A masked man brandishes a severed head in one hand. In the other, he raises an index finger, a commonly understood symbol for the number one.
His name is Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, a failed London rapper turned jihadist, a British militant fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State. British authorities suspect him of murdering American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. In August, Bary posted a gruesome picture -- from a different killing -- on his Twitter account for the world to see.
The curious thing was not the head Bary held in his left hand -- however ghoulish the trophy -- but the gesture he made with his right. For followers of ISIS, a single raised index finger has become a sign of their cause, and it is increasingly common in photographs of militants. Some have even gone so far as to call the symbol “the jihadi equivalent of a gang sign.”
The Middle East and its upheavals are no strangers to gestures. Over the past year, a variety of groups, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Kurds in Iraq, have used at least four distinct hand signals. These symbols communicate complex political messages that Western observers have largely ignored. That lapse is certainly understandable: next to a severed head, the number one is easy to overlook.
Yet gestures -- in particular ISIS’ index finger -- should demand far more attention. They are an important means by which regional groups communicate their core messages to viewers down the street and observers thousands of miles away in Europe and the United States. To understand the ideologies such groups aim to export, one needs to understand the symbols they use.
Gestures are as old as politics itself. They became especially important, however, with the advent of mass media in the twentieth century. Consider what is perhaps the best-known example: Adolf Hitler’s