The Islamic State (IS) group has released a new propaganda video featuring the British hostage John Cantlie in the Syrian city of Aleppo, on the same day as the group withdrew some of its militants from areas northeast of that city.
The eleven-and-a-half-minute video, released on the evening of February 9, is titled From Inside Halab [the Arabic word for Aleppo] and is in the same format as previous videos presented and narrated by Cantlie. Like previous videos, it bears the logo of the Islamic State group's media wing, Al-Hayat and is part of an ongoing propaganda attempt by the Islamic State group to portray itself as having control not just over vast swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, but also of important population centers.
From Inside Halab's release comes just over a month after Cantlie appeared in a video report from the IS-held Iraqi city of Mosul. Cantlie says that From Inside Halab, is the last one "in this series," possibly an indication that the captive photojournalist may make or be coerced to make others for the IS group but also a chilling reminder that the Islamic State group could kill the British hostage at any time.
The aim of the video, Cantlie says, is to see whether "all this bombing and all this destruction [in Aleppo] has even slowed down the advance of the Islamic State."
Unsurprisingly, the key messages of the video are that the militant group's advance has continued unabated; that the Islamic State group is completely in control of the areas it has captured (or "liberated" as Cantlie puts it); and that the lands under Islamic State rule are thriving.
The video shows footage of a black flag flying over the Aleppo countryside as Cantlie describes the "advance and stretch" of the Islamic State group as "remarkable and breathtaking." In the Islamic State group's picture of a rural idyll, livestock "leisurely graze on lush green grass" while agricultural land "stretches as far as the eye can see" and feeds Aleppo's "thriving economy" including flour sold at "bottom, low prices."
Cantlie later accuses the United States of complicity with the Assad air force, saying that a U.S. drone flyover of the city of Al-Bab in northern Aleppo province preceded an Assad air strike on the town.
The video also addressed what Cantlie said was "one of the common accusations of the West," which is that "education will suffer," by showing footage of young boys studying Koran recital and Arabic in the town of Al-Bab.
The captive British photojournalist also speaks with a French militant in Al-Bab, who praises the recent fatal terrorist shootings at the offices of a satirical magazine and a kosher grocery store in Paris.
Although the video is apparently intended to give the impression that it is about Aleppo the city as well as Aleppo province, the footage is not actually shot in the city itself.
As Vice News reporter Aris Roussinos tweeted, "the video should have been called 'Near Halab'," and was most likely shot in the northeast of the province.
While the IS group clearly intended this video to give the impression that the militants control vast swaths of land in Aleppo province, the timing of its release undermines those messages.
On February 9, the same day as the video was released, the Islamic State group pulled some of its militants out of areas in northeastern Aleppo province. The withdrawal of some militants from the area comes after the Islamic State group has taken losses around Kobani.
Rumors and reports of the withdrawal began to circulate on anti-Islamic State social media linked to the rival faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) on February 9, which also mocked the Islamic State group for reporting, via the unofficial Russian-speaking media wing ShamToday, that the militants had retaken Kobani from the Kurds.
However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the IS group had redeployed its forces from northeastern Aleppo to reinforce the front lines in battles against Kurdish militias further east in Syria, near Kobani, a sign that the militant group is feeling overstretched after its defeat in that town.
The Reuters news agency cited a mainstream Syrian rebel group leader as saying that the withdrawals were "tactical" and not complete.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk