The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Daniel Pearl to James Foley: The modern tactic of Islamist beheadings

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On Tuesday afternoon, a video was uploaded to YouTube by Islamic State militants that showed something terrible: the execution of an American journalist, James Foley, who had been missing in Syria since November 2012.

For journalists, it's impossible to ignore the echoes of the killing of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter executed in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl and Foley were almost the same age when they died. Both were working for American news outlets. Both were captured by Islamist extremists and had video recordings of their executions released.

Perhaps the most grim similarity of all, however, is the horrific way both men were killed. Foley, like Pearl, was beheaded.

While it brought the practice to widespread attention, there were certainly instances of Islamist groups using beheadings before Pearl's death, notably during the first Chechen war. In 1996, for example, Russian soldier Yevgeny Rodionov was filmed as he was beheaded by his rebel captors after refusing to convert to Islam. His death led to calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to canonize him.

Pearl's death was particularly shocking, however, as he was a Western, non-combatant journalist. After his death, the use of this tactic seemed to spread, most notably into Iraq, where a large number of foreign citizens were captured and later beheaded in the immediate years after the U.S.-led invasion. Some of the deaths, such as that of American businessman Nicholas Evan Berg, were videotaped. By 2013, beheadings had made their way to the Western world: Last year, when two young men in London attacked and killed an off-duty soldier in broad daylight, they apparently tried to behead him.

The Islamic State, the extremist group that has captured large swaths of Syria and Iraq in recent months, seems to have made beheadings a prominent part of its strategy. When Islamic State militants captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, for instance, there were reports of mass beheadings. This appears to mark a distinct break with the strategy of al-Qaeda, which had avoided the tactic in recent years. In 2005, top al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri sent insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a letter in which he said al-Qaeda in Iraq — a predecessor of the Islamic State — should stop releasing videotapes of hostage executions. Muslims "will never find [the images] palatable," Zawahiri explained. Other Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have avoided beheadings.

Some analysts have argued that beheading can be linked to Middle Eastern culture. "The religious and cultural symbolism that the sword carries with it in the eyes of the Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, is an important factor in determining the terrorists’ choice to behead hostages," Pete Lentini and Muhammad Bakashmar of Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Center explained in a 2007 academic paper. Lentini and Bakashmar also cited examples of beheadings in modern Islamic states – last year Amnesty International criticized a ‘disturbing’ rise in executions in Saudi Arabia, including beheadings.

Others have found even deeper roots. Writing in the conservative Middle East Quarterly in 2005, Timothy R. Furnish noted that the "Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice." Furnish argued that justifications for beheadings can be found by looking to the Koran or Islamic history, though he also noted that Islam was far from the only force in history to make wide use of the practice (the Roman Empire being an obvious historical example, though modern groups such as Mexican drug cartels also have used the tactic).

The Islamic State may justify its beheadings with theology and history, but the use of the tactic is probably driven by more immediate factors. "I don't think there's anything inherently Islamist to these beheadings," Max Abrahms, a Northeastern professor who studies jihadist groups, told The Post. "It's important to recognize where Islamic State is coming from historically, in order to understand why it is beheading people — and why it's using social media to broadcast it."

In particular, Abrahms argues, the Islamic State may be seeking to differentiate itself from al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group he notes was "widely seen, even among jihadists, as a failure." With high-profile beheadings, the Islamic State could be attempting to link itself to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged Sept. 11 mastermind who is now thought to have killed Pearl.

Another factor is the Islamic State's demographics: Compared with other jihadist groups, fighters with the Islamic State skew disproportionately young and Western. Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, told The Post that many of the Western fighters who carry out these executions have probably watched videos of beheadings and other acts of extreme violence online before joining extremist groups. Notably, the man who appears in the video with Foley has a distinct British accent.

The quick spread of the Foley video on social media may be the clearest sign of how things have moved on from Pearl's day, when the decapitation was filmed on a camcorder and initially distributed by videotape. Many Twitter users called for a #ISISMediaBlackOut in the wake of Foley's death, hoping to deprive the Islamic State of the publicity that the video was clearly designed to provoke.

Sadly, something else has changed since Pearl's death – the element of surprise. Given the ethos of the Islamic State and the plethora of journalists who have gone missing in Syria, something like this always seemed possible. "It may be that Daniel Pearl was a precedent, in that the aura of protection was broken," Daniel's father, Judea Pearl, said in a 2012 interview with The Post  "It was understood even to extreme elements that you don’t touch a journalist, that you will pay, but that myth has been broken. Now they look at the journalist as an agent of a foreign body."