Best Defense

The 10 things you need to know about radical Islamist beheadings: A primer

By Robert J. Bunker Best Defense guest columnist The recent Islamic State (IS) beheading aftermath video of Peter (Abdul-Rahman) Kassig — he was not beheaded on camera — on Nov. 16 follows a spate of individual beheadings of Westerners posted by this radical Islamist group in addition to the postings of some of the mass ...

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia


By Robert J. Bunker

Best Defense guest columnist

The recent Islamic State (IS) beheading aftermath video of Peter (Abdul-Rahman) Kassig — he was not beheaded on camera — on Nov. 16 follows a spate of individual beheadings of Westerners posted by this radical Islamist group in addition to the postings of some of the mass beheadings of Syrian and Iraqi nationals belonging to the security services, competing groups, and tribes in opposition to the establishment of the IS-envisioned caliphate. These recent IS beheadings have gained extensive media attention from the major news services along with numerous forms of social media networks.         

With this in mind, this short essay will provide a ten-point primer on the subject of radical Islamist beheadings to better inform the readership on the emergence, spread, and various components of this barbaric form of terrorist communiqué. Before doing so, however, a few important perceptions about the nature of radical Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups should be highlighted. First, these groups have been evolving over the course of decades with the Islamic State now viewed by many security professionals as a far more capable, and deadly organizational form, appealing to a broader mass of potential global recruits, than al Qaeda ever was. In many ways, this new radical Islamist group can be considered the equivalent of a proto-21st-century nation-state killer, presently locked in a life-and-death struggle with the weakened states of both Iraq and Syria. Second, for well over a decade now, the dual terrorist TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) of suicide bombings and later beheadings have been utilized in tandem by radical Islamists. These terrorist activities appear to be collinear and synergistic with a number of professionals now arguing that, at least on the level of cultist spirituality, they may indeed represent a symbolic duality of martyr sacrifice to god (as a suicide bomber) as well as victim sacrifice to god (the hostage being beheaded).

With these contextual perceptions in mind, ten points of radical Islamist beheadings can be considered: 

Why beheading: Others forms of killing a hostage, such as firing squad, gun to the back of the head, or even stoning, do not hold the same cache for radical Islamists nor make for a good social media (video) spectacle. Beheading represents an historical archetype for radical Islamists and its mass use can be traced back to celebrated victories such as the battle of Zallaqa in 1086 when 24,000 fallen Castilians were said to have been beheaded and praises to Allah were sung on the piles of their heads. While many other world cultures and subgroups, such as Western Europeans, have beheading traditions (which include the French during their late 18th-century revolution), none of these older traditions are active except for its ongoing use by the state of Saudi Arabia, problematic in its own sense, which utilizes beheading as a form of Sharia-based capital punishment and may even engage in crucifixion (also sometimes carried out by radical Islamists), after the fact, for some executions, and the more recent cartel beheadings out of Mexico and their surrounding areas of operation. 

When did these start: The Daniel Pearl killing in Pakistan in February 2002 is generally considered the first incidence of contemporary high-profile videotaped radical Islamist beheadings though such videotaped beheadings can be traced back at least to that of a captured Russian soldier, Yevgeny Rodionov, by Chechen fighters in 1996 when he refused to convert to Islam. These incidents have since spread globally to radical         Islamist groups and lone wolves (affinity adherents) in the Middle East, territories of the former Soviet Union, parts of Africa and Asia, and more recently to Western Europe and the United States. 

How many incidents: By mid-2006, documented radical Islamist beheading incidents surpassed the 100 mark, ranged from one to 30 victims at a time with incidents comprising ones and twos by far the most common, and resulted in the deaths of numbers in the low hundreds of individuals. Of these incidents, about a quarter of them were videotaped. Present aggregate radical Islamist beheading incidents are unknown but easily range from the mid-to-high hundreds of incidents with total beheadings estimated now beyond one thousand in number.

Weapon and technique utilized: The use of a heavy sword or blade brought down upon the back of the neck historically represents a humane method of state execution. The radical Islamist killings instead utilize a knife taken to a victim’s throat which is intentionally meant to be symbolic, like that of the butchery of an animal, and intended to inflict severe pain in the process of decapitation (or at least create that illusion to the viewer if the hostage is drugged).

