The truth about beheadings

With an act of a sword, they manage to force both Obama and Cameron to react.

The gruesome method of beheading allows ISIL to cause revulsion among political leaders, Marashi writes [AP]

In the aftermath of the tragic beheading of US aid worker Peter Kassig, various media picked up on an aspect of his death that made his execution different from that of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Kassig, who adopted the name Abdul Rahman, had converted to Islam before his capture and execution by ISIL.

Al Jazeera journalist Imran Khan’s article, “Not Muslim Enough for ISIL,” highlights the ironic tragedy of Kassig’s death: “He is a Muslim who died in the hands of Muslims.” This statement alludes to a fact, not an anomaly, where ISIL’s greatest number of victims have been Muslims. That ISIL killed a Muslim convert is not extraordinary, but rather part of a routine practise of beheading Muslims that has emerged over the last decade.

Second, Kassig’s death fits into an ongoing media narrative which explains ISIL’s televised beheadings, usually carried out by European Muslims, as a means to attract new recruits, particularly from the West. Televised beheadings, which have been explained away as a means of intimidation of enemies and a marketing tool to gather new recruits, has a much more complex history and rationale.

Routinised campaign

Beheadings in the name of Islam conducted by non-state actors can be traced to the war in Chechnya, with the decapitations of captured Russian soldiers. The beheading of the kidnapped Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, was ordered by al-Qaeda. However, the first systematic, routinised campaign of beheadings of both Muslims and non-Muslims began after the 2003 Iraq war, by a group that was initially separate from al-Qaeda.

ISIL beheads Syria troops and US aid worker

The Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the founder of the group during the Iraqi insurgency that would evolve into ISIL, and their most notorious beheading was of the American Nick Berg in 2004, dressing him in an orange jump suit to mimic the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay. His death occurred however, within a broader campaign whose victims were primarily Muslims, whether it was captured Iraqi soldiers or Turkish truck drivers in Iraq, such as Ramazan Elbu.

Once Zarqawi’s group decided to merge with al-Qaeda, becoming al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda’s central leadership pressured Zarqawi to end the beheadings, which often targeted Muslims, and refocus their attention on attacking US forces, representing the first tension between the two groups before their formal break in 2013.

During these years, Zarqawi’s group did not have the pretensions of statehood. It was a non-state actor that used beheadings as a way of forcing nations deploying troops to Iraq, such as the Philippines, to withdraw; prevent private companies from investing in Iraq’s reconstruction; and intimidate Iraqis from joining the armed forces. To achieve the last two goals it primarily targeted Muslims participating in these endeavours.

Progenitor of ISIL beheadings

ISIL still uses beheadings, but for different aims. When the progenitor of ISIL conducted beheadings after the Iraq War, it was ostensibly to force foreign armies off Iraqi soil. By 2014, not only had all foreign armies left Iraq, but ISIL controlled a large swath of territory. Beheadings in 2014 of captured US and British hostages served as a means of a weak state, the “Islamic State”, to retaliate against the US and UK air campaign against ISIL.

ISIL is aware that western media outlets will not show the actual video of the moment of beheading, nevertheless the act of beheading does generate a storm of debate in the media.

ISIL is aware that western media outlets will not show the actual video of the moment of beheading, nevertheless the act of beheading does generate a storm of debate in the media. The gruesome method of beheading, as opposed to the firing squads they used to kill a large number of captured Iraqi soldiers, allows ISIL to cause revulsion among political leaders.

With an act of a sword, they manage to force both Obama and Cameron to react. The two men, who control the world’s most advanced militaries, find themselves at the mercy of the sword. Both displayed physical pain and grief when they condemned the way their nationals died.

One media narrative examines beheadings as “Terror Marketing”, suggesting that ISIL’s rationale behind these videos is to attract new recruits. An example of the “terror marketing” rationale can be found in the following statement by Paul Cruickshank, a terrorism analyst for CNN: “Some of these men almost have a pornographic attraction to these violent scenes, these violent beheading videos. It really sort of energises them.”

Since the beheading campaign began in 2004 in Iraq, there have been a host of “snuff” websites, such as and Liveleak, which upload beheading videos, demonstrating that “pornographic attraction” exists in the general public, though there has not been a wave of Ogrish or Liveleak viewers joining ISIL. One cannot possibly know if these videos “energise” an ISIL recruit as Cruickshank suggests. Most likely a beheading video will have little effect on the alienation a potential ISIL recruit perceives in his or her home society and is most likely energised by ISIL’s actual success in establishing the “Islamic State”, rather than these videos.

Furthermore, does ISIL’s leadership even see these videos as a valuable recruiting tool? Mexican drug cartels also conduct beheadings in areas they control. For both organisations, beheadings serve as a means of maintaining domestic hegemony. It forces the population under their control to cower in fear and never challenge the power of the cartel, one of which happens to survive by charging for drugs, while the other charges for oil.

Vengeance justice

On another level, ISIL contends to have formed an “Islamic State”, and beheadings serve the same purpose as capital punishment in any state. They communicate both vengeance justice to its citizens, and at the same time instil fear into those citizens, which even include the most diehard ISIL foot soldier.

Beheadings are ISIL’s public executions, just as the guillotine, hanging, or lethal injection, either in the town square or on TV, demonstrate the price of violating what the state deems as law and order. They serve as an internal policing mechanism, communicating to every member of ISIL the punishment for any “acts of treason”, or couched in ISIL’s terms, “apostasy”.

ISIL’s execution of Kassig, a Muslim convert, was part of a decade-long process within a Muslim civil war, centred on an Islamic State, but with ramifications beyond its borders. Kassig’s execution is indicative of a re-articulation of identity within the western world.

Kassig was an American convert apparently killed by two French converts. In a tragic irony, Kassig shared something in common with his kidnappers. All three probably left their homes in the US and France respectively to seek out a cause greater than their lives and identities in their western settings. Seeking that cause brought them to the tragic episode that unfolded last week.  

Finally, the focus on the religion of the victim, hides something more tragic about Kassig’s death. He was simply a human being volunteering as an aid worker to help a lot of Muslims and Christians displaced by the conflict in Syria. The focus on Kassig’s conversion was irrelevant.

Similar questions were raised about whether David Haines and Alan Henning might have converted to Islam before their deaths. These two British aid workers in Syria, beheaded by ISIL, were simply humans who left their comfortable existence in the UK to help other humans dispossessed in Syria. Despite their deaths, the families of all three beheading victims publicly stated that people should not blame Islam for their loss. Both the victims and their families showed compassion and forgiveness in their lifetime. These three men and their families were more Muslim than many Muslims in this world today.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”