Al-Qaida’s arm in Syria, a group called Jabat al-Nusra, has just deployed a new weapon – a young British convert named Lucas Kinney.
Kinney, 26, is making videos for the group and he’s no stranger to filmmaking. His father is Patrick Kinney, is a well-known Hollywood assistant director who worked on such iconic films as Rambo, Braveheart, and the Indiana Jones series, among others.
The younger Kinney began appearing in slickly produced videos this month in a bid to help the al-Qaida affiliate recruit fighters to their cause. Among the things that set these latest productions apart is that Kinney’s focus not on America, but rather on the sins of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“You can see here behind me the remnants of homes of innocent Muslims,” he begins in a video he says was shot in the Syrian countryside outside Aleppo, where an attack by the Islamic State, or ISIS, had just taken place.
“The followers of the so-called Islamic State decided that in the middle of Ramadan that the best worship they could perform is to bomb the houses of innocent Muslims,” he says, calling on others to strike back at the Islamic State.
“Glad tidings to those who kill them. Tomorrow if you don’t stand up this could be your house,” he says as the camera pulls back to show the destruction behind him.
Rival Islamist Groups
Jabat al-Nusra, the group that claims to have produced the videos, is an al-Qaida affiliated group in Syria whose avowed goal is to topple the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
The Islamic State is more focused on its self-declared caliphate, and has been less active in battling Assad’s regime.
For that reason, some isurgents in Syria see al-Nusra as preferable to ISIS. Kinney and al-Nusra are trying to play upon those sentiments. Their strategy appears to be to release a series of on-the-ground videos that provide documentary proof of the many innocents ISIS is killing as it seeks to create a Muslim homeland.
The Islamic State has made clear that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their extreme interpretation of Islam is fair game and can be marked for death.
In the videos, Kinney is presented more like a documentarian touring a war zone than an al-Qaida propagandist trolling for recruits.
In one of the new videos, Kinney travels to a mosque he says is in the countryside outside of Aleppo, in northwest Syria. This is where the Islamic State is now clashing with Syrian regime forces. The mosque, Kinney says, was the target of an ISIS suicide attack. As the camera pans the room, you can hear people sweeping up glass.
“This is the scene now,” Kinney says, speaking into the camera and pointing to the blood on the floor. “Looking at all of this you can only imagine how it might have been, with I don’t know how many brothers were sitting here … Actually just from the force of the explosion here a number of the brothers were sent flying out of this window.”
A New Type Of Video
The videos are a departure for al-Nusra, which has never been known for its presence on social media or slick propaganda. It isn’t just the video’s sense of immediacy, or the fact that they are in English that set them apart from al-Nusra offerings in the past. Instead it is the videos’ cinematic quality.
“A lot of the way the video was shot, I kept thinking of Homeland,” says Will McCants, the director of the project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. “The way that they presented, his name or the location with computer type you’d see in Hollywood, for example, was quite striking.”
Kinney isn’t the first Westerner to emerge as the front man for a violent Islamist organization.
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s core leadership put a former heavy metal enthusiast from California named Adam Gadahn in charge of their Western propaganda efforts.
The group’s arm in Somalia, known as al-Shabab, made a young Alabama man named Omar Hammami their Western recruiter. He produced a series of jihadi rap music videos that were considered very effective in convincing Westerners to come to Somalia to fight there. And now al-Nusra appears to have chosen Kinney.
McCants, who has just published a book about ISIS, says Kinney’s video was very effective.
“As a viewer, to see him go into the mosque and react to the aftermath it really underscored the message that he was delivering,” he said. “The Islamic State is not doing what it is supposed to do, which is protect normal Sunni civilians. It is killing them and that is a key part of al-Nusra’s anti-ISIS message.”
Why Kinney decided to join al-Nusra is still a mystery.
His mother, who has been divorced from his father for more than a decade, told reporters that her son had, at one time, wanted to be a Catholic priest.
He had gone to live with his father in Vienna, she said, and she believes he was radicalized there.
Kinney’s father has not spoken publicly about his son.
Whatever drove Kinney to Syria and into the arms of al-Nusra, he’s now emerged as the first white convert to join the ranks of the group and he appears to be trying to convince other potential recruits that, compared with ISIS, al-Qaeda is relatively moderate.
“Honestly between the two groups ISIS has had much more fortune recruiting people and Jabat al-Nusra is trying to reverse that process,” said Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the program on extremism at George Washington University. “ISIS has attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters and al-Nusra is trying to offer an alternative.”
It is too early to tell how effective the new Kinney videos will be. ISIS followers, who tweet thousands of messages a day, have dismissed him on Twitter.