by Timothy R. Furnish, Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2005, pp 51-57
Timothy R. Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic History and is an author, analyst, and consultant to the US military who specializes in transnational Islamic movements, eschatology and Mahdism. His website is www.mahdiwatch.org.
|An ISIS jihadi joyfully displaying his victim's head, July 2014.|
Images of masked terrorists standing behind Western hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have become all too common on Arabic satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar. Islamist websites such as Muntadiyat al-Mahdi go further, streaming video of their murder.
The February 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, true to its intention, horrified the Western audience. Chechen rebels, egged on by Islamist benefactors, had adopted the practice four years earlier, but the absence of widely broadcast videos limited the psychological impact of hostage decapitation. The Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice. In Iraq, terrorists filmed the beheadings of Americans Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong. Other victims include Turks, an Egyptian, a Korean, Bulgarians, a British businessman, and a Nepalese. Scores of Iraqis, both Kurds and Arabs, have also fallen victim to Islamist terrorists' knives. The new fad in terrorist brutality has extended to Saudi Arabia where Islamist terrorists murdered American businessman Paul Johnson, whose head was later discovered in a freezer in an Al-Qaeda hideout. A variation upon this theme would be the practice of Islamists slitting the throats of those opponents they label infidels. This is what happened to Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, first gunned down and then mutilated on an Amsterdam street, and to an Egyptian Coptic family in New Jersey after the father had angered Islamists with Internet chat room criticisms of Islam.
The purpose of terrorism is to strike fear into the hearts of opponents in order to win political concession. As the shock value wears off and the Western world becomes immunized to any particular tactic, terrorists develop new ones in order to maximize shock and the press reaction upon which they thrive. In the 1970s and 1980s, terrorists hijacked airliners to win headlines. In the 1980s and 1990s, the car bomb became more popular; Palestinian terrorists perfected suicide bombings in the 1990s. But what once garnered days of commentary now generates only hours. Decapitation has become the latest fashion. In many ways, it sends terrorism back to the future. Unlike hijackings and car bombs, ritual beheading has a long precedent in Islamic theology and history.