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Islamic State: Terror as a Media Strategy

02/04/2015 01:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

On August 19, 2014, Islamic State uploaded a short, four and a half minute video on YouTube entitled "A Message to America." The video began with a segment of US president Barack Obama announcing that the United States had begun conducting air strikes against IS forces in Iraq. The video then cut to a segment depicting American freelance journalist James Foley. Dressed in an orange tunic, vaguely similar to the tunics at times worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, a kneeling Foley read a statement expressing regret for US actions. When Foley has finished reading his statement, a masked, black clad, IS fighter who was the executioner, denounced the air strikes and threatened that further American aggression would result "in the bloodshed of your people."

The video then showed a 10-second segment purporting to be the beheading of James Foley. The actual decapitation is not shown. It has been suggested that the film doesn't actually show Foley being beheaded and that the act of decapitation occurred off film. The video then shows the decapitated body while the executioner announced that IS was also holding a second American journalist, Time Magazine contributor, Steven Joel Sotloff, and that he would be executed if the White House did not suspend further air strikes against IS. On September 2, 2014, a second video, this one showing the beheading of Sotloff, was released. This was the beginning of a long succession of beheadings that culminated with the executions of Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto in January 2015.

A few days later, on February 3, 2015, in an even more grisly escalation of its repertoire of murder, Islamic State militants released a video showing Jordanian Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh, being burned to death while imprisoned in a metal cage. The slickly produced, 22-minute video, titled "Healing of the Believers' Chests," showed the pilot standing in the cage with a fuel line leading to him. It also appears that his orange tunic, seemingly identical to the one that James Foley had been made to wear, had been doused with fuel. When the fuel was ignited Lieutenant Kaseasbeh caught fire and burned to death.

These acts of murder occurred against a backdrop of widespread violence, including summary execution, crucifixion, forced conversions to Islam, death by immolation and sexual slavery, instigated by IS militants across their recently seized territory in Syria and Iraq. The beheadings were quickly denounced throughout the world as acts of unspeakable barbarism and were equally condemned by a number of Islamic groups. This was not the first time, however, that beheadings or immolations had been used as an instrument of terror by radical Islamist organizations. Moreover, their recent use by such groups notwithstanding, the act of beheading or immolation are not a particularly or uniquely Islamist practice.

The Origins of Beheadings as Capital Punishment

Beheading or decapitation is a practice that dates back deep into the recesses of antiquity. Its root is the Latin word caput or head. It is the root of such terms as "capital punishment," "capital crimes," or "capital offense." It was the punishment meted out for particularly serious crimes. In times of war it was the means by which a victor demonstrated his absolute triumph over an opponent. David, after stunning Goliath with a stone from his sling, proceeded to cut off his head with Goliath's own sword. In Greek mythology Perseus decapitated the head of Medusa and then used her head as a weapon against his enemies. Decapitation, as a punishment, was widespread from Roman times, where it was considered preferable to crucifixion, through the Middle Ages and to the modern era. From Cicero to Anne Boleyn to Robespierre, beheading was often the punishment handed down to those deemed to be enemies of the state.

The guillotine, a mechanical form of decapitation deemed to be more humane, was the only legal method of execution in France from 1789 until 1981; when capital punishment was abolished. A German version, a guillotine like device called a "falling axe" or fallbeil was used in Germany from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. Between 1933 and 1945, approximately 16,500 people were guillotined in Nazi Germany. West Germany abolished the practice in 1949. East Germany abolished it in 1966 after the execution of Horst Fischer, a former "doctor" at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Similar instruments, including precursors to the guillotine, were used throughout continental Europe and Great Britain between the twelfth and twentieth centuries. The same practice of beheading as a form of capital punishment was also widespread in Asia. Interestingly enough, beheadings as a form of capital punishment was never widespread in North American and the practice quickly died out.

Beheadings and Jihadists

Beheadings are still a legal form of punishment in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen, although only Saudi Arabia still carries out such executions. In 2014, Saudi authorities executed 83 people, approximately half of who were foreigners. Radical Islamist groups point to both Mohammed and the Koran as justification of beheadings. According to Islamic lore, Mohammed ordered the beheading of Nadr ibn al-Harith and Uqbah ibn Abu Mu'ayt, two pagan opponents of Islam captured at the Battle of Badr. The ninth century Arab historian al-Waqidi claimed that Mohammed ordered the beheading of some 900 men of the Banu Qurayza tribe, although later Arab historians have disputed the account as unreliable. The 47th Surah of the Koran, often cited by Islamist radicals, states, according to the translation by historian Timothy Furnish, that "when you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely."

