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The Politics of Beheadings

The Politics of Beheadings

By Kaavya Nair

Edited by Namrata Caleb

Over the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (henceforth ISIS), has grown into one of the most powerful terrorist organizations that the world has encountered in the modern era.  This has been  mainly achieved through the strategic change in their functioning, with the group exploiting the unstable condition of Iraq and Syria  while avoiding action that would provoke the USA, until recently.

Over the past few months of 2014, the ISIS has undertaken the beheading of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and most recently that of aid worker, former Army Ranger Peter Kassig. Why is it now that  ISIS has taken up the act of publicly beheading citizens from Western countries, particularly USA? Beheading the enemy is an act that has been since centuries used as part of warfare, yet, what makes these beheadings so different? It’s the technological acumen that has been added to it by the terrorist group.

James Foley’s  publicly videotaped execution was made viral by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor group of the Islamic State Army.  The videotape reflects the basic characteristics of a typical beheading process by the Al Qaeda. The executioner would be dressed in military type uniform consisting of black clothing, including ski mask covering his face and prominently displaying the murder weapon, his knife. The ritual pattern typically began with a statement from the executioner reciting the reason for the death sentence, which alluded to current political events, usually teeming with religious language justifying the violence, praise for Allah and often containing future threats. The victim then had the opportunity for last words; sometimes he confessed to being a spy or whatever the group had coerced him into confessing, or pleaded with the audience to acquiesce to the kidnappers’ demands and secure his release. At that point the head was cut off with a small knife by the leader, held in the air and then placed on the victim’s back.

The ISIS videos have had a certain element of change – including the high production value, outdoor beauty and high end editing. Instead of in a dark room, with the group’s flag behind it  in  the open space with their flag flying high. The most significant difference initially seen in the James Foley beheading video, and then the subsequent videos,is the absence of religious language, particularly praising Allah during the execution, with no doubt that the praise of Allah and the gruesome blood spill was edited out.

The editing and strategic approach that the video has adopted shows that it was for political purposes. The editing out of religious significance and affiliations was to show that the deaths occured not due to Islamic ideology but due to the American interference in the war with ISIS.  It is one way to pressure USA to stay out of the war of Iraq and Syria. Beheading videos have taken on a life of their own significantly contributing to the recruitment of young American and European Muslims into violent jihadists. They have particular appeal to young Muslim men who view the violence as vengeance against perceived oppression and offenses of Islam and to young Muslim men living in Western countries who feel marginalized.

Beheading videos are inherently symbolic, being the personification of symbolic warfare. To a marginalized and suppressed individual in the Western world, these videos are the perfect combination of ideology and opportunity. ISIS’s tactics have differed form Al-Qaida’s thus far, but it shares its former patron’s antipathy to America’s presence in the Middle East, the videos are a way of showing that it feels  acquired enough in terms of  territory, money, weapons, and manpower to pursue a time-honored strategy of provoking the U.S. into military overreach.

Kaavya Nair is a currently a second year Political Science major at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is passionate about liberal arts and obsessed about issues of International significance. An avid debater and a passionate writer she strongly believes that a dedicated youth working together can create change for the better, and hopes to positively impact the world through her passion and dedication for words. 

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