On an otherwise unexceptional day in August 2014, a video titled A Message to America was uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit is seen kneeling on the ground in the desert next to a masked man dressed in all-black. The masked man, who speaks with a British accent, starts to cut his captive’s neck with a knife before the video fades to black and the body is seen slumped on the ground. The man who was murdered was later identified as US journalist James Foley, and his executor is believed to be the now deceased Jihadi John – one of the key figures of the Islamic State terrorist militant group that has gone on to commit many more brutal acts of violence and seize control of large areas of the Middle East.
Foley’s murder was one of the first widely publicised acts of ISIS violence that captured the attention of the West. But the origins of the terrorist group date back much further. Its very existence is inextricably tied up with the complex and thorny issue of conflict in the Middle East, along with Western countries including the US and UK’s role in shaping events. The first issue of a new publication called Magnum Chronicles is attempting to unravel how ISIS came to be, drawing from the organisation’s photo archive to present a visual interpretation of the terrorist group to date. Curated by Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael, the issue features over 40 photos and an accompanying essay by Middle East expert Peter Harling. Here, Agtmael tells us about bringing the newspaper series to life.