The first reported case of a beheading by radical Islamist groups date back to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95). There were a number of beheadings of Serb and Croat soldiers who had been captured by mujahedeen members of the Bosnian Army. Approximately 30 Serb civilians were also beheaded on Trebevic Mountain above Sarajevo and their bodies buried at the mass grave at Kazani. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) documented both incidents in its investigation of war crimes committed during the Bosnian war. There were reports of numerous other beheadings that were investigated but not pursued by the ICTY for lack of evidence.

The second reported incident of beheadings occurred during the First Chechen War (1994-96). On May 23, 1996, Chechens beheaded Yevgeny Rodionov, a Russian soldier, for refusing to renounce his religion and convert to Islam. A second Russian soldier, Andrey Trusov, met the same fate. Rodionov has become widely venerated as a martyr by Russian Orthodox Christians, although the Russian church has not officially recognized him as such.

The first beheading to generate widespread public attention was the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl on February 1, 2002. A militant group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty kidnapped Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, on January 23, 2002. The group sent an email message to the US government claiming that Pearl was a spy. They demanded, among other things, the immediate freeing of all Pakistani detainees held by the US military and the release of a suspended shipment of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan. In what was to become a familiar pattern, on February 21, 2002, a videotape titled "The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl," was released. The video lasted three minutes and thirty-six seconds and showed Pearl reading a statement denouncing American foreign policy. Following the statement, his head was severed.

On March 21, 2002, four men were charged with the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. They were convicted on July 15, 2002, and their leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was sentenced to death. Omar Saeed Sheikh has repeatedly appealed his sentence but hearings on the matter have been repeatedly postponed. All four men remain in prison. London born and raised, Omar Saeed Sheikh had ties to the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but the nature and extent of these ties has never been fully disclosed.

On March 10, 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, widely considered to have been the third in command of al-Qaeda and the architect of numerous terrorist attacks, including the one on September 11, during a hearing of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, claimed responsibility for the murder of Daniel Pearl. Subsequent FBI analysis of the original video confirmed that the hand that held the knife that killed Daniel Pearl was virtually identical to that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The actual relationship between al-Qaeda and the original group that kidnapped Pearl remains unclear, although the four men originally charged with the murder claimed they were acting under orders of Khalid.

On March 19, 2003, an "international" force consisting primarily of combat troops from the United States (148,000) and Great Britain (45,000), with token amounts from Australia and Poland, began an invasion of Iraq. Dubbed, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," major combat operations lasted just 21 days. Almost immediately, insurgent activity began in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. A group calling itself Jam'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad or Tawhid and Jihad) previously organized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took a leading role in the insurgency. Tawhid and Jihad, would undergo various name changes over the following twelve years and would eventually morph into the Islamic State (IS). Between 2003 and 2006, a total of approximately 200 foreign nationals and thousands of Iraqis were kidnapped by various groups of Islamic militants. Some of the hostages were subsequently released or liberated by coalition forces. Some were murdered, although not beheaded. Some hostages were never recovered and the manner of their deaths or remains are still unknown.

The first American beheaded during the Iraqi insurgency was Nicholas Berg, murdered on May 7, 2004, by al-Zarqawi. In a video released on the website of Muntada al-Ansar, "Helpers Forum," the jihadists claimed that the murder was in retaliation for abuses at Abu Ghraib. Over the course of 2004, Tawhid and Jihad would take responsibility for seven more beheadings of foreigners.Kim Sun Il, a South Korean citizen, was beheaded on June 22, 2004, Georgi Lazov and Ivalio Kepov, two Bulgarian citizen were beheaded in July 2004. Lazov's body was found on July 14 and Kepov's body was found on July 22. Mohammed Mutawalli, an Egyptian citizen, was beheaded on August 10, 2004. There were twelve Nepalese taken hostage on August 23, 2004. A video from August 31, 2004, showed the beheading of one and the shooting in the head of the eleven others.

Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, both US citizens, and Kenneth Bigley, a British citizen, were kidnapped on September 16, 2004. Al-Zarqawi then issued a communiqué demanding the release of all female prisoners held at the Abu Ghraib prison. Armstrong was beheaded on September 20 and Hensley was beheaded on September 21. Bigley was beheaded sometime in October 2004. In addition Shosei Koda, a Japanese citizen, was beheaded by on October 30, 2004, by Tawhid and Jihad jihadists operating under their new name "al-Qaeda in Iraq." Instances of beheadings against foreign nationals diminished after 2006. Although such actions against Iraqi citizens continued, but were generally unreported in the Western media.

