It’s a medieval way of dealing death, put before the world’s eyes by a 21st-century medium.
Beheadings like that of American hostage Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia add a new layer of horror to militant attacks, and al-Qaida-linked groups have turned to the tactic to drive away Westerners – and bring glory to themselves among supporters.
It’s simple to carry out. A victim is snatched, shown bound and menaced by masked gunmen, then days later is killed and beheaded. The bloody images are videotaped, photographed and posted on the Internet.
What began as a gruesome form of bloodshed in war zones such as Kashmir, Chechnya and the southern Philippines has moved to the Middle East, with at least two Americans decapitated in just over a month in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a political, psychological ploy to show the enemy is merciless, vengeful and will stop at nothing,” said Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Militants know “what will cause maximum shock in the Western public and particularly the American public.”
Johnson was killed Friday, nearly a week after he was abducted in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Photos of his bloodied, severed head appeared on a Web forum used by Islamic radicals.
The photos come on the heels of other graphic images, such as the videotaped last moments of Nicholas Berg, kidnapped in Iraq and decapitated in front of the camera in early May.
Another video showed American Robert Jacobs being shot to death outside his Riyadh home June 8. His killers then kneel over his body, their backs to the camera, and appear to cut off his head – though the decapitation is not seen and was never confirmed.
The first beheading touted by Islamic militants was that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, slain in Pakistan in 2002.
The Saudi government executes murderers, drug dealers and other criminals by beheading under its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
Decapitation rarely occurred in past militant attacks in the Middle East, where terror tactics have included hijackings, suicide bombings and gun attacks. Hostages were often taken and killed in Lebanon’s civil war, but victims were rarely if ever beheaded.
Al-Qaida militants may be using the technique to misleadingly give the killings an Islamic veneer, Murphy said.
“It’s not (Islamic),” he said. “To have a Quranic capital punishment, you have to have a legal procedure with strict standards.”
Instead, the practice may find its roots in more distant, brutal battlefields. The long civil war in Algeria, the war in Chechnya and the anti-India insurgency in Kashmir have all seen beheadings of local residents or troops. Foreign fighters in Bosnia also were accused of at least one beheading during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.