Shock and gore: the story of Ogrish. FT magazine, 14 January 2006

On April 21 last year, 12 miles outside Baghdad, a helicopter was shot from the sky by an obscure insurgent group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq. On board were 11 security guards and aircrew who had been working for the US government, protecting diplomatic staff from the growing Iraqi insurgency.
I happened to see a report of the incident that same day on BBC News Online, which said that all 11 had been killed. The report included a short video of the ugly remains of the burning helicopter and, as I watched, I noticed something odd: the footage came from the insurgents themselves. If you listened carefully, you could just about hear a low burble of Iraqi voices and one man, presumably the one holding the camera, panting excitedly as he filmed the carnage.
The BBC acknowledged the video’s curious provenance by displaying the insignia of the Islamic Army of Iraq on the film, as if it had come from any other news organisation. It was hardly surprising that the insurgents had beaten the world’s biggest news organisations to the scene of the crash, since they had shot down the helicopter. What was surprising was that they had brought their own cameraman to record it.
But there was something else about the BBC report that intrigued me. A note informed viewers that the Islamist video had been posted on the internet. For the BBC to find it so quickly, it must have been posted within a few hours of the shooting and widely distributed.
From the safety of my office in a tiny attic room at the top of my London flat, I Googled “Islamic Army of Iraq” and found something called, a so-called “shock site” that specialises in videos and photographs of burned, stabbed, shot, flattened and otherwise mutilated corpses.
There, fewer than 24 hours after that helicopter was brought down, I discovered an expertly produced, five-minute version of the incident. The viewer sees first a shot of the aircraft being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and careering to the ground. Then the charred wreckage appears, along with gruesome close-ups of the burned and dismembered bodies of the security contractors.
And then something infinitely more horrible happens. As the cameraman and his comrade wander around filming the wreckage, they see a slightly wounded survivor of the crash lying in long grass. In almost perfect English, the cameraman asks him to stand up. For an instant, the wounded man believes the insurgents are friendly. He looks up and groans to the camera that his arm is broken and he needs help. As he gets to his feet, the cameraman appears to direct him to stand at a certain spot, as if he’s a guest in a wedding video. And then he is executed by a volley of rifle shots from other gunmen. The clip finishes with his executioners continuing to fire bullets into his dead body, chanting Allahu Akbar, God is great.
I might have forgotten about Ogrish were it not for several chance conversations I had about the site shortly afterwards.
A week after seeing the helicopter video, I met a British foreign correspondent who had been stationed in Baghdad during the kidnappings of Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan. He said he had got into the habit of visiting Ogrish every five minutes to see if the kidnappers had posted anything there. Eventually, both captives were killed, and Bigley’s beheading was filmed. Ogrish was one of the first sites in the world to post that footage in its entirety.
A month later, at a friend’s wedding in Cyprus, I met a battle- hardened Israeli military correspondent who, quite unprompted, confessed within five minutes of meeting me that he was addicted to the grisly material on Ogrish, and that he was watching far too much of it for his own good.
By this time, I wanted to find out who was behind Ogrish, and why it seemed to have become such an underground success. This was to prove rather more difficult than I had expected.
The five-year-old site’s reputation for ghoulishness means that it is shunned by polite media society. It isn’t the only gory website in the world – there are a handful of others, such as Gorezone – but it is the best known and one of the most bloodthirsty.
Some European internet service providers have tried to block access to it; one German provider succeeded in doing so after a youth protection group complained about its content. Many organisations (including the Financial Times) prevent employees from accessing Ogrish and similar sites.
One consequence of Ogrish’s infamy is that those who run the site are maddeningly difficult to track down. My efforts led eventually to a mobile telephone number in New York, answered by a Russian- sounding man who said he was the site’s press officer. He suggested I call him Vasily.
When I spoke to him, it was just a few days after the July 7 London suicide bombings and he was keen to extend his sympathies. Ogrish had by then already published its own exclusive footage of the day’s events, shot from inside the tube trains and e-mailed by one of its freelance contributors. Again, mainstream news organisations used Ogrish footage, and credited the site.
What I wanted from Vasily was to secure an interview with the man who heads Ogrish, a Dutchman named Dan Klinker. But my request was turned down: Klinker, who I believe lives in Amsterdam, does not give interviews, said Vasily. He won’t even reveal what he looks like.
After several months of e-mailing Vasily, I suggested he talk to me himself. To my surprise, he agreed. He was now based in Europe, he said, and could meet me in Brussels for a coffee and a chat. But when I arrived in the city at the appointed time and place for our meeting – 11am outside the main entrance of the Brussels train station -Vasily was nowhere to be found. I waited for several hours, wielding a copy of the FT as agreed to identify myself, but he never showed. Nor did he send any explanation for his absence.
Infuriated by the waste of my time, I tracked down Dan Klinker via the Ogrish website. Klinker still refused to be interviewed in person, but he did agree to answer some of my questions by e-mail.