The emergence of ISIS during 2013 brought a resurgence of the use of beheadings as an instrument of terror. Unconfirmed reports of beheadings of Syrian troops began in the spring of 2012, shortly after the arrival of radical jihadists in the Syrian Civil War. Beginning in 2013, however, and accelerating in 2014, reports of retaliatory beheadings carried out by jihadists began to increase. The first concrete evidence of beheadings by ISIS jihadists occurred on July 25, 2014, when a video was posted on social media showing the murder of approximately 75 Syrian Army soldiers from a recently captured base. There were also a number of earlier beheadings during the summer of 2013 carried out by al-Nusra Front militants

Since August 2014, a total of eight Westerners, three Americans, two British, and two Japanese have been beheaded. Seven, James Foley (August 19, 2014), Steven Sotloff (September 2, 2014), David Haines (September 13, 2014), Alan Henning (October 3, 2014), Peter Kassig (November 16, 2014), Haruna Yukawa (January 24, 2015) and Kenji Goto (January 31, 2015) were beheaded by IS and one, Herve Gourdel (September 24, 2014), a French citizen, was beheaded by an IS affiliate in Algeria.

On January 20, 2015, Islamic State released a video showing the two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, in its custody and threatened to kill them unless the Japanese government agreed to pay a ransom of two hundred million dollars for their release. Yukawa was subsequently beheaded by Islamic State. Baghdadi then demanded to exchange the remaining hostage, Kenji Goto, for Sajida al-Rishawi, one of the bombers of the 2005 Radisson hotel bombing in Amman. She is the sister of Mubarak al-Rishawi, a key figure in AQI, and considered Zarqawi's right hand man before he was killed. Goto was also subsequently beheaded. IS then offered to exchange Lt. Kaseasbeh for al-Rishawi. After the murder of Kaseasbeh, the Jordanian government subsequently carried out the death sentence that had previously been placed on al-Rishawi.

There are at least two Lebanese Army personnel captured by IS, or its predecessor during military operations in Syria, who have also been beheaded. There is also an unspecified number of Lebanese Army troops currently being held by IS in Syria. In addition, there is evidence that at least 125 Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi troops, as well as Iraqi and Syrian citizens, have been beheaded by IS militants as of the end of December 2014. The actual number is probably much higher.

Death by Immolation

Death by burning or by the application of extreme heat has an equally long history as a form of capital punishment. Typically this took the form of being burned while tied to a stake. During the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of heretics at the stake was the final act of a long complex Inquisition process; a practice called auto-da-fe. The first reference to burning as a punishment dates back to the eighteenth century BC code of the Babylonian King Hammurabi. It was a common practice in classical antiquity, being practiced in Egypt, and throughout the Middle East. It was a common form of execution for Christian martyrs during Roman times. In AD 326, Constantine the Great decreed burning as the punishment for men that committed rape.

During the Middle Ages it was the punishment meted out to heretics and those considered enemies of the state. Jan Hus, accused of heresy, was burned at the stake. So was John Wycliffe, though in that case he had already been dead thirty years and it was only his remains that were actually burned. The Florentine Dominican friar, Savonarola, Jacques de Molay, the head of the Knights Templar, and Joan of Arc were all burned at the stake. Burning was the preferred method for executing those judged witches and sorcerers. It's hard to know how many people have been killed by burning. Estimates for the Spanish Inquisition have ranged from as little as three thousand to as many as two hundred thousand. Likewise, the number of witches burned at the stake may have ranged from a few hundred to several hundred thousand. The last official execution by burning occurred in 1813, although there may have been unreported cases as late as 1835.

There are a few cases of death by burning in the Muslim world, but these were relatively isolated. Death by burning was often the punishment for apostates that had taken up arms against Muslim rulers. The punishment was first used during the Ridda Wars, the so-called Wars of Apostasy in AD 632 and AD 633. These were a series of military campaigns by Muhammad's successor, Abu Bakr, against certain Arabian tribes that had abandoned Islam. The practice appears from time to time as punishment for non-Muslims who had illegally entered mosques or whom had refused to convert. On the whole it was a rare practice, however. The video released by Islamic State cited an obscure Koranic verse that justified punishing those who had inflicted harm with the same means that they had used. Muslim religious scholars were quick to point out, however, that the Koran forbids the desecration of corpses by burning, and specifically condemns death by burning.

Postscript: Terror as a Media Strategy

The practice of beheading, either as murder or as capital punishment, is not a particularly Islamic tradition, its persistence in Saudi Arabia notwithstanding. Neither is the practice of murder by burning. Both practices, however, have been adopted among radical jihadist groups to achieve a number of different purposes.

