AMMAN, JORDAN - The wife (right) and sister (centre) of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, who was captured by ISIL militants in Syria, weep as they protest in front of the Royal palace on January 28, 2015 [Jamal Nasrallah/EPA]

Knowing that he was going to be burned alive made me sicker to my stomach than the burning itself. In the video, he seemed unaware of what was going to happen, until after they poured the gasoline on him, where you can see the change in his eyes. I decided to get a therapist during this time, to be able to talk about what I was watching, and how it made me feel. This helped me sleep at night. I also talked a lot with my teachers and classmates. While I couldn’t tell my girlfriend what I was working on, I could at least tell her I was working on a story about something horrible and forewarned her that my mood might suffer. I’m glad I had this experience as a student, where I had an entire network of support.

Looking for clues

After watching the video for the first time, I repeatedly watched it to look for clues - any detail that could tell me anything about the video’s origin and production. The first thing that caught my eye were two logos in the upper right corner of the video. There was, of course, the ISIL flag, but the ISIL flag kept being replaced by two other logos I’d never seen before. I took to the internet and searched for ISIL logos. I employed a method I use that I like to call the “click-through method” - I click on a link after searching, and I keep clicking on links within those websites, never hitting the back button until I find something interesting. While extremely time consuming, this has worked a lot for me in the past, so I thought it would work well in this situation, and after only a couple of hours, it did. As I was clicking through, I happened upon an academic paper about ISIL propaganda. In this paper was an entire section devoted to ISIL logos, and I found the logos from the video.

I decided to get a therapist during this time, to be able to talk about what I was watching, and how it made me feel

 

The logos in the video told me two things: the video was produced at the ISIL central media office, and it was produced by the Al-Furqan foundation. One could say it was a “co-production” between these two media arms of IS. Having learned where it was produced, I was then able to learn more about ISIL media production. There are a few reasons why ISIL is able to create such high-quality videos, but one I found very interesting was that some of their producers went to film school in Australia. This particular video, however, was most likely produced by the ISIL spokesperson at the time, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. 

In an interview I found, an ex-IS fighter who was present during the filming of the burning identified al-Adnani in the video. This fighter also explained that there was a crew of five people involved in the filming, with four separate cameras to capture different angles. The sophistication of the film surprised me at first, but after hearing this I was no longer surprised - it only confirmed my suspicion that ISIL had a huge amount of resources at the time.

Burning 5
AMMAN, JORDAN - Jordanian children light candles near posters depicting Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh during a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the family of Kasasbeh, who was burnt alive by ISIL [Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

Now that I knew who had made the film, I needed to find out where it was filmed, as this was extremely important to the SVT editor, Fredrik. Having already cited local activists Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS) in my research, I decided to look to their articles for answers. I employed my click-through method again and, this time, it took me a couple of days.

Finally, I reached an article published by Middle East Eye that cited RIBSS in identifying the location of the video. I double checked their location with the data I already had, and the video itself, and it was a match. But I also found something else interesting. According to RIBSS, the video was filmed directly outside an ISIL media office, and in my research I found that the ISIL central media office was rumoured to be in Raqqa. My gut told me that this office where the video was filmed was, in fact, the central media office the whereabouts of which have never been confirmed. Unfortunately, I couldn’t prove this before my time on the project ended.

The question of ‘Why?’

After a week of working on this specific task, I had found the “who, what, when, how, and where” of the video. The only question that remained was “why?” Of course, the explanation is the video itself - it was made to rally fighters to find more pilots. It was also a message to those who oppose ISIL, stirring up fear. 

Burning 6
AMMAN, JORDAN - Jordan's Queen Rania holds a picture of recently executed Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, with the words in Arabic reading 'Muath is a martyr of right', during a march after Friday prayers in downtown Amman on February 6, 2015. [Reuters/Petra News Agency]

I believe ISIL "achieved" what it set out to do with this video, and the question of "why" should be answered with that. But the question still remains - why would anyone ever burn another human being alive?

I think back to the interview with the fighter who was there at the time. He seemed remorseful, but is remorse closure? Is Muath al-Kasasbeh’s family able to live with the explanation that their son and brother was burned alive for the sake of propaganda? I concluded for myself that there is no “reasonable” explanation - I will never get a satisfying answer to this question.

As a journalist, I look at images and videos that turn my stomach every week. I believe I have built up a certain tolerance for violence

 

After my time investigating the video, I worked on other tasks for the project. I found an academic in Spain who was in hiding by getting his office’s address from a business register and using Google Street View to locate it. Then I focused on helping SVT with their storytelling by explaining to them what they do well and what they can improve on for a younger digital audience. 

Since then, I have worked on a number of other projects, some that were just as heavy emotionally. As a journalist, I look at images and videos that turn my stomach every week. I believe I have built up a certain tolerance for violence. However, no matter what I see these days, I will never forget the look on Muath al-Kasasbeh’s eyes in “Healing the Believers’ Chests.” I feel for this man and his family -  I can only imagine what they have gone through, and I hope he rests in peace.

 

More Articles

How to cover major sports events

With the World Cup Qatar 2022 in full swing, the fourth part of our series on sports journalism focuses on how to cover major sporting events

Younes
Younes El Kharashi Published on: 1 Dec, 2022
How do sports journalists find and report the news?

In the third of our special series on sports journalism, we focus on the best ways to find and report sports news - from nurturing your sources to writing news stories

Younes
Younes El Kharashi Published on: 29 Nov, 2022
How to get started in sports journalism

In the second part of our special series on sports journalism, we explore the ways in which sports journalists can make a start in their careers

Younes
Younes El Kharashi Published on: 24 Nov, 2022
Sports journalism is no ‘easy life’

In the first of our special series of articles focusing on sports journalism, we examine the wide range of skills and ethical knowledge it takes to be a great sports reporter

Younes
Younes El Kharashi Published on: 22 Nov, 2022
Connecting continents - the trials and tribulations of diaspora journalists

THE LONG READ: The tireless work undertaken by diaspora journalists to change narratives about their homelands and to build bridges between communities still goes largely unacknowledged

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Nov, 2022
The common struggles of female journalists around the world

Female journalists from different regions speak out

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 1 Nov, 2022
Al Jazeera Investigations - the making of the Labour Files

An Al Jazeera investigation into the running of the UK’s Labour Party has revealed evidence of an ‘Orwellian’ smear campaign against its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a ‘hierarchy’ of racism within the party and even the hacking of journalists. Here’s how it came about 

Phil
Phil Rees Published on: 19 Oct, 2022
'If women are dying as a result of it, then I should report about it' - telling the untold stories of Cameroon

Journalists like Comfort Mussa, based in Cameroon, say that seeking out the untold stories of real people and having the bravery to cover taboo subjects are essential to their work

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 3 Oct, 2022
The trials, tribulations and irreplaceability of political cartoonists

How political cartoons have evolved in recent decades and are now shaping public discourse in southern Africa

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 1 Sep, 2022
‘I had to work for free’ - life as a disabled journalist in Cameroon

Working as a journalist is not easy for people with disabilities in Cameroon - many of whom are forced to work as volunteers for years to ‘prove’ themselves able to do the job

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 25 Aug, 2022
Navigating Taliban rule as a YouTuber - one year on

For the YouTubers who stepped into the shoes of journalists who fled following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the message is clear - broadcast what we tell you or be closed down

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 18 Aug, 2022
‘We have to walk miles to cover the news’ - journalism in Sri Lanka

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been widely covered by international media. But what is life like for journalists in the country right now?

Abeer Khan Published on: 7 Aug, 2022
‘No less than a fight for survival’ - life for mobile journalists in India

THE LONG READ: Mobile phones have made a career in the media more accessible to independent journalists. But they have also made it easier to exploit them

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 2 Aug, 2022
When covering refugee stories makes you a figure of hate

A wave of anti-migrant sentiment is gripping South Africa and those journalists covering it, who are migrants themselves, have become a particular target

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 28 Jul, 2022
A short history of ‘click-bait’ journalism

From the ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835, ‘Yellow Journalism’ has been around longer than you might imagine. But can it survive forever?

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 26 Jul, 2022
How do journalists work under information blockades?

THE LONG READ: Internet blockades are used by governments to stifle dissent, unrest and even the reporting of war. We take an in-depth look at this phenomenon and highlight ways journalists can carry on working regardless

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Saliq Parvaiz Published on: 7 Jul, 2022
Should artists have a say about who gets to review their work?

ANALYSIS: Sometimes journalists and media organisations need to consider who should cover certain issues in order to improve reporting - as coverage of Indigenous affairs in Canada shows

Haroon Khalid
Haroon Khalid Published on: 2 Jul, 2022
Virtual reality in the newsroom - placing us in the middle of the story

Journalists can use virtual reality to get a much clearer view of what is happening on the ground during conflict or other major events. This is how it works

Hadeel Arja Published on: 23 Jun, 2022
Why are so many journalists being killed in Bangladesh?

A decade after the brutal murders of a prominent journalist couple in Dhaka, the killers have still not been brought to justice - they remain at large along with those responsible for the deaths of many other journalists

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 20 Jun, 2022
‘I still have nightmares’ - reporting on hate crimes in India

A handful of brave journalists have taken on the task of documenting and exposing hate crimes - often at great personal cost

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 14 Jun, 2022
Caught between warring factions - life as a journalist in Cameroon

Cameroon’s anglophone crisis has resulted in large parts of the country becoming no-go zones for reporters who must find other ways to do their jobs

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 8 Jun, 2022
'We are not scared; we will tell our stories' - introducing Somalia’s first women-only newsroom

Braving threats from Al Shabaab as well as disapproval from their own, often patriarchal communities, six pioneering women have set up their own news agency in Somalia

Abdullahi Mire
Abdullahi Mire Published on: 1 Jun, 2022
‘Like walking on a tightrope’ - navigating a career as a journalist in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Through a series of in-depth interviews with journalists in Vietnam, our writer - who remains anonymous for security reasons - paints a picture of censorship and journalists facing fines and even prison for mentioning ‘toxic’ subjects

headshot
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 12 May, 2022
‘It takes courage to be a journalist in India’ - charting the collapse of press autonomy

THE LONG READ: With a rising number of journalists in India receiving ‘summons’ from the police and even finding themselves in prison just for doing their jobs, we ask - why has the profession come under so much pressure in recent years?

Abeer Khan Published on: 21 Apr, 2022