He told me that he had been involved with the site for three years, and runs it on a day-to-day basis. It has five full-time employees based in different parts of the world and it takes freelance submissions either via e-mail, or direct uploads to an Ogrish internet address. Its contributors, says Klinker, are often people who have regular access to the site’s ghoulish fare – police officers and medics, for example. There are also, according to Klinker, “numerous people working almost full-time to acquire content (in southern America, India, Pakistan etc). They are the reporters for Ogrish in those areas. Then we also have freelance writers for the magazine. Also there are staff who often work free of charge on the forum and other areas”.
When footage has been filmed privately, Ogrish sometimes pays for those submissions, in return for the copyright. In such cases, according to Klinker, those who submit the footage are asked to sign a form stating that they have obtained all the necessary permissions.
At first, Ogrish showed pictures from domestic disasters such as car crashes and murders. But during the war in Iraq, it also became a repository of bloody images from war zones that other media outlets found too tasteless. On an average day, it claims to receive between 125,000 and 200,000 page views on its website. On a big news day, that figure can rise to 750,000. (In comparison, a spokesperson for BBC News told me that its online news service receives an average of 25 million page views per day.)
A video of last year’s brutal beheading of Nick Berg, an American contractor in Iraq, has been downloaded from the Ogrish site 15 million times. Other favourites include the 2002 execution of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the beheading of a Russian soldier in Chechnya, posted last April.
One of the site’s mottos, “Can you handle life?” seems a little disingenuous given that there is almost no life in any of its macabre archives; rather a vast supermarket of death and dismemberment.
But there is some truth in the slogan. The gory images seem to dare the viewer to see how much one can stomach, and to bear witness to the moment at which life is extinguished. But the images are obviously offensive to many people: Ogrish does not contact the families and friends of the dead before publishing its execution and insurgency videos.
How does it get the videos in the first place? According to Klinker, the site uses sophisticated internet programs (or “scripts”) to continually monitor extremist Jihadi websites for new images. “As soon as the scripts find something that matches certain keywords in combination with a video or image attachments,” he told me, “it sends two of us an e-mail alert.”
Ogrish also boasts contacts with so-called “terrorist-hunter” websites in the US that track postings about Islamic extremists in order to expose them and their modus operandi. The combination of its network and its technical knowledge means that Ogrish can quickly post material that sometimes appears on radical Islamist websites.
Yet Klinker told me he does not enjoy looking at the ghoulish images on his site, and admitted that some visitors have a distasteful and morbid curiosity.
“Of course we get some sick-minded people who actually get off on ‘gore scenes’,” he said. “But the majority of people are just simple ordinary civilised human beings. We know for a fact that there are more people interested in this kind of material than most would think. Surprisingly, 30 per cent of our audience are females.”
So why does he do it? “We do think that we are offering a service to the world by showing something the regular news will not show,” he said. “Ogrish does not provide a sugar-coated version of the world. We feel that people are often unaware of what really goes on around us. Everything you see on is reality, it’s part of our life, whether we like it or not.” His chief reason for publishing this material, he said, is “to give everyone the opportunity to see things as they are, so they can come to their own conclusions rather than settling for biased versions of world events as handed out by the mainstream media”.
It is true that people are looking for alternative sources of news. The diminution of trust in the established institutions of western societies has fuelled cynicism about the way the mainstream media report the news. Just as people are increasingly bypassing the authority of their doctor and looking on the web for a diagnosis, they are also turning to the internet in search of alternative views about current affairs.
And the western media do present a sanitised view of conflicts such as the one in Iraq. Many news outlets shy away from showing dead American or British soldiers, for example, but sometimes show dead Iraqis. (Whatever its politics, Ogrish has no qualms about showing us our dead soldiers.)
And then there are the operational limits on how much western journalists can reliably see. During the Iraq war itself, many journalists were encouraged to “embed” themselves with American or British troops, because it was prohibitively difficult to report independently. As the insurgency grew after the war, it became too dangerous for most western journalists to travel far outside Baghdad to cover it. The result of all this is that a whole new digital war is being played out privately in our bedrooms and living rooms, and it turns out that the militant Islamists have embedded cameramen in their battalions too.
It would be easy to accuse Ogrish of being the propaganda vehicle for murderous thugs who slaughter defenceless people on film, but that would not be entirely accurate. Ogrish does not pretend to be neutral in the fight against terrorism. When it shows footage of dead Islamic insurgents, it celebrates by telling readers that they have been “taken out”. Klinker is aware, too, that his material can also be read as propaganda on behalf of terrorists.
“We realise that people can consider publishing these videos as a propaganda tool for terrorists, therefore we try to limit the propaganda value of videos, by for instance getting rid of speeches that condemn the coalition etc (Yes even we have to censor some stuff). (But) to get the full insight into the extreme character of these insurgents, it is important to see in full detail what they are capable of… this is the mindset we are dealing with.”
