Small Wars Journal

Involuntary Fame: The Trend of Visual Exposure of Prisoners in Modern Conflicts

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 12:08am

Involuntary Fame: The Trend of Visual Exposure of Prisoners in Modern Conflicts

Jens Flinch Jørgensen


While western hostages around the world easily make headlines, the local prisoners in conflicts are less reported on and even less often identified. Yet, they serve as important tools of propaganda and deterrence when filmed and exposed on the internet. New conflicts tend to move further and further into the information and communication environment and the omnipresent smartphone and portable camera makes it easier than ever to publicize one’s goals, be it the spread of fear or panic, creating or maintaining a narrative, recruiting new members or reduce the fighting potential of the enemy. No matter the goal, the opportunities which information technology brings are highly taken advantages of by detainers, and prisoners of modern conflicts face new conditions and challenges. The tendency does not seem on retreat, regardless of the Geneva Conventions’ provisions and the breaches, which is exposed in some of the videos.

The article is divided into three parts each with a specific focus:

  • Under which circumstances are prisoners exposed.
  • To what extent are prisoners exposed by state actors and non-state actors.
  • Which immediate messages does the detainer wish to spread by exposing prisoners.

The conflicts in Syria (including the conflict spilling over into Iraq) and Ukraine serve as the cases of the study. They have both been chosen because they appear to be showcase examples of modern conflicts and because there is an abundance of material that relates to the conflicts available online. The term prisoner is used in this article regardless of the judicial status of the person in question. This does not mean that they are prisoners of war, as the term ‘prisoner’ is used as a catch all for both detainees, hostages etc. Furthermore, only persons who have been actively involved in the armed conflict have been included in the study. Obviously, the study does not consider the treatment of prisoners when not being filmed.

How it Was Done

The project is based on a structured search for videos depicting prisoners on several online sites in English, Arabic and Russian. A total of 73 videos (39 from Ukraine and 34 from Syria) have been selected for further analysis. The selection has been based partly on the popularity of the videos, choosing those with most online views, and partly on selection criteria related to tags of the videos. Furthermore, it has been endeavored to collect videos of diverse character, in order to present a truthful picture of the different scenarios in which the prisoners are exposed. 

These types of videos are often removed and therefore the links may not be up to date. The selections for the project were performed during November 2017. In the following, the three main findings identified in the project are presented.

How are the Prisoners Exposed?

There are five transverse scenarios, which unfold in the videos, and they all apply for both Syria and Ukraine. They are respectively: acts of violence or humiliation towards the prisoner; acts of mercy or show of ‘detention by the book’; exposure during interview, questioning or press conferences; public exposure; and execution of the prisoner. Some of the videos contain more than one scenario. Amnesty reports of beatings, torture and otherwise ill-treatment of prisoners by actors in both Syria and Ukraine, and it is revealed in many of the videos as well. When beating or humiliation is filmed in Syria, it is usually a bit chaotic and random, as it was filmed in the heat of the moment, which might be the case. Examples include a video of Syrian government soldiers riding detained members of the Free Syrian Army as they were animals and a video of members of the Free Syrian Army beating and ill-treating Shabiha soldiers. These kinds of videos coming from actors in Ukraine are more deliberate and with a purpose other than pure excitement. This is expressed in a video starring the separatist commander Givi mistreating detained Ukrainian soldiers. The video clearly tries to demonstrate Givi’s toughness and serves as deterrence. However, as much as the actors show acts of violence and humiliation, equally acts of mercy and humanity are shown. The prisoner receiving medical treatment or the immediate insignificant act of giving the prisoner water or a cigarette, may express mercy it, as done by Peshmerga when detaining a fighter from Islamic State. It is worth noticing that videos from Ukraine and Syria showing mercy or humanity are either produced, made by photojournalists or seam planned.

