The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A child, a severed head, and a reminder of the awfulness of Syria’s civil war

Undated file image of Islamic State fighters in the Syrian city of Raqqah. (Militant Web site via Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

Shocking images allegedly showing a child holding aloft the severed head of a Syrian soldier have created an uproar in Australia, the home country of the jihadist who first posted the picture on Twitter. Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian national now wanted on terrorism charges, posted the image of a child thought to be his son with the caption "That's my boy!" The photo, which WorldViews will not reproduce, shows the boy holding up what looks like a dried, blood-encrusted head, assumed to have belonged to a soldier loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another image posted by Sharrouf, who left his home in Sydney with his family to join the extremist Islamic State, shows him standing with his son, this time holding the head himself. Sharrouf also appeared in tweets from another Australian jihadist, Mohamed Elomar, in which the pair are clutching more severed heads. Elomar tweeted: "few more heads how lovely bludy amazing stuff." The scenes are thought to be from the Syrian city of Raqqah, where the Islamic State has held sway for months.

As Terrence McCoy writes in the Morning Mix, the pictures led to denunciations from Australian officials. The Islamic State, said Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is "a terrorist army and they’re seeking not just a terrorist enclave but effectively a terrorist state." The images of severed heads, Abbott said, were "more evidence of just how barbaric this particular entity is."

Sharrouf is probably the most well-known jihadist from Australia to join the Islamic State, which has come to the fore in recent months, claiming a vast swath of territory comprising parts of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. The group has gained notoriety for documenting and distributing on social media images of its slaughters — be it the heads of Assad's fighters in Raqqah or mass executions of Iraqis captured during the Islamic State's recent advance.

This is not the first time that Sharrouf, who is thought to be a schizophrenic, has participated in such grisly spectacle: In June, the newspaper Australian published images of Sharrouf posing among rows of dead Iraqis, who had been massacred by his comrades. Pointing to his example, the Australian government is seeking to implement more stringent counterterrorism laws that will make it harder for jihadist sympathizers in the country to join up with terrorist groups overseas.

A friend of the Sharrouf family in Australia told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday that it's doubtful Sharrouf put his child in harm's way and that the pictures are a tool of a media war the jihadists have been long waging. Sharrouf "uses the photos as propaganda to bait the 'kuffar' or non-believers," the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Syria's brutal civil war, which has claimed nearly 200,000 lives and spilled across borders into Iraq and Lebanon, has played out online in an endless, gory stream of videos. Rebels have used footage of government forces or pro-Assad militias brutalizing ordinary Syrians to win support for their cause. They also have advertised their own gruesome deeds, both as a means of taunting and goading the enemy as well as propaganda to show their strength and toughness in a complex landscape marked by myriad rebel factions.

Perhaps the most infamous incident came last year when a commander of an Islamist rebel brigade was shown in a video slicing open a dead Syrian soldier and sinking his teeth into a piece of what some think was the man's lung or heart. The "cannibal" video shocked observers worldwide and was the starkest illustration yet of the depravity and hideousness of the violence in Syria, where communities that have lived side by side for decades are now tearing each other apart.

Confronted by media, Khalid al-Samad, also known as Abu Sakkar, was unapologetic. "You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living," he told Time magazine.