Even al-Qaeda denounced beheading videos. Why the Islamic State brought them back.

Mia Bloom
August 22
Mia Bloom is Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and author of Bombshell: Women and Terror.

This November 2012 photo shows American journalist James Foley covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. (Nicole Tung/freejamesfoley.org via AP)

In some ways, the video of journalist James Foley’s beheading is a return to form.

There hasn’t been a similar film — aimed at Westerners, of a Westerner, beheaded by Muslim extremist groups — in nearly a decade. Al-Qaeda looked down on the practice, and higher-ups like Osama bin Laden worried that it alienated more potential supporters than it recruited.

The Islamic State seems to have no such concerns. Sure, they produce slick propaganda videos like “Eid Mubarak Greetings from the Caliphate,” which portray a utopian society where Muslims live freely, happily governed by the a new Caliph, Al Baghdadi, in a society that adheres 100 percent to Islamic law.

The soft lighting and images of children on playgrounds are a stark contrast to the Islamic State’s social media. On Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, Islamic State officials have shared images of beheadings, mass graves and even the 7-year-old son of Mustafa Sharrouf, an Australian foreign fighter, holding up a severed head. A 13-year-old poses with an AK-47, insisting that he is the youngest recruit.

Which raises the question: Does the caliphate see itself as a nirvana for jihadis, or a nightmare of brutality and extrajudicial killings? And could this gruesome campaign backfire the way al-Qaeda worried it would?

* * *

The “beheading video” was made infamous by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whose influence lives on.

Zarqawi’s network, Tawhid and Jihad, later to become al-Qaeda in Iraq, pioneered this practice of publicly releasing videos of executions in May 2004. That film (of American businessman Nicholas Berg, who Zarqawi himself beheaded), and 10 others were released between September 20 and October 7, 2004, to blogs, Web sites and al Jazeera.

But al-Qaeda and Islamist scholars publicly chastised Zarqawi for the videos, saying that they alienated Muslims. In a July 9, 2005, letter from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, Zarqawi was told to cease and desist since he was losing “Muslim hearts and minds.”

Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who condones female suicide bombing and attacks against occupation, condemned the beheadings and hostage-taking, comparing Zarqawi to the Kharijites (Muslim pretenders with no understanding of the Qur’an). The condemnations were routinely broadcast on al Jazeera and disseminated throughout the Islamic world.

Even the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq repeatedly condemned the beheading of foreign hostages as a violation of Islamic law.

It’s important to point out that beheadings by the radical Islamists never really stopped. But once again, nearly a decade later, they are being released to the public and targeted to the West.

There are some important changes: The new videos have a high production value, and the venues for broadcast have gone from al Jazeera to social media. The use of Westerners speaking English to an English-speaking audience makes clear that we’re the intended consumers for these films.

And they aren’t just being created by the Islamic State. Individuals are making their own, filming themselves with disembodied heads, or of the actual beheadings, for social media. Ten months ago, Facebook even decided to allow beheading videos on its site (so long as they were denounced).

All of this has made these violent films a recruiting tool in a way they weren’t in the past. Within a day of the Foley video release, a number of wannabe Jihadis posted their intention to join the Islamic State. One woman, Khadijah Dare, tweeted that she wanted to become the first British woman to kill a U.K. or U.S. citizen.

It is not surprising that after its formal break with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has regressed into the same kind of tactics made popular by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who inspired both Jabhat and Nusra and the Islamic State. It may care less about the approval of Islamic scholars and clerics, as several Muslim authorities, like the Muslim Council of Britain denounced Foley’s “abhorrent murder.

The Islamic State’s strategy may backfire or it may instigate a macabre competition among the foreign fighters for who gets to behead a Westerner next, including the 5,000 teenagers reportedly within its ranks.

Mia Bloom would like to thank Humera Khan for her guidance and translation help.

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