[There was a video here]
The propaganda that flows out of the Islamic State is typically of two kinds: Extreme, shocking violence (lynchings, shootings, stabbings, beheadings), or boring scenes of feigned domestic stability (a hummus factory, crops, a bus stop). But the fitness routines of ISIS constitute a third, bizarre form of media terror. Should we be scared of them?
There’s nothing intimidating about gymnastics, and yet, I can’t help but feel a little freaked out by the above video, released earlier this spring by an ISIS media office. It’s not the first workout video the militants have published, but it’s still a marked departure from the standard video fare of grisly executions, GoPro battlefield footage, religious ramblings, and suicide-bomber goodbyes. Where other ISIS productions have stated simply You should fear us because we are bloodthirsty or You should fear us because we’ll drive an explosive-laden car into your barracks in the middle of the night, this video says Fear us because we’re in fantastic shape.
The feats of strength you see above do seem to be exactly that. Jihadis are seen cranking out crunches, squats, and toe-touches. They swing across monkey bars while getting shot at by an instructor. They’re also kicked in the balls and made to literally jump through hoops as part of “exercises” that seem as much (if not entirely) for show as they are for fitness.
And when you see one trainee inexplicably do a backflip off a short tower while wearing his own GoPro, only to have the video cut to a choreographed gun-dance routine that’s as much jeté as jihadi, it might be hard to take this fully seriously.
I mean, really!!
To evaluate what exactly we’re dealing with here in terms of brawn, I spoke with two fitness professionals. The first, a Washington, DC-based trainer, would only speak on the condition of anonymity so as not to connect his employer to any discussion of ISIS. “Overall,” he told me, “the level of athleticism and violence demonstrated there is terrifying.” At the start of the video, “until the guns come out (literally) and people started getting kicked in the genitals, this is a fairly typical CrossFit warm-up: squats, windmills, jogging, and so on.” Which is to say, this is the sort of workout the yuppie Americans ISIS so detests would eat up: “If they were here in the city instead of fully robed and in the middle of the desert, all this would be $300 a month, unless you had GroupOn.” The “choreo” on display is “simple, but well executed...the content is functionally the same as you’d get in an advanced parkour class.”
Later components of the workout are “basically [from] a Tough Mudder...typical entry fee of $200, without t-shirt.” In sum, “the total value of this workout on a monthly basis in Washington, D.C. is well over $1000,” though he noted “there seems to be a lot of hitting, of the abs, of the legs, of the pelvis region...I don’t know that the latest research in physical fitness science would back this much hitting.”
Sami Fanik, a Brooklyn-based trainer, echoed this last sentiment: “I don’t understand why they keep hitting [their] abs with sticks and shit.” But it wasn’t just the canings that Fanik found suspect: “Some of their stretching is just going hurt their lower backs rather then help,” and their “sit-ups are very old-school and do more damage to the back then help.” Unlike me, Fanik was completely unimpressed by the GoPro backflip, describing it as “random and for show, nothing else.” But he makes a good point, overall: “training is all about working out for the sport or for the action soon to take place—I don’t know what jumping through a circle flame will help them do.” This ignores the propaganda value of sweet flips and flame-crawls, but suggests that perhaps we don’t need to be as afraid of these men as they’re hoping we will be. They may be practicing some of the same aspects that a Bethesda triathlete might enjoy in a CrossFit gym, but they’re spending at least as much time wasted on silly stunts. That is, unless Operation Inherent Resolve ends in a JSOC versus ISIS episode of Syrian Ninja Warrior, in which case, I fear, all is lost.
But should you be scared by this video? It’s unnerving not just because they’re ostensibly training with a vision of someday doing somersaults and high-kicks as blood runs through the streets of Berlin, Rome, and New York. It’s particularly unnerving because it’s so thoroughly strange, an uncanny combination of violent athleticism and patent silliness. A man who can sprint towards you with a knife across a great distance is scary, but the man crazy enough to do a backflip first is even scarier. There’s no debating that the ISIS exercise regime is goofy in its impracticality, and makes its adherents look sort of like goons who think they’re in a Zack Snyder flick. The D.C.-based trainer too remarked that “this seems more like fighting you’d do on a movie set than in real life.” But it’s easy to forget, from our Western office seats, that propaganda videos are intended to recruit new waves of young men who want to get kicked in the balls, hit in the abs, and jump through flaming hoops on their way to the establishment of a blood-soaked global caliphate. One of the greatest strengths of ISIS has been its ability to give terrorism sex appeal: Not since romantic images of 1980s freedom-fighting in Afghanistan turned middle-class men into mujahideen has an extremist group so effectively wielded “Jihadi Cool.”
So, yes, backflips and all the rest of the physical, absurd-looking gratuitousness in the workout video is laughable to us, but it’s not meant for us. It’s not meant for the men doing the flips, either—but if the hokey, movie-machismo reaches an alienated kid in a Paris suburb or depressed Algerian burg, it might just do its job. And that is what should scare you.