Why a beheading? A look at Islamic State's tactic
Yesterday morning, a video was uploaded to YouTube by Islamic State militants that appeared to show something terrible: The execution of an American journalist, James Foley, who had been missing in Syria since November 2012.
For journalists, it's impossible to ignore the echoes of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl and Foley were almost the same age when they died. Both were working for American news outlets. Both were apparently captured by Islamist extremists, and had recordings of their executions released.
Perhaps the most grim similarity of all, however, is the horrific way both men's bodies were mutilated. Foley, like Pearl, appears to have been beheaded.
While it brought the practice to widespread attention, there were certainly instances of Islamist groups using beheadings before Pearl's death, notably during the first Chechen War. In 1996, for example, Russian soldier Yevgeny Rodionov was filmed as he was beheaded by his rebel captors after refusing to convert to Islam: His death led to calls for Russian Orthodox Church to canonise him.
Pearl's death was particularly shocking, however, as he was a Western, non-combatant journalist. After his death, the tactic seemed to spread, most notably into Iraq where a large number of foreign citizens were captured and later beheaded in the immediate years after the Iraqi war. Some, like American businessman Nicholas Evan Berg, had their murders videotaped. By 2013, beheadings were in the western world: Last year, when two young men in London attacked and murdered an off-duty soldier in broad daylight, they apparently tried to behead him.
Islamic State, the extremist group that has captured large amounts of Syria and Iraq in recent months, seems to have beheadings as a prominent part of its strategy. When Islamic State militants captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, for instance, there were reports of mass beheadings. This appears to mark a distinct break with the strategy of its predecessor, al Qaeda, which had avoided the tactic in recent years. In 2005, al Qaeda's top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri sent insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a letter in which he said al Qaeda in Iraq should stop releasing videotapes of hostage executions. Muslims "will never find [the images] palatable", Zawahiri explained. Other Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have avoided beheadings.
Some analysts have argued that beheading can be linked to Middle Eastern culture. "The religious and cultural symbolism that the sword carries with it in the eyes of the Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, is an important factor in determining the terrorists' choice to behead hostages," Pete Lentini and Muhammad Bakashmar of Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre explained in a 2007 academic paper. Lentini and Bakashmar also noted that there are examples of beheadings in modern Islamic states too - just last year Amnesty International criticised a 'disturbing' rise in executions in Saudi Arabia, including beheadings.
Others have found even deeper roots. Writing in the conservative Middle East Quarterly in 2005, Timothy R. Furnish wrote that the "Pearl murder and video catalysed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice". Furnish argued that justifications for beheadings can be found by looking to the Koran or Islamic history, though he also noted Islam was far from the only force in history to make wide use of the practice (the Roman Empire being an obvious historical example, though modern groups like Mexican drug cartels have also used the tactic).
Islamic State may justify their beheadings with theology and history, but the use of the tactic is likely driven by more immediate factors. "I don't think there's anything inherently Islamist to these beheadings," Max Abrahms, a Northwestern professor who studies jihdaist groups, told The Washington Post. "It's important to recognise where Islamic State is coming from historically, in order to understand why it is beheading people - and why it's using social media to broadcast it."
In particular, Abrahms argues, Islamic State may be seeking to differentiate itself from its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, a group he notes was "widely seen, even among jihadists, as a failure". With high-profile beheadings, the group could be attempting to link itself to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a current Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged al Qaeda mastermind who is now believed to have murdered Daniel Pearl.
Another factor is Islamic State's demographics: Compared to other jihadist groups, their fighters skew disproportionately young and Western. Peter Neumann, director of the International Study for the Center Radicalization, told The Washington Post that many of the Western fighters who carry out these executions have likely watched videos of beheadings and other acts of extreme violence online before joining extremist groups. Notably, the man who appears in the video with Foley has a distinct British accent.
The quick spread of the Foley video on social media may be the clearest sign of how things have moved on from Pearl's day, where the murder was filmed on a camcorder and initially distributed by video tape. Many Twitter users called for a #ISISMediaBlackOut in the wake of Foley's death, hoping to deprive the Islamic State of the publicity that the video was clearly designed to provoke.
Sadly, something else has been changed since between Pearl's death and Foley's - the surprise. Given the ethos of the Islamic State and the scores of journalists who had gone missing in Syria, something like this always seemed possible. "It may be that Daniel Pearl was a precedent, in that the aura of protection was broken," Daniel's father Judea Pearl said in a 2012 interview with The Washington Post. "It was understood even to extreme elements that you don't touch a journalist, that you will pay, but that myth has been broken. Now they look at the journalist as an agent of a foreign body."
* Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
- The Washington Post