Ogrish seems to be run chiefly by Europeans, and while it often features crude propaganda from Islamic extremists, its website is hosted in the US where it is sheltered behind America’s generous constitutional protection of freedom of speech. According to Klinker, “Everything you see on is about freedom of speech.”
I happen to support Klinker when he uses the principle of free expression to defend himself. But no one looks at a picture of a dead baby or the aftermath of a suicide attack because of a passionate commitment to freedom of speech.
And it is hard to watch such pictures without wondering what effect they might have on some viewers. A survey commissioned by the Canadian government in 2001 found that 45 per cent of Canadians between the ages of nine and 17 had often or sometimes accessed gory or violent websites. Some sociologists who have researched such sites say the content may desensitise and confuse teenagers who visit them, much as pornography is thought to do.
There are some obvious links between Ogrish and pornography. The site’s main source of funding comes from advertisements for online porn, which means that lurid images of death and destruction sit alongside garish porn site ads, a state of affairs Klinker finds more than a little embarrassing. “Hopefully some day we can get rid of the adult non-Ogrish related ads and get alternative sources to compensate the costs,” he told me.
But it is the relationship between Ogrish and Islamic insurgents that is more intriguing. The use of photography and film has always been central to modern propaganda, but what distinguishes this new variant of Islamic extremism is that its spectacles seem to be choreographed purely so that they can be filmed and distributed over the internet. While it would be facile to say that Ogrish and the Jihadis are in league with one another, both are canny and nimble new operators in the subterranean world of online media and adept at feeding the appetites of its omnivorous consumers.
And just as Ogrish cannot be understood as a traditional media outlet, al-Qaeda is not a traditional anti-colonialist group trying to liberate territory from an imperial oppressor. If a globally coherent organisation called al-Qaeda can be said to exist at all, its members do not share either geography or a national history. They are spread thinly around the globe, and form less of an organisation than a loose network and a franchise whose existence appears to be kept alive largely through the media.
In his book Landscapes of the Jihad, published last year, the New York-based academic Faisal Devji argues that “whether or not the jihad’s acts are influenced by pre-existing media stereotypes, they invariably occur in the form of events already packaged, as it were, for media distribution”.
Around the time of the previous Gulf war, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that we were so disengaged with the conflict that it was as if it did not take place at all but existed only as a media-generated fantasy, akin to a video game. But this Gulf war is beginning to look more like a digitally created nightmare.
When I asked Klinker why he called his site Ogrish, he explained that it was derived from “ogre”. He referred me to a dictionary definition of an ogre, which said it was a monster in fairy tales who eats humans, or a person thought to be particularly cruel or brutish. It was,
he thought, a fitting metaphor for the murderers and terrorists who are continually trying to destroy our lives.
But another way of looking at it is that Ogrish and sites like it prey on our darkest fantasies about the Islamic world. Devji argues that, like Freddy in the horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street, “the jihad appears simply to bring to life and make real the media’s own nightmares… It is almost as if the jihad is here fulfilling the desire of mass media for real horror.”
There is another gruesome irony about the material on Ogrish. About a decade ago, there was a moral panic in the west about so-called snuff videos, in which people were supposedly murdered on camera for the titillation of viewers. Little evidence was ever found to substantiate the existence of snuff movies, but now politics might well have made the nightmare of snuff movies into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the execution videos, the most extreme material available on Ogrish, it could be argued that they have exactly the same qualities ascribed to snuff movies – the shock value, the voyeurism, the staged way in which life is snuffed out. Some of the hostages were even forced to look into the camera while they were being killed.
But viewing Ogrish throws up some thorny moral dilemmas. In the past few years, western governments have cracked down on child pornography distributed via the internet. Watching sexualised images of children from the comfort of one’s personal computer is morally repugnant, but it is not the same as abusing children. The rationale for sending people to jail for viewing such images is that their perverse appetites feed the production of those images, and indirectly the abuse of children.
If so, then there is an argument that we are equally culpable when we watch life being snuffed out on websites such as Ogrish. The lesson here is not that we should ban Ogrish, but that we have not yet worked out what kind of beast the world wide web is, or the responsibilities required of those who use it.
There have been murmurings of a change of strategy among militant Islamists. At the beginning of October, the American intelligence services intercepted a letter written by Osama bin Laden’s associate Ayman al-Zawahiri to the self-appointed head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The letter advised al-Zarqawi to stop beheading people on camera, because even their supporters were beginning to find the videos a little unpalatable. Shooting them with bullets would be just as good, said al-Zawahiri, and much more media-friendly. “We are in a battle,” al-Zawahiri advised, “and more than half of it is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”
Whatever new home videos are being dreamed up by the soldiers of militant Islam, one thing is certain – sites such as Ogrish will broadcast them, and many of us will be watching in silent, stupefied horror.