First, it is one element of a broader pattern of violence designed to intimidate the local population in the areas controlled by IS. Like most radical revolutions, IS has sought to liquidate any potential opposition and has defined such opposition, both as anyone who has opposed it, as well as anyone who had even the remotest links with the previous governing authorities. From candidates for political office to local government administrators to community leaders, anyone who cooperated or was part of the previous government is seen as an enemy. IS can't kill everyone who worked for the previous government. It could not administer its conquered territories if it did, but it can kill enough people to persuade the rest to cooperate.

It's not clear how IS decides whether it will behead an opponent or simply shoot them, or resort to some other method from its extensive repertoire of murder. It does appear that particularly fierce resistance to Islamic State is often met with beheadings or some other gruesome death of captured opponents. Knowing that surrendering is likely to end with death, possibly by being beheaded or crucifixion, might spur soldiers to fight more resolutely. It might also persuade them to throw down their weapons and run away. The latter response proved to be particularly popular in the Iraqi Army during the summer and fall of 2014.

Secondly, the threat of beheading prisoners, or subjecting them to some other form of gruesome death, is used as a means of extortion. Although both the British and American governments have resolutely refused to pay ransoms in exchange for their nationals, other countries have quietly paid such ransoms. In addition, Iraqi and Syrian citizens have also been extorted in this way. It is estimated that IS has obtained over one hundred million dollars through such ransoms and it is likely that the number is much higher.

Thirdly, beheadings allow IS to shape and control its media exposure in the West and is used as an instrument to mold the debate in the United States and Europe. Death by beheading is virtually instantaneous. It may not be much different than death by firing squad, but it is a particularly gruesome way to die. A beheading, accompanied by the requisite short video, is guaranteed to generate press coverage in the international media. It is likely that the videos of beheadings circulated by IS are edited to maximize their shock value while ensuring that they are not so revolting that they will not be watched on social media sites. The press coverage and the accompanying public reaction ensures that IS, or whichever jihadist group that committed the beheading, is portrayed as a "deadly threat" to the West and ensures that it is seen in the Islamic world as the leading edge of the jihadist struggle. Death by immolation raises the horror factor one notch higher.

Moreover, such murders put Western governments under tremendous public pressure to "do something." The more IS threatens to kill Western hostages if the air attacks continue, the more likely it is that Western governments will continue them. Moreover, the more likely it is that Muslim communities will be viewed with suspicion and be singled out by police and security forces. There are echoes of al-Qaeda's core strategy here, namely that terrorist attacks against the West will produce an overwhelming over reaction against Muslims that it will serve to galvanize Islamic support for the jihadist movement. IS, in all probability, lacks the ability to engage in a spectacular 9/11 type attack against the United States. Its capabilities in Western Europe, on the other hand, are more extensive. Moreover, its capabilities notwithstanding, recent attacks in Sydney, Australia (December 15-16, 2014) and the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (January 7, 2015) demonstrate that Islamic State inspired, "lone wolf jihadists" can carry out terrorist attacks without the direct assistance or organization of IS.

We have become so sensitive to jihadist violence against the West, that beheadings and other forms of murder of Westerners are sufficient to galvanize a government response. In that sense such killings represent an act of terrorism, not just against the hostage murdered, but against Western societies in general, and ensures that the jihadist struggle is defined as an Islamic struggle against Western civilization and not just an internal conflict within Islam. The burning of Lieutenant Kasasbeh may indicate that Islamic State is ratcheting up the shock value of its executions to ensure Western audiences don't become desensitized to them.

Finally, portraying the jihadist struggle as a conflict with the West, and the accompanying media coverage it generates, acts as a powerful tool for recruitment and fund raising. While support from wealthy donors now represents only a small portion of Islamic State's funding, it wants to hang on to that support and more importantly ensure that those funds don't go to potential jihadist rivals. A significant portion of IS's military force is made up of foreign nationals and it is estimated that it could include several thousand Westerners, mostly European, who have joined IS.

The emergence of what sociologists are calling "jihadi cool," the romanticization of jihadist activity among marginalized, disillusioned Islamic youth in European cities, coupled with the prospect of a salary, has proven to be a powerful attractant. The use of Western spokesmen on beheading videos not only ensures that the message is clearly understood, but drives home the threat by underscoring that the executioner portrayed in the video might have been a neighbor or a fellow passenger on the local metro just a few months before.

As long as the murder of Western hostages continues to generate widespread media coverage, and powerful public reaction, they will continue as part of the tactics used by IS and other jihadist groups to try to shape Western public opinion and their governments' response. In the meantime, the "horror factor" of jihadist violence against western hostages will, in all probability, continue to increase.

This blog post is drawn from a forthcoming book, Islamic State: Its History, Ideology and Challenge. Footnotes have been omitted from this post but are included in the book version.