Drugged and conditioned victims: Intended beheading victims are normally put through dry runs of the beheading in which they read radical Islamist propaganda and kneel in place to get them conditioned for the terminal event. Narcotics are sometimes given to the victim to foster compliance and docility. Depending on the commitment of the radical Islamist engaging in the killing, they may also require narcotics to engage in the bloody act.

Relationship to jihad: These activities are the antithesis of mainstream and modernistic jihad defined as a personal struggle against sin practiced by the vast majority of today’s devout Muslims. Rather, it represents a throwback to the early interpretation of jihad as a component of the militant and expansionistic holy war of the original caliphate. This form of jihad represents a major component of the cultish behavior of al Qaeda network and Islamic State successor groups engaged in a global radical Islamist insurgency. 

Radical Islamist motivations (group): The intent of engaging in these beheadings and their intentional video broadcast via the internet is to make a statement to a number of audiences for communicative, propaganda, and psychological operations purposes. Some debate exists concerning which audiences are of more importance than others: the recruitment pool from which the radical Islamists draw, the current members and nodes of the radical Islamist networks themselves, or the declared enemies of the radical Islamists such as the United States, its Western allies, and apostate regimes (both secular and Shiite). Hence the ‘strategic communicative’ value of these beheadings exists on a number of levels and includes recruitment, group cohesion, the deliberate use of terror tactics, and the hopeful miscalculation and overreaction by the United States and its allies to these incidents.

Radical Islamist motivations (individual): These vary depending on the circumstances and ideology of the perpetrator and can include the secular and businesslike for mercenary individuals through the spiritual and divine for true believers and even into the pathological and ‘killing as sport’ for sadists. A strong emotional, and at times irrational, trigger appears to underlie many of the motivators for joining such groups — especially for young Western women who seek the adventure and allure of becoming jihadi fighter brides. Since most radical Islamist videotaped beheadings are considered important affairs utilizing high-value Western captives — as opposed to the more minor beheadings of local nationals, radical Islamists with more leadership and propaganda clout are drawn upon such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (suspected in the Pearl incident), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (suspected in the Berg incident), and the more recent ‘Jihadi John,’ a likely British national implicated in the string of IS beheadings in Syria, to engage in the deed. The ritualized behavior of radical Islamist beheadings are also of interest because some are thought to have moved beyond the instrumental into the blood sacrificial, where the non-believer (and hated Crusader) or Islamic apostate (especially a Shiite) is spiritually offered up to fulfill cult-like needs.

If taken hostage by radical Islamists, what to do: Being taken captive was most likely a fatal mistake in itself; the United States does not negotiate with terrorists or pay them ransoms. So the question you must ask yourself is on what terms you intend to die; being compliant or combative with your captors. A number of instances exist in which the hostage utterly ruined a beheading video by either refusing to read the propaganda and/or struggled with their captives on film (an unbound Italian hostage in 2004 jumped up, tried to remove his hood, and proclaimed to his captors that ‘this is how an Italian dies’) which negated much of the propaganda value of the incident. The trade-off for being combative, of course, is that the hostage — while serving United States and allied national interests — is probably going to suffer additional abuse and torture as a result of their intransigence and patriotism. Quite likely, the recent Kassig post beheading video from a few days ago was devoid of him reading a radical Islamist statement because the former U.S. Army Ranger defied IS terrorist propaganda demands to the end.

Vs. Mexican cartel beheadings: Islamist beheadings pale in comparison to cartel torture and decapitation videos which have included castration, face peeling, and then botched decapitation with a knife in one incident (the woman sicario lacked arm strength) and the use of a chain saw in another as just two of many examples. These beheadings may also utilize victim mockery and tend to be less solemn affairs than radical Islamist beheadings — though some instances of ritual human sacrifice involving beheading tied to cartel members has taken place off-camera. The cartels also frequently behead women, which is different from radical Islamist behavior; to date, a ‘firebreak’ exists in which the radical Islamists have not videotaped the beheading of women for mass media purposes.

For background readings on this topic, see "Beheadings and Ritual Murders." Subject Bibliography, FBI Library, 2007.

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is a national security scholar with a research focus on violent non-state actors — gangs, cartels, terrorists, and insurgents. He has been involved in a number of research projects related to ritual killing, torture and beheading, and suicide bombings, and has hundreds of publications. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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