A significant difference between the two conflicts is the use of execution videos. Executions of prisoners published online are more characteristic for Syria. Whether that is an indication of more executions taken place is not possible to say, maybe it is just the consequence of the many execution videos released by one actor, being Islamic State. Islamic State does not seem to intend to legitimize itself as a state or an actor in regards to international laws and the international society, but rather that they are divinely entitled to rule. This may be the crucial difference of why Islamic State clearly does not seek to comply with the international humanitarian law. The only selected execution video from Syria, which is not made by Islamic State is made by the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army. It shows a public execution of eight detained government soldiers by shots to the head and body, and resembles an act of revenge, assessed from the executioners’ excitement. Only one execution video is selected from Ukraine and it resembles the ideas behind the videos from Islamic State. The video is made by the pro-Kiev voluntary Azov battalion, and contains an element as brutal and a message as clear as the ones from the Islamic organisation. However, because of the lack of control, which the Ukrainian government exercise over the volunteer battalions, the video cannot be counted as a publication by the Ukrainian forces.

The most frequent scenario, among the collected videos, is the act of questioning or interviewing the prisoner, which counts for almost half the videos from both conflicts. In some of them, the prisoner even stars in a press conference or in a nationwide TV show. Press conferences are tools used mainly by the separatists in Ukraine, exposing detained Ukrainian soldiers declaring their mistake and regrets of participating in the conflict. Furthermore, public exposure is also a tool frequently used by the separatists, when parading detained Ukrainian soldiers through the city streets for everyone to watch. Looking to Iraq, interviews and public exposure are also seen in the Iraqi TV show ‘In the Grip of the Law’, which “stars” detained Islamic State fighters. The show is an example of a state approved (or at least accepted) exposure of prisoners. Three other examples of Iraqi forces detaining Islamic State fighters have been identified.

Overall, the frequency of each scenario is the same for the two conflicts and the only significant difference is to be found in the use of execution videos. However, Islamic State accounts for most of this type of videos in Syria, and it is therefore not possible to say that the Syrian actors generally have more tendencies to produce this kind of video but may rather be a question of one specific actor’s deviating use of information technology.   

A Tool of State or Non-State Actors? Or Both?

There is a clear difference between how state actors and non-state actors use videos of prisoners. Generally, it can be concluded that non-state actors use videos more frequently and random while state actors are limited, controlled and calculated in their use, and the videos often have a very specific purpose. However, state actors may have different attitudes towards the use of prisoner videos, as the Syrian government does not systematically make use of it while the Iraqi and Ukrainian authorities and forces are more prone to the use. Why that is may depend on the specific situation, which is present in the specific country. The few videos found for this research showing Syrian government forces handling prisoners, are showing either heavy beatings or public humiliation where the prisoners are either exposed and ridiculed in public or literally treated as animals. The videos seem like they are either recorded when the detainers are unaware of the filming or the recording is impulsive and made “for the fun of it”, and therefore to some extent out of the Syrian government’s control. The absent videos from the Syrian government may be linked to the fact that it is in an armed conflict with parts of its population, and therefore may not have a need to expose prisoners, as they already established their ability and actions in the beginning of the revolution[i]. As contrast, the Iraqi authorities and forces are using (or have at least accepted the use), videos of Islamic State members like in the aforementioned TV show. The exposure of Islamic State members may be a way to gain acknowledgement for handling the common societal problem, being Islamic State, and at the same time reduce the fighting potential of the enemy.

The Ukrainian authorities have the same approach as the Iraqi, as they use the videos specifically to expose one group, being alleged Russian soldiers, presumably in order to prove a point. If it is proven that Russia is intervening in the conflict, a fact that has already been proven, it gives the Ukrainian government some inherent rights in regard of international laws and regulations, and therefore exposure of detained Russian soldiers serves as an important tool. Furthermore, by fighting the Russian disinformation and creating a narrative of the enemy being much more than just the separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk may be useful in order to affect the perception of the people and the international society. A final important note is that none of the state actors make use of prisoner videos randomly; they all have a specific and targeted purpose. The few videos that deviate seem to be made by government soldiers in the heat of the moment and as an act of excitement.

