Blue lights illuminate the theatre like popping candy. WhatsApp. It’s a death threat. I click the screen off and it flashes again. A rape threat. Click. Something about a K-bar. Click. They’re flashing up too fast to read them all. I click the screen blank again. It lights up. I turn it over.
The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of the power of the internet; of loneliness and of radical jihadis; of men and their machines.
Part of the show takes place on WhatsApp. The threats are posted in the instant-messaging group made for each performance, with all the audience members added in the queue before the show. Creator Javaad Alipoor shares memes and articles in the group to help illustrate his words on stage. It quickly turns darker, as between audience members offering examples of the most disturbing things they’ve watched online, anonymous trolls begin to slip in hostile warnings. The threats are fictionalised but it’s not hard to find similar threats on any 4chan forum or Reddit chain.
This digital illustration – this sped-up insult mosh pit- is a demonstration of how the the secure end-to-end encryption network is used away from the public eye. But it’s also more than that. A few hours after the show, my phone will flash again. It will announce the terrorist attack in Barcelona. That night Islamic State will claim responsibility. The next morning the death toll will rise. Alipoor’s digital tap on the shoulder in The Believers serves as a reminder that while some of these words and stories are fictionalised, this situation is all too real.
Alipoor has spent months delving into the dark depths of the internet, bantering with IS recruiters, engaging with 4chan trolls and trying to understand the network and actions behind digitally-tentacled terrorists.
However brutal its content, this show is delicate in its approach and is never gratuitous with its violence. Alipoor fuzzes and hides the most grotesque imagery, leaving gaps for our imagination to fill. A river of blood washes the screens. Alipoor describes a generation of men in crisis. His language is both intellectual and poetic, painting pictures of incredible savagery with a brush thickly coated in detailed research. He focuses on three men: Marwan, Atif and Ethan. From very different starting points, he explains how each draws closer to radical Islam.
The play demonstrates how the internet can be used for that space between irony and evil. How rape videos can be shared for the lols. How memes were made mesiah. How recruiters reach out to their warriors. Above all it reveals a deep-seated loneliness in the men who engage in all this. In Graeme Wood’s prolific book The Ways of the Strangers, he finds something similar. He interviews supporters of Islamic State and reveals how, when taken away from their movie-like propaganda videos and passed a cup of tea, they are just lonely men looking for purpose. The Believers adds to this by demonstrating how forums empower them, and how their belief becomes their comfort blanket. These men grab onto an injustice they see being fought against. They get a glimpse of the community behind it. They want in.
Alipoor’s language leaps between intellectual and poetic. It is beautiful storytelling but the speed at which this show travels- with multiple strands traversing the stage together- means that each character’s narrative needs a little more clarity. It almost overloads with information. The impact of its individual stories would be greater were it to slow its pace a little, and clarify its edges.
But it does serve to provide an example of the strength and scope of Islamic State via the internet. It demonstrates the power loneliness and isolation hold in the creation of a monster. When a man in the internet age is disregarded and angry at injustice, it is not hard to see the allure of a group who offers him power and purpose.
Throughout the show, Alipoor is not alone onstage. A man (Luke Emery) sits quietly behind the screens, illuminated but ignored. Though Alipoor is honest with us from the start about himself, Emery is never introduced. He sits facing us, hiding the content of his screens. We assume he is controlling the WhatsApp group, YouTube videos and projections that illustrate the men’s stories, but as the show progresses, we begin to suspect that we are not his audience. As the brutality builds and the tentacles spread, we get the impression that Emery is communicating with a different set of blue lights. A different pack of popping candy spread across the globe. The fictionalised men from Alipoor’s stories have stepped out of the screen and now hide in plain view, centre stage and purposeful, waiting for their moment.