They're the baddies we love to hate. New (or relatively new) international outlaws whose very depravity has given them a special status. Could it be that some parts of the media are half in love with their almost picturesque excessiveness, eagerly pouncing on every "shock" video, rapidly launching them out into the social media world confident that they'll harvest ever-bigger viewer numbers? Atrocity exhibitions as clickbait.
I'm talking about Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS, IS, Da'esh). And I wonder if something slightly odd has happened in the past six months or so, whereby the attention devoted to the group in the media and political spheres has dwelt unceasingly on their "barbarity" but failed to actually convey the scale of the human rights crimes involved. Has the effect been to almost trivialise the reality?
So, on top of the execution videos, we've had stories about how Islamic State are going to produce their own passports and their own currency. We've had stuff about them marching on Rome and conquering London and flying their black flag over Buckingham Palace. Nothing is too outlandish when it comes to Islamic State. We're now getting incredible stories about how they're firing specially-adapted projectiles containing live scorpions so as to spread fear (and highly poisonous arthropods) into towns and villages under attack. It's akin to some of the reporting on North Korea, where sniggering stories about Kim Jong-un and the hermit state are more or less content to treat the whole thing as a bad-taste joke.
I think some of this is about cultural and religious differences. As I've said in an earlier blog, Islamic State's deadly serious ideology and its familiar iconography - the fluttering black flag, the masked figure making dire threats with a slightly "street" British accent, the dagger tucked into the waistband or the AK47 slung over the shoulder - has the effect of almost transfixing commentators in the West. These are the hyper-extremists, self-confirming their excessiveness in dramatic three-minute set pieces. Many people in the West view some of this through a sort of post-Chris Morris/Four Lions lens, meaning that the depravity of Islamic State is always in danger of being undercut by a perception that they're also slightly buffoonish.
I think it means that some people have stopped even trying to think about what it is the group are doing in northern Iraq or eastern and northern Syria. Instead, they're now automatically being treated as beyond-the-pale - and faintly amusing - modern folk devils - something like the Afghan Taliban during their late-90s rule, with their ban on girls' education, music and kite-flying.
Except, we should be paying proper attention. Because, as people like Patrick Cockburn has been saying for some time, and as the German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer has said just this week, there's a ruthless efficiency to Islamic State's operations which goes far beyond the single-note register of macabre cruelty and overblown rhetoric. So it's perfectly possible that Islamic State is now making $2m a day selling oil from captured oil installations, and they've been devising social welfare and educations systems in areas under their control (even making plans for girls' education according to Todenhöfer).
Once again it's easy to get distracted by the fact that Islamic State's plans for new curricula in schools in Raqqa or Mosul incorporate eye-catching bans on the teaching of Darwinism or any reference to nationalism or real-life nation-states like Syria or Iraq, but let's not lose sight of something: they're actually doing this. Education is being "purified". A rough and ready oil-based economy is being set up. Similarly, it's not just a few rogue fighters who've captured women and girls and turned them into "brides" or "sex slaves", but on the contrary there's been a large-scale kidnap-and-sale operation, especially of Yezidis in the villages south of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
A new Amnesty briefing notes that Islamic State's sex trafficking operation in northern Iraq has been large-scale (the numbers of women and girls kidnapped likely runs into the thousands) and heavily commodified, with women awarded to fighters as war "booty" or sold to local businessmen in places like Mosul. One Yezidi woman who was held by her sister before they both managed to escape, said: "They kept bringing prospective buyers for us but luckily none of them took us because we are not beautiful and we were always crying and holding on to each other".
And again, even here there's a semi-bizarre aspect to the commission of truly appalling crimes, with Islamic State issuing a pamphlet called Su'al wa-Jawab fi al-Sabi wa-Riqab ("Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves"), a 27-question FAQ document that calmly asserts things like "It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property", or "It is permissible to beat the female slave as a [form of] darb ta'deeb [disciplinary beating], [but] it is forbidden to [use] darb al-takseer [breaking beating], [darb] al-tashaffi [beating for the purpose of achieving gratification], or [darb] al-ta'dheeb [torture beating]. Further, it is forbidden to hit the face."
This mix of pseudo-managerial speak and hyper-didactic Islam is characteristic of Islamic State. Among some audiences - especially non-Muslims and those more secularly-inclined (who were never of course the target audience) - the group's supposedly PR-savvy ways are always on the verge of collapsing into a kind of unintended satire. Except, we shouldn't dignify their complacent criminality with anything like laughter. They're about as funny as "jokes" about rape. Indeed Q/A number five in their sex slaves briefing quite matter-of-factly declares rape ("sexual intercourse with the female captive") as permissable. Islamic State are murderers and rapists, not Four Lions jokers. Stop laughing.