Mutilated corpses hang crucified in a public square. Dozens of men kneel blindfolded before being shot execution style. Bodies are casually tossed into a pit.
Ominous music plays in the background as the words “run, do not walk to ISIS land” scroll across the screen.
But this video is not another slickly produced campaign pumped out as a recruiting tool by Islamic State (IS) militants
This video was instead produced by the U.S. State Department. It appears to be part of an effort to turn up the volume of State’s “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign aimed at exposing “the facts about terrorists and their propaganda,” according to its Facebook page.
“Think again, Turn Away” operates as part of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which “openly engages in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali to counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation about the United States across a wide variety of interactive digital environments that had previously been ceded to extremists,” according to its website.
More recently, the center began activities in English, maintaining accounts on on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms.
The CSCC has been around since 2011, but the gruesome video marks a new approach in cyber engagement, particularly in English.
"CSCC’s linking to or citing of ISIL videos and other content is not a departure, but rather a practice CSCC has been using effectively for several years, particularly in Arabic,” said a senior State Department official. “CSCC uses brief clips of terrorist propaganda in much of its messaging across various languages in order to contrast the gap that exists between ISIL rhetoric and reality.
“It serves to clearly demonstrate the hypocrisy of an organization claiming to defend Muslims, yet at the same time slaughtering Muslims, destroying their cultural patrimony, and depleting their economic wealth," the official said.
Jytte Klausen, a Brandeis University professor and founder of the Western Jihadism Project, which focuses on jihadi activities in the West, said there has been a change in how State is using the violent videos in English.
“It’s fair to say that there’s a new focus on Westerners,” she said, referring to would-be jihadists thinking about going to Syria or Iraq. “They’re trying to peel off this whole jihad tourist contingent.”
Klausen said State’s previous “softball approach appealing to ‘true’ Islam has not had much effect,” against IS’s successful media push “depicting a cozy life in the new caliphate.”
Erin Saltman of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism think tank, said State’s new tactic represents the recognition of the threat of homegrown extremists, a fear stoked by recent revelations of Americans and Europeans traveling to Syria to fight alongside extremists.
Saltman said the video uses “shock treatment” to turn people away from IS.
“They are in essence fighting fire with fire which is something we do not see any other Western democracy actively doing at the moment,” Saltman said.
The Internet may be one of most effective places to counter extremist messaging.
“One cannot imagine the rise of the jihad movement without the Internet,” said Yigal Carmon founder and president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “You can only fight them on the Internet, and show them that it leads to the killing of Muslims.”
In a March 2014 interview with VOA, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who runs the CSCC, said “the rise of the Internet has been a boon for extremists” and that it was important to “push back against this poison al-Qaida seeks to propagate throughout the world.”
Counterterrorism experts say that until recently, the U.S. had ceded the cyberspace conversation to extremists, opting instead to lurk or disrupt extremists’ online activities.
The video “makes real the kind of carnage they impose and takes the varnish off their message,” said William Braniff, the executive director of the University of Maryland’s center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Still, Saltman said State’s efforts will not likely have any effect on someone who has already been radicalized, but that it could possibly be effective on someone who is still on the fence.
Experts say that measuring the effectiveness of the video campaign will be difficult.
Saltman also said that some of the images State is putting out could “play into Islamist extremist propaganda.”
Another possible pitfall is possibly causing more anger.
But “to not highlight the bankruptcy of what [IS is] doing would be a greater mistake,” Braniff said.
VOA's State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns contributed to this report.