Turning to non-state actors the use of videos is erratic. Unified non-state groups seem to be making unanimous use of prisoner videos, while groups consisting of various fractions tend to send conflicting messages. Islamic State and the Kurdish are examples of groups sending consistent messages with clear and unified goals. Islamic State makes an effort to justify their existence and deter enemies, while the Kurds are relying on the message of mercy and humanity. Contrary, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tries to create a narrative of themselves as moderate and humane freedom fighters while denouncing Assad and his government and at the same time releases videos of random executions of government soldiers. The FSA is a merge of many different groups, and even if they did create unifying principles in 2012, it seems clear that FSA is not a unified force with clear commando channels but more of a loose network, working with different agendas and objectives. The same seems to be the case for the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, as they try to create a narrative of themselves as normal people legitimately fighting for their freedom and against the oppression of the Ukrainian government and at the same time expose detained Ukrainian soldiers in humiliating ways, including beatings and inhumane treatment in order to deter their enemies.

For What Purpose?

There seems to be two main objectives with the prisoner videos. The first objective is to deter enemy and affect political and military decisions, by demonstration of power, influence and ruthlessness. Deterrence is expressed by executions, beatings, humiliation and demonstration of military skills and power. This is applicable for both state and non-state actors, but mostly exercised by non-state actors. The theorists of modern warfare and conflicts generally perceive non-state actors as the weak part, as stressed by the theory of asymmetric warfare amongst others[ii]. If this is considered the case, the explanation may be that they have a greater need for deterring their opponent and reduce the enemy’s fighting potential by publishing the message through channels reaching a broad crowd, which social network sites have the potential of doing.  

The other objective is to create a narrative of the sender as being the good and the opposition as being the bad in the conflict. It is done in two ways, either by denouncing or condemning the opponent by displaying it as evil, criminal, fascist, infidel, terrorist, violator of international law or what else the enemy of the specific actor is. Or by exalting one’s self as being a freedom fighter, fighter for a holy course or ideology, or fighter of law and justice.

The collected videos reveal a very significant trend amongst the Ukrainian separatists, which is not to be found among the selected videos from any other actor in the two conflicts. The intended purposes of publishing prisoner videos are sometimes expressed through portrayal of a specific individual. Prisoner videos starring the separatist commanders Givi and Motorola serves as deterrence, as they depicts the commanders as ruthless and powerful leaders, in who’s custody no adversary wishes to find himself in. In the case of Motorola, the portrayal which is bought and passed on by the Ukrainian side. Contrary, prisoner videos starring the political leaders Vladimir Kononov and Alexander Zakharchenko are serving as portraits of the good and fair leaders, who just fight for the rights of their own people.  


Based on the findings it seems fair to assume that the exposure of prisoners online is used as a tool to shape modern conflicts. The treatment of prisoners are publicly shown and documented through the videos and they have a potential of reaching a large audience because of the increased possibilities, which information technology brings to modern belligerents. Furthermore, it seems clear that there is a difference when detained by a state actor or a non-state actor: the latter is the one making use of the possibility the most frequent but is also the one being least predictable in regard of the use. The former may not even make use of visual exposure, but when done, it is controlled and calculated. The prisoner videos serve as deterrence, justification or condemnation with the objectives of decreasing the enemy’s fighting potential or change/maintain the narrative, which speaks to one’s advantage, and the prisoners are treated accordingly.

If detained in a modern conflict, one must prepare oneself for public exposure reaching far and wide and for serving as a powerful tool in regard of achieving specific objectives. One could become involuntarily famous.

End Notes

[i] Lina Chawaf, Editor-in-Chief at Radio Rozana, Syria. Skype interview 15.11.2017.

[ii] Thornton, R. (2008). Asymmetric Warfare. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.1-24.


About the Author(s)

Melanie Sofia Hartvigsen is an academic intern at the Danish Army Intelligence Center. She is an MSc student in International Security and Law, University of Southern Denmark.

Jens Flinch Jørgensen is an intelligence analyst in the Danish Army Intelligence Center with a special focus on issues related to hostages and captivity. He holds a M.Sc. in Geography and is a reserve Captain.